- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Volkswagen first introduced its GTI model to the North American market back in 1983. It was known as the “Mark I,” but was more commonly and affectionately referred to as VW’s “pocket rocket.” It afforded the practicality of VW’s Golf model, but with the added attraction of exhibiting the fun of driving a nimble sports car.

A lot of water has gone under the bridge in the past 23 years, and now VW bows with the fifth-generation GTI — all-new for 2006.

Enthusiasts and VW internals refer to this latest iteration GTI appropriately enough as the “Mark 5” edition.

The goal of VW designers and engineers was to deliver a dynamic, all-new GTI with modern technology and attributes, while honoring the purity and heritage of the original hot hatchback. Value was also to be an integral part of the equation. First launched in Germany in 2005, and widely acclaimed in Europe, the GTI reaches our shores with some pretty impressive credentials.

At the heart of the new GTI is Volkswagen’s high-tech 200-horsepower 2.0T four-cylinder engine that also delivers 207 foot-pounds of torque. The turbocharged motor mates to a standard six-speed manual gearbox or an optional and unique automated manual DSG transmission, utilizing direct shifting that in essence depresses clutch-shift points more efficiently and quickly than is possible for even a professional driver — Formula One style.

In either case, power is delivered to the front wheels and will propel the car to an electronically limited top speed of 130 mph in the U.S. The GTI rides on a new fully independent, sports-tuned suspension — a first for the GTI.

The 2006 “wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing” GTI takes on more of a wolf image with an exterior image that displays a pleasantly aggressive, sports-car styling. Up front, the new grille differs from the Golf with a black honeycomb treatment surrounded by a distinctive red frame strip outlining the radiator portion.

The lower grille sections also employ the honeycomb pattern, resembling additional air intakes and integrating standard halogen fog lamps.

Contributing further to the sporting nature is the car’s lower profile, striking rear roof spoiler, rocker extensions, blue-tinted glass, bi-xenon headlamps and black valances and side window moldings. The rear view displays dual stainless exhaust tips on the left side, but they’re not just for looks, as they also emit a sweet exhaust note.

The interior promotes the sport theme with gauges that display blue lights and red needles, genuine aluminum trim and pedals (including a dead pedal), a three-spoke leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob.

The test GTI was finished outside in a United Gray metallic, complemented by a black leather interior. The base sticker displayed a price of $21,990 which moved up to a final total of $28,330 after adding optional features such as: Option Package No. 2 with a power sunroof, automatic dual zone climate control, heated front seats and washer nozzles, top sport seats with leather seating surfaces and Sirius satellite radio; 18-inch Hufweisen five-hole/spoke aluminum alloy wheels; navigation system and six-disc CD changer; and destination charge. There are actually two basic GTI option packages available, with Package No. 2 including all but the special 18-inch alloy wheels and Nav system with CD changer, which are stand-alone options.

The new GTI is definitely in the spirit of the original, but is far superior. Handling characteristics and ride quality are enhanced by a number of revisions. The new strut-type axle helps to create a more direct steering ratio along with the new electromechanical power rack-and-pinion steering system, which delivers a positive response and outstanding “on-center feel,” while also adding the capability of active-return.

In terms of acceleration, the “pocket rocket” or “hot hatchback” descriptions are well deserved here, with only a minuscule amount of turbo lag in evidence. The manual six-speed gearbox has a very positive feel and provides silky smooth gear changes in either direction. Both active and passive safety features add to driver confidence and, for added assurance, Volkswagen’s warranty program offers extensive vehicle coverage. In essence, the GTI definitively marks the return of the “hot hatchback” in a very big way.

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