DRIVEN: 2008 Volkswagen Scirocco 1.4 TSI

October 30, 2008
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Scirocco? Isn't that some Car my Father Drove?
I admit that I'm probably not the most objective person in the world when it comes to the new, European-market Volkswagen Scirocco, as I have a 22-year-old Scirocco sitting in my garage. It's covered, sleeping quietly in safety, and in the eleven years I've owned this VW, it's never been kicked out of the garage, come hell, high water, or $200,000 Aston Martin test cars that happened to be in my possession. I'm so fond of the Scirocco because I love the GTI, and the Scirocco is simply a GTI with more... GTI.
So it's yet another car that Europeans get but we don't?
The Scirocco that VW gave to Europe earlier this year was originally supposed to come to the United States, as well. Then, Volkswagen announced that it wasn't coming. This morning, however, I read in Automotive News that Volkswagen of America is again considering bringing it here. Start crossing your fingers, because if you like the GTI (and what enthusiast doesn't?) you'll love the Scirocco.
In Europe, the Scirocco is priced similarly to the GTI, but it probably will cost significantly more if it's brought here. At least that's what the rumors say - and with VW rebadging Chrysler Town & Country minivans these days, nothing that the geniuses at VW of America do would surprise me. VW, it seems, is worried that the Scirocco would cannibalize GTI sales. That didn't stop either - or both - the GTI and the Scirocco from being successful in the 1970s and 1980s, but I digress.
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The history of the Scirocco in America
Speaking of the 1970s and 1980s, here's a quick history lesson on the Scirocco. The first-generation Scirocco made its U.S. debut in the mid-1970s. It was designed to be the sporty alternative to the Golf (or Rabbit, in the United States), and, indeed, it shared all of its running gear with the tall hatchback. With a low-slung body designed by Giugiaro, the Scirocco lost some of the Rabbit's utility but made up for it with its looks and its performance. GTIs could haul marginally more stuff - and had a much more usable back seat - but Sciroccos were quicker when the road turned.
The second-generation Scirocco made its U.S. debut in 1982 with a completely new body. The Mk2, as it's often called by aficionados, was styled in-house but looks remarkably like the design that Giugiaro submitted to VW. (That design eventually made it to production as the Isuzu Impulse. Google it and you'll see the similarities.) In U.S.-trim with quad headlights, the Mk2 looked quite a bit like the DeLorean DMC, itself a Giugiaro design - but the new VW came in for some criticism due to its dynamics. It was slightly longer and heavier than the first-generation Scirocco, but it wasn't actually much different underneath. Larger engines made up for some of the weight, but the chassis itself was essentially unchanged from the Mk1.
Until the 1986 Scirocco 16V came out. The 16V was a separate model that looked more aggressive thanks to a body-colored aero kit and featured an all-new 7200-rpm 1.8-liter sixteen-valve four-cylinder that produced 123 hp. That was enough to fling the 2380-lb Scirocco to 60 mph in about 8 seconds - quite quick for its day. Upgrades to the suspension (a cross-brace, bigger anti-roll bars, and revised shocks and springs), quicker steering, and bigger brakes (including discs at the rear) stopped all the complaints in their tracks. Contemporary road tests praised the Scirocco's handling and acceleration, and Csaba Csere, now editor-in-chief of Car & Driver, called it a "supercoupe to be reckoned with."
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A rose by another name - the Volkswagen Corrado
The third-generation Scirocco was a rose by a different name. VW called it the "Corrado," as it was introduced before production of the Scirocco came to an end. The Corrado debuted in North America in 1990 with a supercharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder that was slightly faster than the Scirocco 16V. The Corrado used the Mk2 Volkswagen platform, sharing many components with the Mk2 Golf/Jetta/GTI., and it really hit its stride in 1992 with the introduction of a 178-hp 2.8-liter VR6. The VR6 combined the packaging efficiency of a V-6 with the smoothness and sound of an in-line six and made the Corrado one seriously fast VW. Critics lamented, however, that the weight of the big six killed the handling balance that made the Scirocco so much fun... but the sound and fury of the VR6 cemented the Corrado's place in enthusiasts' hearts.
And, now, the Scirocco makes a triumphant return
The Corrado was retired for the 1995 model year, and in the intervening time, VW hasn't made another sport coupe. Until now. The 2008 Scirocco follows the same basic recipe - take an existing Golf/GTI platform and put a lower, sexier body on it. This time, however, Volkswagen was able to dip into the Eos parts bin, making the Scirocco wider than the GTI, too. And the result is spectacular.
