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2007 Volkswagen GTI Mk5 Review

2007 Volkswagen GTI Mk5  (select to view enlarged photo)
2007 Volkswagen GTI Mk5

2007 Volkswagen GTI Mk5  (select to view enlarged photo)
2007 Volkswagen GTI Mk5

2007 Volkswagen GTI Mk5  (select to view enlarged photo)
2007 Volkswagen GTI Mk5

2007 Volkswagen GTI Mk5  (select to view enlarged photo)
2007 Volkswagen GTI Mk5

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Honoring the Original Pocket Rocket
By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

I’m old enough to remember fondly the original Rabbit GTI of the early 80s, the hot-shot that first defined the genre we like to call “pocket rocket,” or later known as “hot hatch.” That genre made perfect sense then and still does today.

There was a time back in those days that the driveway at our family gatherings resembled a Volkswagen dealer’s used car lot. Among the family V-dubs were a few GTIs, generation two and three to be precise. The last one I had, sorry to say, was a generation three Golf GTI that was a bit of lemon. As one of the last cars out of the ill-fated Pennsylvania assembly plant it was full of niggling problems and quality issues. But I loved it anyway. Its performance, handling, economy and looks were great.

Since those days Volkswagen continued the GTI moniker but many subsequent products were less than worthy. As the Japanese and European manufacturers got into the hot hatch market the Volkswagen GTI became more and more compromised. VW just wasn’t keeping up. With this latest 5th generation GTI introduced in Europe in ’05 and here in ’06, Volkswagen is back in the game – full tilt.

We had our first drive during GTI’s product launch in San Diego something more than a year ago. GTI had been out in Europe nearly a year before that. The one we’re driving this week is already nearly three years into its model run. (Check out our initial evaluation in archives.) We were impressed with our first drive in the Southern California hills and had great fun flogging it along those winding roads. The slick new double-clutch six-speed automatic transmission called DSG with paddle shifters on the steering wheel made the GTI mighty entertaining to drive hard and fast.

We now get the chance to live with it for a week. And I’m lovin’ it. This is a car after my own heart. I’ve always been fond of fast little cars – those we can push hard without sucking too much fuel, bring along a few pals without them being too cramped, and even haul a couple hundred pounds of bird seed if I want to.

Rakish good looks characterizes the GTI’s style both inside and out. This V-dub has a confident look about it. The rear wheels extend so far rearward they look almost like an after thought. The exterior design is eye-catching without being garish. The black honey-comb grill work in front with distinctive red trim, some refer to as shield-like, reminds me of a mischievous smile inside a goatee. The overall shape and profile of both the 2-door and 4-door version are suggestive of the original but thoroughly up-to-date. Adding to the bold look of performance are the optional 18-inch wheels with ultra low-profile performance tires – 225/40 Continentals - along with the hey-look-at-me red brake calipers peeking through the brash wheels. My pretty blonde doesn’t like those calipers. She thinks they’re a bit too ostentatious. I heartily disagree.

Inside it has just enough touch of luxury to make us feel like we’re living life well. The original GTI, of course, was based off a pure economy car and reflected that basic minimalist design, notwithstanding the cool plaid seats and other add-on trim. This Mk5 GTI is first rate in fit, finish and quality of materials and feels luxurious for its size. The fat-boy steering wheel feels great. The look, feel and functionality of all the controls are as good as anything from the pricier producers. Visibility is excellent, particularly through what seems to be an extra-wide windshield. The front seats are firm and highly bolstered like a racing seat. Sill plates at all four doors are emblazoned with the GTI moniker.

The GTI and the GLI have just about the sweetest small-car drive line imaginable. The venerable 2.0-liter intercooled, direct-injected turbo four-cylinder makes 200 horsepower and 207-lb.ft. of torque. It feels like more. I’m not sure you could have any more fun with 2-liters in any other production car. We have the six-speed manual transmission in this week’s test car. There is barely a hint of turbo lag as we throttle up from a stop. Trying to accelerate modestly I can hear the little GTI saying, “flog me . . . flog me.” On full throttle she winds well past red line almost instantly with a willing and thrilling sound - not raucous in the least. The rev limiter kicks in at about 7,000 rpm but the tach shows a 6,500 red line. The shifter is quick and smooth and fits well into my sweaty palm.

Recalling my pre-launch drives in both the GTI and GLI I must say that the six-speed automatic called DSG is nearly as exciting as the stick. A double-clutch design pre-selects the gear on either side of the one you’re in and shifts within a few tenths of a second of when you ask it to, either with the switch-gear or the steering wheel mounted paddle shifters. What a hoot.

With short throw shifts and a light clutch, fat steering wheel and metal pedals the GTI really feels like a sports car. The suspension is firm but not harsh. Wide, low-profile tires (225/40s) grip like a wide receiver with sticky gloves. My pretty blonde nearly gasped as I pushed it hard through our cloverleaf on-ramp as we headed for the city. Suspension, of course, is independent front and rear.

Our test car is a soft gray. VW calls it United Gray, though it’s not quite the shade of a United Airlines plane. MSRP for our 4-door GTI is $22,600 ($22,200 for the 2-door) but ours bottom-lines at $29,290 according to the sticker. There is no charge for the gray paint but our “Package 2” costs $3,160. That tells you a lot, I’m sure. It includes the power sunroof, satellite radio, partial leather seating surfaces, top sport front seats, dual-zone climate control and cold weather package. For another $1,800 we get the DVD-based navigation system, with CD changer in the center console. The system is not MP3 compatible. Those brash, sexy 18-inch forged alloy wheels and performance tires cost $750 extra and the side-impact airbags are $350. A $630 destination charge rounds out the sticker.

I’m not fond of the navigation system. I programmed a destination without mush fuss – pretty good for this low-tech guy. It is fairly simple and intuitive but roads and streets are not named as well as they could be. At the ‘1-mile’ mode particularly I found only the main thoroughfares named in one area near me while the blank lines for the lesser roads had plenty of room for text. The nav system also means that our 6-CD changer is in the console under our elbows, a bit of a reach.

Here’s a thoughtful touch – the running lights (DRLs) go off when the hand brake is engaged. Daytime running lights are annoying to some and I thought there might be a way to disengage them but I’ve not found one.

This GTI has little in common with the cheap and tawdry, but engagingly fun, original. This one is so much more sophisticated in an efficiently small sort of way. Of course all cars today are way better than their 1970s or 80s predecessors, but I think this VW sets the bar as most improved.

As a fan of fast, agile little cars I’m very fond of this GTI. While we understand that VW has had more than their share of quality problems in recent years we found no fault with this one. I wouldn’t hesitate to put this one on the top of my list if I were headed out to buy an all-around practical car with the maximum fun quotient.

Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved