2006 Volkswagen GTI
The Volkswagen GTI has been a performance icon since its debut on American shores in 1983, when it offered a high degree of fun and performance nearly matching those of much more expensive German sports sedans for a very reasonable price. The original American-market hot hatchback persevered through three increasingly upscale generations but perhaps lost some of its cheeky attitude along the way.
The 2006 Volkswagen GTI gets a major attitude adjustment with the introduction of the fifth generation of Volkswagen's pocket rocket. With Volkswagen's high-tech 200-horsepower 2.0T FSI engine under the hood, driving the front wheels through a choice of six-speed manual or DSG automatic-shift manual transmissions, performance is a given. Tech options, including satellite radio and Volkswagen's navigation system, can give it an upscale ambience. And it compares very well with any current sport compacts and even some more expensive German and Japanese sports-luxury sedans in a manner that would make its ancestor proud.
Upside: Volkwagen's 200-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged and intercooled FSI direct gasoline-injection twin-cam, 16-valve four-cylinder engine works well in the larger Passat and Jetta sedans, with admirable performance and economy. It turns the lighter 2006 Volkswagen GTI into, well, a pocket rocket. Both manual and automatic transmissions are six-speed units--all the better to further improve both performance and economy. And the automatic isn't the regular power- and response-sapping torque-converter variety; it's VW Group's competition-derived DSG twin-clutch automatic-shifting manual gearbox. It can be shifted by the console-mounted lever or paddles mounted on the steering column.
For the first time, the GTI's rear twist-beam axle has been banished in favor of a new independent multilink rear suspension. As ever, MacPherson struts are found in the front. Springs, shocks, and sway bars are matched well for a firm but comfortable sports-sedan ride and wonderfully nimble handling. The car comes standard with 17-inch alloy wheels with 225/45 WR performance tires, and 18-inchers are available.
Inside, the standard cloth seats are the only nod to nostalgia, with a plaid material similar to that in the original GTI. The standard equipment level is high, with power windows, mirrors, locks with remote locking, climate control, an AM/FM/six-CD sound system that also plays MP3 CDs, and two power outlets in the center console and another in the cargo area. Satellite radio is available as a stand-alone option or packaged with a sunroof. Another option group adds automatic dual-zone climate control, leather-covered heated front sports seats, and more upscale goodies. The same DVD-based navigation as is found in the Passat and Jetta is offered.
Downside: We found little to criticize while driving several different GTIs through the mountains east of San Diego. Searching hard for weak points, we noticed the 18-inch wheel/tire combo makes for a noticeably stiffer ride than you'd get with the 17-inchers. Volkswagen would score higher if the audio system had a jack for attaching a portable music player. We wish Volkswagen would learn how to build and integrate Bluetooth hands-free systems into its cars, as we would rather leave our phones in our pockets. And loaded with all of the options, the base price of $21,990 can climb to $28,960, plus a $630 destination charge.
Outlook: Volkswagen's newest GTI is the best yet, with wonderfully torquey performance that illustrates all that is good about turbocharging and upgraded handling from a new chassis with a fully independent sports-tuned suspension. With its available upscale options, it can appeal not only to automotive performance enthusiasts but to techies as well. And if three doors aren't enough, wait until the fall when the five-door hatchback will be offered.