Do you remember the first Volkswagen GTI? It was the original sports car in a box when it snarled onto the scene as a 1983 model, back in the days when there was still a VW hatchback named after a creature with long ears and buck teeth.
The GTI was fast on its feet, reasonably quick from a standing start and roomy inside; it had sports-car responses combined with a hatchback's space efficiency. And if the GTI wasn't quite revolutionary (there was the precedent of the Austin Mini Cooper S) it was certainly sensational.
The original GTI added new descriptions to the automotive lexicon, such as pocket rocket and hot hatch. And it spawned a small fleet of wannabes - the Mitsubishi Mirage Turbo, Dodge Omni GLH, Toyota Corolla FX16 and Mazda 323 Turbo, to name just a few.
That wasn't so long ago, but our automotive appetite has obviously changed. America has lost its taste for hatchbacks, preferring cars shaped like bullets rather than boxes, with at least the illusion of a conventional trunk.
The hot hatchback phenomenon is all but history. Although Honda continues to offer the peppy Si version of the Civic hatchback, it's a member of a family that also includes formal coupes and sedans. Only VW persists with a full line of true shoe-box hatchbacks, called Golf.
And only one Golf carries on the concept established by the original GTI. This is it.
The GTI VR6 isn't exactly inexpensive with a price of $19,265. But compared with sport coupes of comparable performance - the Acura Integra GS-R, Ford Probe GT and Mazda MX-6, for example - its comprehensive collection of comfort and convenience features makes it very competitive. The only options you can add are clearcoat metallic paint and a 6-disc CD changer, bringing the price up to $19,935. We were content with the standard equipment on our test model.
Aside from the 9-spoke alloy wheels reminiscent of the old Minilite racing wheels, there's very little to distinguish the new GTI from a regular Golf III. Same wheelbase, same bodywork (save for a slightly different grille) and the same dimensions.
The distinctions are all subdermal. The new GTI has a stiffer chassis than the standard Golf, higher spring rates, gas shocks, bigger brakes, traction control and, of course, more moxie under the hood. Much more. The standard Golf engine is a 2.0-liter 115-hp 4-cylinder, but the GTI gets VW's celebrated 2.8-liter narrow angle V6, one of the more innovative engine designs to come along lately. The angle between the two cylinder banks is only 15 degrees, compared with the 60- and 90-degree designs of most V6 engines, and these banks share a common cylinder head.
This design is more noteworthy for packagability than potency: The Honda Prelude 2.2-liter VTEC 4-cylinder, as a contrast, generates 18 more hp from substantially less displacement. But the 172 hp generated by VW's V6 ISn't exactly tepid in a car of this size.
Although there are several Golfs to choose from, THere's only one GTI, with one engine (the VR6) and one transmission (a 5-speed manual).
The Golf III's dashboard design, present on our tester, already looked dated when this car finally entered the U.S. market a year ago, an impression that becomes steadily more pronounced as new small sport coupes come onto the scene. The instruments are on the small side, the sound system's push buttons are tiny, the door handles are diminutive and the glove box is gone altogether with the installation of a passenger-side airbag.
On the other hand, the front bucket seats would be appropriate in a BMW M3. We weren't taken with the peculiar splashes of color woven into the durable black cloth, but we were thoroughly impressed with the seats' comfort, adjustability and side bolsters. VW obviously expects this car to be driven briskly - that's the essence of the pocket-rocket concept - and the seats are well-conceived to keep the driver and the front passenger securely centered.
The GTI is also impressively spacious, with lots of front-seat legroom, lots of room overhead (thanks to that tall roofline) and a rear seat that's actually usable. There's also a huge cargo area behind the rear seats, offering 17.5 cu. ft. And with the 60/40 split rear seats folded forward, the GTI can swallow as much stuff as a small station wagon: a total of 41 cu. ft.
Safety features stack up well versus other sporty cars in this price category. Besides standard anti-lock brakes and traction control, the GTI has contemporary side-impact protection and a strong structure around the passenger compartment.
The original GTI, which was regarded as quick in its day, could reach 60 mph in just under 10 seconds. The latest one, though almost 700 lb. heavier, gets there in 7.1 seconds, and it keeps on hustling to a top speed of 130 mph.
Besides the VR6's capacity for hurry-up, IT's smooth, quiet and flexible with good pull throughout its entire operating range. And when you're not in hurry-up mode, the VR6 delivers decent fuel economy. We came in at an average of 23 mpg during our test, and in one long interstate run the GTI tallied almost 30 mpg.
About the only GTI powertrain negative we noted during our travels was a hint of torque steer. Torque steer is the tendency in some front-wheel-drive cars for the wheels to pull one way or the other during hard acceleration from a standing start or from low speeds. At its worst, it feels like the car is trying to wrench the wheel out of the driver's hands. The GTI's torque steer is very mild, but we mark it down in the debit column because this trait has been all but banished from today's front-drive automobiles.
Handling, on the other hand, is a definite plus. Ongoing chassis development of the Golf family has more than kept pace with the world industry, and the GTI's chassis is the best of its breed. Combine a stiff chassis with performance-oriented suspension and low-profile tires and you wind up with a car that responds instantly to the DRIver's every whim - a box-shaped sports car.
There are a couple of asterisks. First, the GTI is relatively tall and may feel a little tippy to those unfamiliar with its dynamics, though body roll is controlled better than in almost any other hatchback we can think of. Second, like every other Golf, the GTI will hike up its inside rear wheel in hard cornering. It's disconcerting when you see someone else do it for the first time, but remember that it doesn't affect the GTI's grip at all because the inside rear tire of a front-drive car isn't doing anything during hard cornering, whether or not it's on the pavement.
Sporty suspension tuning and low-profile tires, even the all-season variety, add up to a relatively stiff ride quality. The new GTI isn't as harsh as the original, but it's firm and can be choppy on rough roads. That's the trade-off for aggressive handling.
The GTI's braking is well-matched to its go-power. In fact, it may well be this car's strongest suit in a very strong performance hand; it is perhaps the best braking offered by any car in this price sector.
Once you get past the packaging, the Volkswagen GTI VR6 is a tempting little hot rod. it's quicker out of the blocks than just about anything in its class and it masks its sports-car spirit with boxy innocence.
In addition to exceptional performance, there's a nice list of goodies baked into its price, enough to give the GTI better-than-average value. And if you are worried about the cost of repairs, consider this: In addition to the basic warranty, VW backs the GTI's powertrain for 10 years/100,000 miles.