It's not the shape or the proportions of the latest Volkswagen show car that make the memory chip inside your head switch from standby to high alert. It's the color that does the trick, a wild shade of Kermit the Frog metallic called, past and present, viper green. If you're old enough, this hue triggers an instant flashback to the rocking 1970s. In 1974, when the first-generation Scirocco debuted, the world witnessed the end of the Nixon era and the dwindling of the hippie movement. The freshly completed Sears Tower stood so tall that, from its viewing platform, you could almost watch Skylab chase Soyuz. Down below, the streets of Chicago were crowded with compact fuel misers such as the Chevrolet Vega, the AMC Gremlin, the downsized Ford Mustang II, and a certain VW Golf that was called the Rabbit in the United States. The Golf passed on its DNA to the original Scirocco.
Designed by Giugiaro, built by Karmann, and sold in the States between 1975 and 1981, the first Scirocco was an instant showroom success. Although the replacement model (1982-88) and the portlier Corrado (1990-94) turned out to be less popular, Volkswagen decided to revive the affordable coupe with the Iroc concept. (ScIROCco, get it?) A month before its public debut at the Paris auto show, we drove the concept, which is closely related to the production version slated for 2008.
The Iroc is definitely not your father's Scirocco. Based on the running gear and the platform of the Eos convertible, it is bold, butch, and mean-looking. They haven't offered shapes like this in Wolfsburg for years. But now Wolfgang Bernhard is in charge, and he wants "no more middle-of-the-road cars!" That's why the Iroc looks the way it does, and that's why the new Scirocco will look very similar to the Iroc.
True, the car that will leave the assembly line in Palmela, Portugal, starting in early 2008 will have less radical wheels and a slightly slimmer silhouette. Also due to change are the flush-fitting, electrically actuated door handles and the contrasting lower body panels, which will be painted. But the big picture is spot-on, with zero changes envisaged to the love-it-or-hate-it hexagonal grille, the headlamps, the side sheetmetal, the daring greenhouse, and the interior and exterior dimensions.
Based on a design by Robert Lesnik, who also conceived the Eos, the Iroc is a stunning blend of coupe, station wagon, hatchback, and proper sports car. Its pivotal styling element is the grille, which has a honeycomb pattern adopted from the GTI and an all-new brushed-aluminum frame. The inner segments could be selectively opened up to cool the brakes and the intake air, but the outer ducts are fakes.
Unlike any other VW, the Scirocco-to-be surprises with an almost sculptural three-dimensionality. The interplay between concave and convex surfaces is particularly striking where the hood, the front fenders, and the A-pillars meet and also where the C-pillars flow into the rear side panels. The dark roof blends so neatly with the large windshield that VW should consider making it standard--or at least an option--on the production car. Inside, large quantities of carbon-fiber trim adorn the roof structure, the doors, and the pillars. Predictably, the interior, which was penned by Nils Poschwatta, is going to be toned down to meet stringent cost targets. The basic dashboard layout, however, is there to stay, so you can expect two large, round gauges; rotary secondary controls; air vents that mimic the contours of the grille; and a dished sport steering wheel with three metal spokes. When you look back in time, you'll find that about the only fundamental difference between the Iroc cockpit and the instrument panel of the Mark 1 Scirocco is the high-mounted radio in the original car.
The viper-green exterior is mirrored by viper-green door inserts, stitching, and neoprene seat faces. The body-hugging bucket seats are quite comfortable, and they adjust with rare generosity. Next to the push-button that operates the electric parking brake, we find Audi's MMI multifunction control knob. The gear lever that operates the DSG dual-clutch manu-matic transmission is locked flush in the horizontal position until you twist the ignition key, when it automatically pops to attention. The hard-to-read speedometer and tachometer reside in deep acrylic holes that glow in an evolution of the eerie blue lighting that VW prefers over more conventional shades of amber.
The engine fitted to the Iroc concept is the same Twincharger (supercharged and turbocharged) 1.4-liter four-cylinder that recently debuted in the European-spec Golf GT. What looks like a lame duck on paper is in fact a steam hammer on steroids. Thanks to the teamwork between the whining supercharger (active at low to middle revs) and the whistling turbocharger (active at middle to high revs), the compact four musters 208 hp. Thus, in terms of performance, the viper-green one-off is in the same league as the GTI. Quantitatively, that's about seven seconds for 0-to-60-mph acceleration and a top speed of about 130 mph. Unlike the GTI's 2.0-liter engine, which is relatively thirsty when pushed, the 1.4-liter Twincharger should stay on the eco-friendly side of 30 mpg.
Although it's still early, the VW Iroc tells us a lot about the future Scirocco's definitive visibility, packaging, and maneuverability. The A-pillars are quite wide, but the big windshield and the low-cut side windows ensure that this is no castle on wheels. The view through the rear window is framed by viper-green seatbacks. This is more of a roomy two-plus-two than a proper four-seater, and while rear headroom is hard to fault, access to the second row requires a certain degree of physical fitness. Those two buckets obviously have been upholstered for looks, not comfort. The major controls are pure Eos--only crisper and more immediate.
The steering is accurate and always on the alert, but it feels heavy at parking speeds. The brakes are a little grabby at first, but after a while one begins to appreciate the instant-on response and the linear deceleration. The hide-and-seek shifter is needed only to select drive, reverse, or park. If you really feel compelled to change gears manually, the steering-wheel paddles do the job just fine. There is not a lot to be said about handling and roadholding at this point, even though the show car is a real runner good for speeds up to 125 mph. The phenomenal grip seems to neutralize understeer, the suspension tends to favor body control over compliance, and with about 220 lb-ft of torque available just above idle, traction can be an issue in the wet.
When it goes on sale here, it's likely that the Scirocco will be offered with the 168-hp, 1.4-liter high-output Twincharger and the GTI's direct-injection, 200-hp, 2.0-liter turbo. No VR6? At least not initially--there are many Volkswagen managers who believe that the six is the wrong engine for this car, for reasons that include weight, fuel consumption, price, market positioning, and nose-heavy handling.
Instead of the Scirocco VR6, we are much more likely to see a lightweight version powered by a tweaked, 230-hp, 2.0-liter four. When you consider that Audi soon will squeeze 280 hp out of this engine for the upcoming TTS, the output planned by VW is very much on the cautious side. In addition, this lightweight version, possibly called the R20 and earmarked for 2009, would get its own body kit, tires, seats, and cabin trim. Transmissions will include a six-speed manual and the DSG manu-matic. Over time, VW intends to build 40,000 units per year, but there is no stringent capacity limit should demand exceed expectations. Perhaps Wolfsburg should, in the wake of the reborn Scirocco, also reexamine the comeback of other cult cars. Bring back the Microbus!