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A very special engine in the Scirocco I drove
The German-specification Scirocco is available with a choice of three gasoline engines and one diesel, the most powerful of which is the 200-hp 2.0-liter from the GTI. The Scirocco I drove, however, was a much more interesting engine, even if it doesn't produce as much power. Under the hood of my granite brown Scirocco was a little 1.4-liter engine with a surprisingly delicate thirst for fuel combined with an impressive amount of power.
The 1.4 TSI is a unique engine because it uses both a supercharger and a turbocharger to force 160 hp out of a pipsqueak four-cylinder. I've read about this engine for quite some time, but my expectations were quite different than the reality. I expected the TSI to howl with an audible supercharger whine from idle until some point around 4000 rpm, where I imagined that a big turbo would suddenly kick in, throwing the torque curve upward and me backward in my seat. In fact, the engine feels like it has a perfect flat plateau of torque from 2000 rpm until redline.
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Boosting a teensy engine to huge horsepower numbers invariably results in a lot of turbo lag - a turbocharger large enough to produce big boost at high rpm won't be able to spool quickly. If you've ever driven a Subaru WRX STI, you know this phenomenon well - you have little or no boost at low rpm, but keep your foot mashed long enough, and the turbo spools up and kicks you in the pants.
Volkswagen used the supercharger to keep boost levels up when the turbo isn't spooled, so that when you're off-boost, the 1.4-liter feels more like, say, a 1.8-liter. The turbo demonstrates some lag - a bit more than the turbo-only 2.0T - but the transition between turbo lag and turbo boost is nowhere near as dramatic as it would be without the supercharger. You can feel some surging as the tach needle makes its way from idle to redline, no doubt a result of the engine computer managing the boost levels, but otherwise, you'd have no idea that the 1.4 TSI was twin-charged.
Power and fuel economy
160 hp isn't a huge amount of power in a modern car, but the Scirocco is quick in a straight line. Volkswagen claims the 6-speed manual Scirocco 1.4 TSI will hit 62 mph in 8.0 seconds, and its top speed - which I verified over miles and miles and miles of Autobahn - is 135 mph. At an indicated 138 mph in sixth gear, the trip computer shows that the little engine is sucking down super unleaded at the alarming rate of 10.6 mpg. (The Scirocco will maintain an indicated 137 mph in fifth, slurping a gallon every 9.9 miles!)
At U.S.-highway speeds, however, the fuel economy is pretty impressive. At a constant 62 mph, the computer showed 47 mpg; at 75 mph it dropped only to 33 mpg. Those numbers are consistent with its European-cycle fuel economy ratings of 27 mpg city, 44 highway. The 2.0T, by comparison, is rated at 22 city, 40 highway - and its 200 hp propels the Scirocco to 62 mph in 7.2 seconds and on to a top speed of 146 mph.
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Send me to a twisty road, please
Enough about straight-line performance, though, because the Scirocco is all about the curves. I couldn't find the size of its rear sway bar anywhere in the specs that Volkswagen sent me, but in my mind, it must be about five inches thick. A big rear bar helps rotate the car, and understeer is clearly not part of the Scirocco's game - in constant-radius turns that would have the GTI's front tires howling and the driver yawning, the Scirocco takes a perfectly neutral set. I did an entire lap of a big roundabout with almost no steering lock on, the Scirocco in a perfect four-wheel drift.
When was the last time you saw a front-wheel-drive car do that? Answer: never. I've not seen a tail-out attitude like that from a front-wheel-drive car since the last time I drove my own Scirocco - which routinely tries to kill me by hurtling itself sideways at the merest suggestion of trailing throttle.
A GTI taken to near-perfection
The current GTI is one of the best-balanced front-wheel-drive sport hatches on the market today, yet it just can't compete with the Scirocco when it comes to chassis balance. And unlike the GTI, which suffers from mushy brakes and an ABS system that seems to draw the pedal down into the ground, the Scirocco's brake pedal was always firm and positive - not unlike the pedal feel in an R32. The exhaust note was muted at high revs, peppered with whooshing sounds from the turbo.
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The remainder of the driving experience is familiar VW - the dash comes straight out of the Eos (meaning that its distinct lack of sportiness is in stark contrast to the Scirocco's bold exterior styling), the shifter and steering feel just like a GTI's (which means that there's no torque steer, great steering feel off-center, and the clutch's takeup is smooth and progressive.) The seats are aggressively bolstered and supremely comfortable. The new touch-screen navigation system is slow-witted and frustrating, and it refused to recognize my iPod.
One thing has changed dramatically in twenty years. My Scirocco's big rear spoiler blocks my vision of everything under about four feet when I'm looking in the rear-view mirror. The new Scirocco's sloped roof does exactly the opposite - cutting off everything above around four feet. But the rest of the recipe - rear-wheel-drive moves in an efficient, sexy package - hasn't changed one bit.


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