Although the Volkswagen brand is indelibly associated with the Beetle—original and New—in the general consumer space, since 1983* it has stood for something entirely different in the minds of automotive enthusiasts who are about as likely to decorate the interiors with flower vases as they would be to always and everywhere, well, obey speed limits. In 1983, VW brought the Mk I GTI to America, the autobahn-bred “pocket rocket,” and streets from Woodward to Melrose haven’t been the same since, as the GTI added a category to the hot rod: the hot hatch. However, in subsequent years the European hatch has given way to products primarily from Asian-based manufacturers, and even VW people admit that the GTIs during the years between then and now have been somewhat uneven. But with the Mk V GTI, the brand is back with a product that is believed to be more akin to the first one than to others. In fact, the development brief for the ’07 included the directive to use the Mk I as a model, and there are design cues that harken back to the original (e.g., three-spoke steering wheel; available plaid (!) cloth seats).
Bred of the Golf (also, not surprisingly, which is in its fifth generation), the GTI has some distinguishing features. For example, the two-section grille has black honeycomb mesh and a red trim surround for the upper portion. The fog lamps are positioned at the bottom corners of the fascia in insets that appear to be air intakes. Both the front and the rear of the car feature spoilers, with the rear spoiler integrated into the roof. Another distinguishing feature of the GTI is that the suspension is lowered by 0.6 in., something that a tuner would be likely to do to a conventional model; one of the things that the VW marketing people like to say about the vehicle—in addition to the fact that it is “German engineered” (and perhaps more importantly, manufactured in Wolfsburg**)—is that the car is “pre-tuned.” The chassis has McPherson struts in the front, as well as a new strut-type axle that provides a more-direct steering ratio, higher transversal axle rigidity, and reduced body roll in cornering. There is an independent four-link setup in the rear.
Under the hood there is a two-liter, turbocharged 200-hp 16-valve four-cylinder engine with direct injection that provides 207 lb-ft of torque at from 1,800 to 5,000 rpm. The FSI engine has a cast iron block and aluminum head. The crank is forged steel. Given the high compression ratio (10.3:1), premium unleaded is recommended. There are two transmissions available: a six-speed manual and an “automated manual” transmission with Tiptronic, the DSG. The trick aspect of the DSG is that there are two clutches and no torque converter. During operation, one clutch is open and the other is closed. It is programmed such that the gear above and the gear below the one the vehicle is driving in are selected so that when the driver upshifts or downshifts (there are paddles on the steering wheel at 9 and 3 or the gear shifter can be used), there’s no lag. This translates into improved fuel efficiency for city driving, as the DSG-equipped GTI gets 25/31 mpg and the six-speed gets 23/32 mpg. Not that any of the drivers of a GTI are likely to see those numbers. Ever. The top speed for the car is electronically limited to 130 mph.
According to Dave Wicks, director of sales for Volkswagen of America, they’d like to sell as many as 20,000 GTIs per year. While this might seem high for a vehicle that starts at $21,990 (plus $630 for destination), given the amount of money spent by the tuner community (according to SEMA—the Specialty Equipment Market Association—aftermarket parts and accessories represent annual sales of $31 billion, or spending of about $1,800 per vehicle), perhaps that’s more than reasonable.
*The GTI actually appeared in Germany in June 1976. It was to be a limited-edition car, with just 5,000 built. Instead, it has become something of an essential element in the manufacturer’s lineup.
**The Wolfsburg facility was built in 1938-39 to produce the original Ferdinand Porsche-designed “People’s Car.” World War II put a stop to that. The buildings on the site cover 1.6 km2 and it is said to be the largest factory under one roof (i.e., adding all of the production space on the site together). There are some 4,000 cars assembled there per day, including the Golf and its variants (e.g., the GTI); there is also components manufacturing of drive shafts and injection-molded parts for use at Wolfsburg and other VW facilities.