They are, arguably, the three most important letters to the Volkswagen brand. They appeared in 1976 on a sporty version of the European Golf, a special model slated for a 5000-unit run. VW underestimated demand by just a tad, as the company has since sold more than 1.5 million GTIs.
Enthusiasts grabbed hold of the GTI and wouldn't let go. That's been particularly true in North America, where the GTI arrived in 1983, where today it outsells the Golf, and where it has defined Volkswagen. VW's enviable position as a young person's brand, the whole "Drivers Wanted" thing, it all stems from the GTI.
You'd think VW would take better care of it.
But after reaching its zenith with the second-generation 16V model, the GTI faltered. VW forgot it was supposed to be a sporty hot hatch-even though it created the category-and instead began treating the GTI as if it were a high-line Golf, softening its suspension and larding it with luxury equipment.
The fifth-generation Golf-out now in Europe but, in typically plodding VW style, not coming here for a long, long time (think 2006)-provided an opportunity to rethink the GTI, as everyone at VW suddenly had come to the realization that the car had drifted away from its original mission.
VW chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder has called the outgoing GTI "too slow, too average. It was not a proper GTI. It was a good example of marketing getting it wrong."
So the theme for the new GTI is, as the Germans say, "back to the roots." According to Professor Wilfried Bockelmann, VW's board member responsible for technical development, that means "offering the pure feeling of sporty that we offered in GTI number 1."
Trouble is, the original GTI was a pint-sized, flyweight fighter; over the years, it's grown in size and weight (the latter by some 50 percent), and the new one does nothing to reverse that trend. Indeed, the fifth-generation GTI is a bit larger still-more than an inch longer and an inch wider. At 2928 pounds in European trim, it's hardly anorexic, but at least it's not any heavier than our current GTI 1.8T.
"Back to the roots" doesn't mean small and light, but it does mean four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive powertrains, so say goodbye to the VR6 engine, and forget about 4Motion. (Both likely will reappear in a followup to the R32 Golf, but that car won't wear a GTI badge and will have more of a comfort-oriented chassis tune than the GTI.)
GTI fans won't miss the V-6, however, once they've driven the new 2.0-liter FSI turbo-charged four, which matches the 2.8 VR6's power output and exceeds its torque. FSI stands for fuel straight injection (gasoline direct injection) which helps this new sixteen-valve DOHC engine make 197 hp and, even more impressive, 207 lb-ft of torque.
Those are good numbers, but what puts the smile on your face is the eagerness with which the GTI responds. The full helping of torque is available almost no matter where you are on the tach (from 1800 to 5000 rpm), and the throttle response is absolutely linear. There's no putting your foot in it, waiting for the boost, then-whoa-backing out again. It's great for powering through long, unreeling curves, as well as for stop-and-go driving. In go-go-go driving, the FSI turbo charges past its 6500-rpm redline to a gentle rev cut at 7000. Electronics will hold the U.S. car to 130 mph (same as today's GTI), but we managed 135 on the autobahn, running out of room before we could get to the claimed maximum of 146 mph.
The 2.0-liter FSI turbo will be the GTI's only powerplant, and it will not be offered on the regular Golf (which gets a 2.5-liter five) but will be available on the new Jetta GLI, the base Passat, and the Audi A3 and A4.
There's no Tiptronic for the back-to-the-roots GTI, although VW will offer its automatic direct-shift gearbox (DSG) as well as the conventional six-speed manual that we drove. Surprisingly, the DSG-equipped car is fractionally quicker, accelerating from 0 to 62 mph in 6.9 seconds, versus 7.2 for the regular manual.
The stir-it-yourself gearbox has a characteristic VW light touch, but the action is far more positive than the VW norm. The square shifter neck is a nice detail. We would like to see more positive clutch action, though; currently, there's little indication where in the spongy-feeling travel the clutch engages.
Happily, though, the sponginess is gone from the GTI's suspension, which consists of struts up front and a new, multilink setup at the rear. Compared with the new Golf, the GTI has firmer springs and dampers, thicker antiroll bars, and a 0.6-inch-lower ride height. It also has its body motions well under control, something that cannot be said of our current version or even the R32 Golf. The tall-bodied VW still doesn't dart around corners with the immediacy of a Mini Cooper S-the current gold standard in the category-but it was plenty happy, as were we, hurling through the hairpins in Germany's Eifel mountains. The GTI's eager responsiveness re-called its progenitor, which famously slalomed through white-lab-coat-wearing German engineers in one of the more memorable early TV spots.
We'll have seventeen-inch wheels standard (and eighteens optional), with 45-series Bridgestone Potenza tires. They grip well but also faithfully transmit bumps-much like that Brit-brand BMW.
Orders from the helm are transmitted via new, electric-assist power steering, a technology we're generally not thrilled about. At least this example is more like a Mini Cooper's (pretty good) than a Saturn Ion's (pretty awful). We've found that recent GTIs-though not the R32 Golf-suffer from steering that's too quick and too light on center. That's not the case here, with the new car offering a nice linearity and natural-feeling efforts.
VW claims the system can compensate automatically for crosswinds, giving as much as four degrees of steering correction while you hold the wheel straight. But we still had to do plenty of our own correcting on the blustery drive out of Wolfsburg. VW's other miracle claim for the electric power steering is that it helps eliminate torque steer, and we found this far more credible, as we were unable to induce any.
The brakes have grown an inch in diameter at the front (to 12.3 inches) and twice that much at the rear (to 11.3). The flashy metal-trimmed pedals-with a floor-hinged throttle-are well positioned for heel-and-toe shifting.
As we'd expect in a GTI, the driving position is very good. The front seats are comfortable, with firm lateral bolsters, but might be too narrow for those who can't pass an all-you-can-eat buffet. Unsurprisingly, given the GTI's boxy profile, the back seat is plenty roomy for adults. If your friends complain back there, make 'em walk.
The plaid seat inserts recall the original (1976 European) GTI; too bad the surrounding material is cheap and nasty. If the plaid induces bad '70s flashbacks for you, you can order full leather on an even more extreme sport seat.
The rest of the interior is contemporary VW. The steering wheel is nicely shaped, and the flattened bottom feeds F1 fantasies. The easy-to-use nav system will be DVD-based for North America and optional. With the nav system, you'll get a six-disc CD changer in the front armrest; otherwise, it will be in the radio.
Outside, you have a mix of old and new. The red grille outline and some of the colors-white, black, red, and silver-recall early GTIs. Laser blue and, if we get it, yellow, are more modern, as are the "Colorado" wheels, which will be an optional style for the States. What we won't have is the four-door GTI, which stays in Europe.
Both GTIs stay in Europe for a while, actually. U.S. cars won't set sail from Wolfsburg until late 2005, arriving a bit ahead of regular Golfs. We're guessing prices will be close to where the VR6 GTI is today, currently $22,645.
Volkswagen seems to have awakened to the importance of the GTI and has built a car that, although it doesn't go back to the original, is again the hard-core sportster that a GTI should be.