The original Volkswagen Rabbit was an excellent small car. Unfortunately, VW soon began to Americanize it, thinking we wanted more luxury features. We didn't. It was already the best in its class, and the embellishments watered down all its German-engineered appeal. If there was anything else we wanted from the nerdy Rabbit, it was her hot little sister, the Rabbit GTI.
Someone in Wolfsburg must have been listening, because the GTI blasted onto U.S. shores in 1982, embarrassing sports cars with its giggle-inducing handling and brisk acceleration. It may have been based on an economy car, but you never would have known it from behind the wheel. The GTI had performance you'd never have expected from its tall, boxy shape; cargo capacity that belied its size; and an image that allowed it to rub shoulders with cars costing twice as much. The hugely successful GTI established VW's image in America as the manufacturer of affordable, fun-to-drive, sporty small cars.
The second-generation GTI further reinforced that image. The GTI reached its zenith in 1987 when the sixteen-valve model--featuring a screaming, 7200-rpm engine and an upgraded suspension--joined the lineup.
But then VW got confused, and the GTI lost its focus as a driver's car. Top-of-the-line third- and fourth-generation versions got a silky smooth VR6 engine that was an aural masterpiece, but the engine's heft made an already front-heavy car even more so. Throw in other out-of-place luxury features, and the once-athletic GTI became a lumbering, understeering heavyweight.
Not that you would have known it. Volkswagen's clever ad agencies continued to capitalize on the promise of the GTI, yelling Fahrvergngen! and Drivers Wanted!, even when the cars didn't really live up to their legacy.
But now, nearly twenty-five years after the original GTI wooed us with its curves (or, rather, its penchant for taking them at high speeds), the new, fifth-generation GTI is again a wolf in, um, Rabbit's clothing. There is no luxury pretense here--this hot econobox has cool plaid cloth seats, a couple of basic dials to adjust the climate control, and, most important, a chassis that loves to dance.
The terminal understeer that sucked all the Fahrvergngen from the previous cars is gone, replaced with agile responses, quick turn-in, and lots of liftoff oversteer. You feel little body roll from the driver's seat, and, except for the occasional surprise bottoming-out, the GTI's suspension is tuned so well that you don't even notice it working.