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2006 Volkswagen GTI Review

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

2006 Volkswagen GTI

The Volkswagen GTI has always had character, but that character has changed over the years since its 1983 American debut. Back then it emphasized performance at a low price, offering nearly the abilities of some big-name German sports sedans at a substantial discount. It was a hit, and quickly inspired the American version of the hot hatchback craze of the 1980s.

Of all of it competitors from 20 years ago, only the GTI remains, although there have been plenty of new challengers since then. It changed more than a little with the times, getting larger and more upscale, and even a little softer over the years. Enough for softness, for VW has apparently decided that it's time to take no prisoners. The GTI character for 2006 injects a considerable amount of attitude, and it's not mere posturing.

The performance ante has been upped a bit since 1983, when a 90-horsepower GTI could rule the hot hatch world. Today's GTI would have been a supercar back then, with a 2.0-liter turbocharged and intercooled FSI direct fuel injection engine delivering 200 horsepower to the front wheels through a six-speed transmission, either standard manual or Volkswagen Group's automatic-shift twin-clutch DSG. In 1983, the original GTI's 9.7 second 0-60 time and top speed of just over 100 mph were benchmarks. The 2006 model's sub-7 second 0-60 and 130 mph top end beat that handily - and the engine's 207 lb-ft of torque and ultra-wide torque curve make it easy to get maximum effect from the new GTI with minimum fuss.

Roadholding and ride quality are improved by the first independent rear suspension to be found in a GTI. The standard equipment level is a little higher than it was in 1983, with roll-up windows nowhere to be found. But the tartan cloth on the standard seats will bring a smile of recognition to the GTI fanatic's face.

I first drove a new GTI last winter, when it was introduced to the press. At that event, I had the opportunity to try both a no-options version, and a fully-equipped DSG model. A few weeks later I was able to take a few laps around a race track in a DSG model. And finally, I've spent the last week with a well-equipped manual version. Verdict? In any trim, the new GTI is a winner, with performance and comfort above its station and the functional versatility of a hatchback.

APPEARANCE: Cars have faces, and the GTI's face exhibits a smirking grin, with the red pinstripe (just like on the original) at the bottom of the grille for the smile proper and the arch at the front of the hood, over the headlights, as the furrowed brow. It looks like it's saying ``come on, let's play - hard!'' and that's no pose. In its rounded two-box shape the new GTI doesn't look all that different from its immediate predecessor, but most details are new. There's the face, of course And, like the latest Passat and Jetta, the GTI has an interesting bit of trim below its grille, but that trim is black instead of chrome. From the side, moderate fender flares and wheel/tire combinations that fill the wheel arches declare its performance potential. The rear is highlighted by huge taillights and a small visor-type spoiler over the top of the rear window, with dual exhaust peeking out from under the bumper.

COMFORT: Where other performance compacts have acres of flashy trim and can look like props for a low-budget sci-fi movie, the GTI is restrained and upscale in both design and materials. Unsurprisingly, it looks very German, with simple geometric shapes and chrome-bezeled analog instruments well-shaded from glare under a round hood. The metal and rubber pedals, and left-foot footrest, are about the only concession to sport-compact style. Both varieties of seat are very good in comfort and support, with the optional leather ones a little firmer if less stylish than the standard plaid cloth. All are manual, with the usual (for VW) full range of adjustability. The steering wheel's thick leather rim is made for driving, and the wheel's tilt and telescopic adjustability is unusual for the class. All GTIs have an AM/FM/6-CD changer audio system; if the navigation system is specified, as in my weekly test car, the CD changer is moved from the dash to the center console. Rear seat access is typical for a two-door car, requiring some contortion, but once inside there is good leg and excellent head room. And of course, being a boxy hatchback, the GTI has excellent cargo-carrying ability, especially with the 60/40 rear seat folded flat. I needed to transport a lawnmower while I had the GTI - not even a problem. Try that in a sedan with a small trunk opening!

SAFETY: The new GTI has surrounds its occupants with a strong structure, and has dual front, front side, and side curtain airbags, side door beams, active front head restraints, strong four-wheel antilock disc brakes, traction control, and the ESP electronic stability program.

RIDE AND HANDLING: The GTI's unibody structure has been significantly reworked for increased strength and rigidity. Greater use of high-strength steel and advanced laser-welding techniques have improved dynamic rigidity by 15 percent and torsional rigidity by 35 percent. And, while the front MacPherson strut suspension is familiar, if significantly redesigned, the torsion beam axle used in the rear of all previous GTIs has been replaced by a new independent multilink suspension. As has been VW's style in recent years, relatively soft springs and firm shocks are specified. Tires are 225 width, for plenty of contact patch, with 45-profile by 17-inch standard and /40 x 18 optional. The 18s ride a little more stiffly than the 17s, but with either ride comfort is very good. On the street, even at a good clip, grip is excellent and body roll is not excessive. A firmer suspension setting would be better on the track, but how many of us commute on the track every day? Steering effort is near-perfect, and there is no noticeable torque steer despite the very noticeable torque. As is, the GTI provides an excellent balance between comfort and handling for use in the real world.

PERFORMANCE: When it comes time to move a vehicle down the road, torque is your friend. And turbocharging, correctly applied as it is in the GTI, makes for excellent torque characteristics. The 2.0-liter twincam, 16-valve engine makes an even 200 horsepower between 5100 and 6000 rpm, but even more impressive is the 207 lb-ft of torque available between 1800 and 5000 rpm. Also receiving credit is the FSI direct fuel injection system, which allows a high 10.3:1 compression ratio for increased power and efficiency with no turbo lag. The engine doesn't feel highly-strung at all. Press the throttle, and there is instant torque-on-demand power. There's no need to rev the engine to redline, but then there's no reason not to, as it pulls strongly all the way. The power spread is broad enough that any one of two or even three gears can be used, and downshifting is usually optional. The standard manual gearbox shifts well, and is pleasant to use. The DSG is at heart a manual transmission, lighter and more efficient than a torque-converter automatic, with computer-programmed automatic shifting or manual shifting via paddles on the steering column. It requires less driver involvement if desired, but can shift more quickly than the regular transmission. Both are excellent choices. Mileage, with EPA figures of 25 mpg city and 32 highway, is good, although my heavy right foot returned only 22 in mostly city and backroad driving. A lighter foot would use less gas, but I'll just chalk it up to the entertainment budget.


2006 Volkswagen GTI

Base Price		$ 21,900
Price As Tested		$ 28,330
Engine Type		dual overhead cam, 16-valve inline
			 4-cylinder,turbocharged and
			 intercooled with direct fuel injection
Engine Size		2.0 liters / 121 cu. in.
Horsepower		200 @ 5100-6000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)		207 @ 1800-5000 rpm
Transmission		6-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length	101.5 in. / 165.8 in.
Curb Weight		3308 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower	16.6
Fuel Capacity		14.5 gal.
Fuel Requirement	91 octane unleaded premium gasoline
Tires			225/40 YR18 Continental Sport Contact 2
Brakes, front/rear	vented disc / solid disc,
Suspension, front/rear	independent MacPherson strut /
			independent multilink
Drivetrain		transverse front engine,
			 front-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		25 / 31 / 22
0 to 60 mph				6.8  sec

Package #2 - includes:
  power sunroof, automatic dual-zone climate control,
  heated front seats and washer nozzles, top sports
  seats with leather surfaces, Sirius satellite radio	$ 3,160
18" Hufweisen alloy wheels with 
  summer performance tires				$   750
Navigation system and 6-disc CD changer			$ 1,800
Destination charge					$   630