The hand-written notes compiled by the pit crew are littered with bad news. Lap one, DNF. Car spins out in turn two. Lap two, DNF. Car spins out in turn two. Needs to be towed back or jump-started.
Are they letting any idiot with a valid driver’s license behind the wheel of this hand-built prototype valued at several million dollars? What’s wrong with you today, George? Hung over? Legs trapped in the footwell again? Or are you simply getting old? Well, yeah. But the only real mistake I made was not asking enough questions before strapping myself behind the fancy three-spoke sport steering wheel.
I expected the VW crew to provide all the relevant information. Wishful thinking. Being the last out of maybe twenty journalists to be shuttled through this program, it was routine for them – but not for me. They knew that the surface of the race track at Gross-Dlln near Berlin is covered with a low-grip asphalt film so that a set of tires last about five times longer. But didn’t tell me.
They knew that the shift paddles behind the steering wheel spokes of the prototype are still functionless. But didn’t tell me. They knew that the ESP switch is only there for decoration. ESP and ASR are both conspicuous by their absence. Yeah, they didn’t tell me this either.
I set off as clueless and enthusiastic as a Labrador Retriever. First, second, third – not flat-out but perhaps an optimistic 80 percent throttle. You don’t want to look too slow, do you But whatever the entry speed into turn two was, it was about 40 percent more than what the pale grey surface would tolerate. Whoops. Spin. Never make the same mistake twice, or you really look like a bozo.
So, next time, it’s first, second and third again, then a pause, getting ready to downshift and turn in. Downshift? DOWNSHIFT! I pulled the paddle – repeatedly – but it did nothing. Remember, I didn’t know that it wasn’t connected. I blame the car. Yeah, the car! Lift-off inertia grabs the car’s midriff where the mighty engine dwells, and this time we don’t just spin once. We spin twice, loop-di-smoking-loop.
Face lobster red, I reach for the ignition key. Dead. Try again. Dead. Lights off, ventilation off, try again. Dead. The only items that are still running at full whack and full volume are the two giant fans that try to keep the W-12 from exploding or imploding or melting down for good. From the distance, a green Volkswagen van approaches. Exeunt three, four, five VW specialists gloating with a mix of malicious delight and sheer disbelief.
Ten minutes later, both parties know the truth. Which is that the battery has been wired to feed only the fans, not the starter; ESP exists in the head of the senior electrician but not yet in the car; and Gross-Dlln is famous for its ice rink characteristics, not for grip and traction. We mutually agree to forget what just happened, to give me a second chance, and to bring this baby home safe and sound and undamaged. I promise and cross my fingers.
This time it works. I keep it on the track. This time, red-flagging the white GTI to call it a day won’t do. Oh no. This time, they’ll need to physically block my path. Which they do, and by the time they pull me out of the car, I look and smell like a drenched wharf rat.
Make that a happy drenched wharf rat. This GTI is better than almost anything you can imagine. Better than two bottles of vintage 2000 Brunello. Probably even better than a splash-and-dash bungee jump, although come to think of it, perhaps not. The flicker in my eyes didn’t go away for days. And my dreams definitely no longer revolve only around that dinner date with Nicole Kidman. You know, the one that’ll never happen.
Theoretically, the big white GTI is good for 203 mph. The main runway of Gross-Dlln, which once was East Germany’s main military airport, is theoretically long enough to attain 203 mph. I know it, because I did over 200 mph there in the Porsche Carrera GT. But the W12-650 show car is restricted to 124 mph. Does it matter? Not really – it was more than enough speed for me to spin it. And, more importantly, because the surface deteriorates quickly when you spin off the pavement after the final left-hander.
First, it’s just gravel and sand. Then it’s gravel and sand and vegetation. Eventually, you start counting rabbits on the left and deer on the right, not to mention half a dozen buzzards practicing take-off and landing.
So we stick to the track, which looks like sandpaper but feels like liquid soap. Since you run out of third at the end of the longest non-wriggly bit, 113 mph is Vmax. Not a lot by race car standards, but bloody quick for an experimental vehicle that will in all likelihood never make it into production. Ignore the shift paddles, that’s what they had said. Use the gear lever in Tiptronic mode instead. Sure, no prob, everything roger and cool.
For about ten laps, the car works perfectly. Then the bug that seems to live inside this wild GTI-on-steroids finally reaches the transmission. From now on, it’s say a prayer and hope for the best. Upshifts happen as they should, but downshifts sometimes happen, sometimes don’t. Sometimes they need two or three attempts; sometimes you go from four to two in one shrieking high-rev lesson.
Are the instruments on top of the dashboard really displaying boost pressure and exhaust temperature? Or are these needles reflecting the driver’s pulse and blood pressure? Thump, thump, thump. Never mind. Here we go again.
The acceleration from 0 to 62 mph has been quoted as 3.7 seconds, which signals a dead heat between the super GTI and a Ferrari 599GTB. But zero to nothing matters today. First gear is incomprehensible because the W-12 runs of revs before the words “fuck… me” even come out of your mouth. It is in-gear grunt, second and third-gear thrust, grip and traction, stability (or the lack thereof) that are crucial on this circuit.
