Monday, October 10, 2005

Volkswagen GTI

Volkswagen's old school Rabbit isn't that cool of a ride. It was an underpowered ugly econobox that tried to pass itself off as a car. Okay, so the car had some charm to it, but it's hard to get excited about a car named after a small rodent. C'mon... Rabbit? Why did America get stuck with a car called Rabbit while the rest of the world got the Golf. The Golf is the exact same car, only it has a cooler name. Wait... come to think of it, Golf isn't exactly that cool of a name, either. Moving on... bad names aside, the one good thing that the Rabbit/Golf brought to the world of automotive nomenclature was the birth of a very important and influential three letter combination: GTI.

Volkswagen introduced this "sporty" version of its econobox to American shores way back in 1983. This GTI-spec car was a lot nicer than its lower "base model" sibling. The Rabbit GTI had a sportier look and a more powerful engine. Due to its light weight and small size, the GTI's power-to-weight ratio was superb, making the car a terror on the streets and the track. Volkswagen's hopped-up Rabbit was the world's first true hot hatch.

The GTI has become something of an icon for VW, as it is considered by many to be the sporty Volkswagen. Many of Volkswagen's best engines have made it into the GTI -- from the VR6 to the 1.8T to the 2.0T in Euro market -- making the GTI a favorite among tuners. Speaking of the Euro market, folks in the Old World have been lucky enough to receive an all-new GTI. This newest of new hatches is based on the all-new Jetta that hit U.S. shores in early '05. However, this redesigned GTI won't hit the U.S. market until mid-2006, so we 'Yanks will have to make do with the "old" car for now.

Dealing with this "old" car is not a bad thing, as the current GTI still possesses all of the things we love in our sports cars. Only one engine choice is available with the current GTI -- a 180 horsepower 1.8 liter turbocharged four cylinder. This 4-banger also has a healthy 173 lb.-ft. of torque -- all of which is available from a low 1,950 rpm. Having such a good amount of thrust at such a low engine speed really helps this car move. All of this low-end torque makes the GTI seem like a rocket at launch. Sure, the car isn't actually that fast, but it at least feels quick -- and that's more than enough for some people.

With the GTI being the "sporty" car of the Volkswagen family, the suspension has been tuned more for sport than comfort. Actually, the suspension hasn't been tuned for comfort at all. This car has a very rough and very bumpy ride. Due to this roughness, the GTI feels like a proper sports car when driving on straight roads or gentle curves. Push the car in corners however, and the car will start to do things like exhibit a lot of body roll and understeer in the corners. The GTI seems less sporty than its Japanese-bred hot hatch counterparts. Still, the GTI is pretty small and maneuverable making it a blast to drive through traffic, through tight spaces... hell, it's fun to drive just about anywhere.

While the current GTI isn't the pure-bred sports machine of its early 80's forefathers, it is a lot more luxurious. Our test car came with the Leather Option, which as the name tells you, wraps every surface in soft leather. We also got some heated seats in the deal too, which is always a plus in our books. We do wish the seats had a little more side bolstering, but we have that complaint about every car. Maybe we need to gain some weight... Our test car also came equipped with a very nice-sounding Monsoon sound system, power sunroof, folding power side mirrors and all the other modern conveniences one expects to find in a 21st-century ride. Of course, the interior was well-designed and the controls were very easy and intuitive to use.

We were very surprised with the amount of space found inside the car. Folding the rear seats down revealed a cavernous storage area in this hatch. We were able to fit a full drum set, hardware and cymbals in this little hatch -- and we still had plenty of room to spare. This car is definitely bigger on the inside.

As our test GTI is of the 2005 vintage, it retains its boxy shape. Actually... every GTI ever made has been boxy. But back to the point: our GTI doesn't have the new Volkswagen "face" -- meaning no "shield" grille -- nor does it have the circular tail lights. We actually prefer the style of this boxier GTI for now, but then, we really like boxy cars. Our GTI also comes equipped with 17-inch multi-spoke rims which seem perfect for this car. These 17s did come wrapped in all-weather tires, which probably hurt the performance a bit. As we live in L.A., we can get away with summer tires all year round. Hopefully we'll get to try a more performance-minded tire during our next go-round with the GTI.

Even with the heated leather option, our GTI comes in at an MSRP of just $22,845. This puts the GTI in the same price range as the Acura RSX. Both cars offer a lot of performance and luxury for the price -- but one that wants a more "European-feeling" car would be happier with the GTI. All in all, the GTI is a great hot hatch as it is. But with the next generation of GTI just around the corner -- bigger engine and all -- we can't help but think that VW fans would be better off waiting for the next gen cars to come out.


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