Predicting what will and will not become a cult classic is an exercise in educated guessing. Who knew when a film, a book, an album or a car came out whether or not it would have staying power, developing its own unique loyal following. "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac, "Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols," and any Ford Woody all seemingly came out of nowhere, becoming cult favorites after the fact.
As did the Golf GTI. It was June 1976, and Volkswagen had just launched the first series Golf GTI with the intention of building only 5,000--ever. But something happened and those 5,000 turned into more than 1.5 million GTIs over nearly 30 years and four generations. The GTI caught the imagination of automotive enthusiasts everywhere. Here was a relatively inexpensive, comparably powerful hatchback that handled like a higher-end sports car. The GTI has gone through several changes over the years, some good, some not-so-good and some downright awful. Still the GTI's followers remained loyal.
That loyalty is now about to be repaid--with interest. The fifth-generation Golf GTI is the most powerful iteration yet. True, the 2003 VR6 24V delivered 200 bhp as well, but power comes on earlier in the '05 model: at 5000 vs. 6000 rpm. And, the new GTI also boasts 206 lb-ft of torque from 1800 to 5500 rpm. In comparison, the VR6 had only 195 at 3200 rpm. The low-end grunt comes from a 2.0-liter turbocharged FSI with a high-compression ratio of 10.5:1. (It's the same 2.0t FSI that propels the new Audi A4.)
Power is transmitted to the front wheels by way of a six-speed manual transmission (standard) or the truly amazing six-speed DSG (optional). Why amazing? Fitted with the manual, the 2, 928-lb GTI reaches 62 mph in 7.2 sec. The DSG-equipped version does it in 6.9 sec. Yep, the automatic is faster than the manual.
This GTI is also the best handling. The front-wheel driver starts with the front suspension strut and rear multi-link axle setup from the fifth-gen Golf, lowers it 15mm and uses stronger stabilizers (they're 30% more rigid), which improves handling flexibility. In addition, the electro-mechanical servo steering has been reprogrammed with a GTI operating map. The result is tight, spot-on steering. The steering system also features a crosswind function that takes wind buffeting into account and "corrects" the steering to keep the car going straight on.
Running gear is comprised of 17-in. "Denver" alloy wheels wrapped in 225/45 rubber; 18-in. wheels are optional. Peaking out from behind the five-spokes are bright-red GTI calipers which grasp 312mm internally ventilated front discs and 286mm rear disks. The braking system incorporates a specific GTI-tuned ESP that never comes on too early or too intrusively. Think of it as a "just-in-time" correction system.
It's got the power, the handling and the most distinctive looks of all the GTIs ever built. Starting at the front, the new GTI's black honeycomb grille is outlined by a red frame strip, the integrated front spoiler repeats the honeycomb pattern as do the foglamp recesses. The darkened headlight frame (in light chrome with xenon lights) and the grille's GTI badge are also distinct to the model. At the rear, the roof-edge spoiler, the polished stainless-steel twin exhaust tips, the tucked in lower bumper and, of course, the badging denote this Golf's special status.On the inside, the sport seats come standard with traditional and oh-so-cool red, white and black plaid "Interlagos" covers. (For non-traditionalists, leather seats are optional.) The extremely supportive seats feature an integrated yet adjustable headrest, which is replete with the GTI logo. The three-spoke steering wheel is wrapped in perforated leather and sports an aluminum GTI badge. The gearshift knob is also aluminum, as are the decorative inserts, the gauge rings and the pedals. The gauges are unique to the GTI as well, with a tach that reaches 8000 rpm and a speedometer that extends to 300 km/h (Euro spec). One final GTI feature is the black headliner.
Standard equipment on the GTI includes dual-control Climatronic, an in-dash six CD premium sound system, a multifunction on-board computer display, auto-dimming interior mirror with light and rain sensors, front footwell lighting and a tire-pressure monitor. A DVD-based navigation system with the six-CD changer mounted in the glovebox is optional. Like all VW products, the GTI is fitted with a complete safety package, including the aforementioned ESP, crash-active front headrests and six airbags.
Unlike most European test drives, which are usually over in a few hours, the GTI's test drive lasted two full glorious days. We picked up the new cars in Wolfsburg and headed out toward Paris and the motor show by way of Koeln. Both days' drives involved a mix of autobahn/autoroute blasting and curvy country backroads. All the cars had six-speed manuals and the optional nav system.
We hit the autobahn first, sampling the 2.0 FSI's pulling power. Even with the added weight of a photographer in the back seat (where he said he had ample room at 6 ft plus), the GTI moved down the motorway at speeds that surprised many a BMW driver. And, thanks to said photographer's GPS unit, we were able to "prove" a top speed of just over 150 mph--the strong crosswinds prevented us from pushing it much further. Said crosswinds also gave us a chance to test the servo steering's correction function. That it works is an understatement. It felt very odd to have the car correct itself before I could even think about adjusting the steering. It actually became a game to see if I could beat the system; I lost every time.
Once off the autobahn and onto the country byways, the turbocharged 2.0's powerband proved its low-end worth. Third seemed the perfect gear for meeting the multiple twists and turns as we drove through one German village after another. The GTI's stiffened suspension setup is near perfect: not too harsh nor too soft. It wasn't until the second day (minus the extra weight, sorry Richard), that we were able to fully put the GTI's handling capabilities to the test. Past Koeln, before traversing across Luxemburg, we found a set of super twisty, relatively car-free roads that just begged for spirited driving. The GTI was a blast to drive, staying balanced and gripping the road with sticky-footedness that would have made a treefrog jealous.
It began to rain a bit later, but that didn't slow us down much--hey, we are automotive journalists and we had ESP. The re-tuned system really is just-in-time. One driver (a certain VW executive) discovered that ESP doesn't intrude until you're really desperate--as in "uh-oh, a tree!" When it does kick in, it works flawlessly, saving both tree and driver.
We covered more than 700 miles and spent at least 12 hours driving and never once wished we were in a different vehicle. The sport seats offered ample support, the nav system was easy to use (although it took a few tries to figure out how to turn up the nav audio as the manual was in German) and the stereo system was superb.
When my co-driver and I finally rolled into Paris, we were reluctant to give up the car, knowing we wouldn't see one again until next fall when the GTI is slated to reach U.S. shores (sold as a 2006 model, estimated MSRP: $23k). Maybe we could blow off the Paris show and drive around France for another day or two--or not. Everyone I talked to at the show the following day asked what I thought about the new GTI. I answered with two words: "It is."
"It is what?"
Now that I think about it, maybe you can predict a cult classic.