Stability is a particularly fickle thing. It’s really only there when the car moves in a straight line. Which is almost never. After all, it doesn’t take much to dent the trajectory of a mid-engine Golf: A tug at the suede-rimmed steering wheel. A dab on the throttle. A bump followed by a ridge. A mid-corner downshift. Especially a mid-corner downshift.
Rotational movements soon become second nature when you are trying to put this play station to the real test. This GTI is the mother of all gyros. With the polar moment of inertia firmly secured between the axles and with a tail-happy 45:55 weight distribution, it only takes a few beats of Johann Strauss’ On the Blue Danube to make the Volkswagen waltz like a pro. Or spin and try to kill you.
Lesser cars rely exclusively on the steering when the question of which direction to go arises. No so the W12-650. Its steering makes only the most basic decisions, like north or south, or east or west. Applying more lock should confirm this intention – but it may be instantly overruled, diluted or emphasized by the throttle. Squeeze it, and the shaved 295/30 ZR19 gumballs will momentarily squirm, so that North can become North-East in the flash of a moment. This is the way thrilling dramas start, and this is when prompt action is required to stop the plot from turning into tragedy.
In most every Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche or Bentley, ASR and ESP will protect you from meeting your maker. The GTI W12 has no such safety net, no stop-and-replay button, at this point not even dedicated suspension geometry. The rear axle was borrowed from the , the brakes come out of the S4 parts bin, and the engine was tuned by Bentley. The tranny started life in a Phaeton and the electronics were mapped out in the VW witch kitchen. The front suspension is a MacPherson mix from various donors, the front trunk is filled by a 12-gallon fuel tank made of aluminum, the body was designed in Wolfsburg and completed, like almost all corporate show cars, by Volke Coachbuilding.
Conceived especially for the annual GTI meet in Wrthersee Austria, the W12-650 had the crowd on their knees at its very first outing. Although it was developed from scratch, the DNA of the donor GTI is apparent from every angle. Significantly wider and lower than its front-wheel drive brethren, the ber-GTI sports polished nineteen-inch phone dial wheels, a new front bumper with full-width low-mounted air intake, flared wheel arches and a wide-body rear-end – sans tailgate but with various gills to cool down the twelve-cylinder kraftwerk. Air is channeled to the W-12 via lateral scoops, via ducts behind the sandwich C-pillars, and via a deep, roof-mounted intake.
Assisted by numerous fans of all shapes and sizes, the hot air exits the vehicle through the diffuser-type rear bumper that incorporates four large-diameter chrome tailpipes. The engine is mounted north-south. It lurks beneath a carbon fiber cover, and despite that little separation pane, the heat inside the cramped cabin is scorching my lungs after only ten laps.
Air Conditioning? I wish.
This GTI is strictly a two-seater, and since the W-12 is not of the compact kind, you sit quantifiably closer to the wheel and more upright than in the front-wheel drive original. Featuring tall side bolsters and a sweaty Alcantara trim, the minimalist seats are flanked by two stripped-out door panels.
With the exception of the aforementioned auxiliary gauges and five (functionless) relocated rocker switches, the dashboard is in principle pure Golf. This, however, definitely does not apply to the noise pattern created by the 6.0-liter twin-turbo powerplant.
They could have tuned it for a more sonorous intake burble, for a quadrophonic mid-range rumble and for that magic full throttle high rev roar, but all they did was to remove the filters, so the engine note is mean, deep, metallic, monotonous, hollow and loud. Very, very loud.
It took almost one full hour to tame this beast, and “tame” always remained a highly relative term. But with tires as bald as Kojak’s scalp and as sticky as hot licorice, the chassis soon built up so much grip even on this lab surface that the slides became kind-of controllable, and that going ten-tenths didn’t automatically feel like throwing your life away.
Both the steering and the throttle prefer subtle and well timed inputs, but the real art of mastering this monster Golf lies in synchronizing these two complementary elements. Quite soon, the brakes felt like they were no longer sufficiently powerful, so I started supporting them with successive downshifts. When the transmission deigned to cooperate.
Fighting the white monster Golf can be fun, but it’s so easy to get it out of shape big time, and when that happens you need all the room there is between the track’s suspiciously tall blue-and-white curbs.
Although they had filled the fuel tank for this last stint, only 90 minutes later, we’re running on empty again. Which is fine because Gross-Dlln is getting ready to shut down for the day, and because Big White needs to go back to the shop to be serviced. It needs new Yokohamas for a start, new brake pads, and a software update. It will also get shift paddles that work, ESP as key life-saving measure, and some fine tuning to the chassis.
What’s the plan after that? Is VW going to repeat what Renault achieved with the R5 turbo and the Clio V6? Are we going to see a limited-edition GTI W12?
“Absolutely not,” says one of the engineers. “No way,” says the PR guy. “We haven’t heard of such a plan”, says the lady with the alligator purse. One is inclined to believe them because VW has got its plate full and because a 650-hp Golf may send out the wrong vibes to a community that is increasingly CO2-minded.
But then you let your mind drift back to the original GTI – same question, same answer: A production version? Definitely not. Hear, hear. 1.67 million GTIs later, denials in this department may not have to be taken totally seriously.