I tap the brake, downshift to second and throttle through rounding the Grand (formally Loews) hairpin with, if not the same precision of an F1 racecar, certainly with the goodness of its technology. Approaching the downhill stretch, which leads to Portier corner, I throttle up and again brake for the bend, looking for the correct turn-in point. As I correct for the straight, I take a moment and marvel at the mega-yacht-lined marina. My co-driver and course navigator says, "Step on it." I oblige and proceed to paddle shift through third and fourth with rapid abandon. Track conditions are perfect; it is mid-day, the sun is shining and suddenly everything goes dark as we motor through the tunnel. My co-driver cracks his window and smiles. "Listen to that," he says. It's the sound of VW's turbocharged 2.0-liter GTI at 6800 rpm echoing off the tunnel walls. Though pale in comparison to the ear-deafening scream of an F1 engine at 18,000 rpm, it's a wonderful sound nonetheless. The location? A breath taking section of Monte Carlo's famed Grand Prix circuit. My co-driver? None other than new VW of America boss Adrian Hallmark. We're on hand for the international launch of VW's fifth-generation GTi. Can a test drive possibly get any more challenging? Hardly. Can there be a better setting? Not a chance.
While we did make a partial lap on the historic course, most of our time was spent on equally carefully calculated, albeit less traveled roads throughout the Cte d'Azur.
As stated, the car features VW's already popular turbocharged 2.0-liter FSI direct injection powerplant with 200 bhp, 21 hp more than the outgoing 1.8T and on par with the 2.8-liter VR6 from the same departing model. Mash the throttle and those horses hit the road with loads of torque for hearty acceleration. For those die-hards who prefer rowing their own, a sporting six-speed manual comes standard. The car also gets an optional six-speed DSG automated manual with Tiptronic and Sport modes. This is the package we tested this time around, as we had already spent time in the manual several months prior.
I must admit, as much as I prefer a manual gearbox, especially for more sporting driving, the DSG quickly removes any feelings of lost love. In fact, the DSG not only improves the performance dynamics, it actually adds to the overall driving experience. Not just because of the race-inspired paddles, which are certainly fun, but for the super smooth gear changes. Upshifts transfer in a blink of an eye. Ditto for matched-rev downshifts. Conveniently, it also allows you to drop into either full automatic or Sport mode. It's a marvelous package and well worth the $900 or so investment. VW predicts half of all GTI customers will request the option. They'll be happy to know their car will also come equipped with a nice dead pedal so their clutch foot doesn't get lonely.
Initially introduced State-side in 1983, the GTI was received with great enthusiasm. Not long after, it was credited as the first affordable "pocket rocket," which later helped usher in a new segment of hot hatches. In those days, a feisty 90-bhp, 1.8-liter fuel-injected motor powered the car. The first GTI also sported blackout trim with red accents and sport seats.Similar blackout treatment with red accents has returned on the latest offering. So has the exuberant driving experience thanks to a fully independent, sport-tuned suspension, a first for the GTI. The car will sit 0.4-inches higher (same as the Golf V) than its European counterpart due to U.S. 5-mph bumper restrictions. This unfortunately leaves a larger fender gap than we'd like, even with the optional 18-inch BBS alloys. A little aftermarket tweaking will easily remedy this for those who prefer a more hunkered-down look. As far as the ride, however, I couldn't imagine a better balanced setup. It's not overly rough, nor too soft. It's certainly more poised for performance, but not at the sacrifice of comfort. This is a car you can drive every day and never grow tired or dread imperfect road surfaces.
As with all VW models from the past few years, the interior layout and design are more strong points. When positioned behind the flat-bottom, ergonomically contoured three-spoke leather steering wheel-which I may add is quite possibly the best steering wheel I've ever held-you feel as if you're sitting in a car postioned at a much higher price point. All of the controls and surfaces from the dash down to the center console and along the door panels look and feel well engineered. Even the shiny bits are real aluminum, not a cheap synthetic. The comfortable and well-bolstered seats further refine the cockpit and driver experience. Standard seats come upholstered with cloth, including a retro-inspired plaid color scheme, or they can be trimmed in subtle leather as an option.
Also standard on the two-door GTI is VW's "Easy Entry System," which allows rear occupants more entry space when the front seats are recessed. I say two-door because for the first time Volkswagen will also offer a four-door version, which is scheduled to hit dealer showrooms in August.In regard to its spirited performance, a slew of technological and safety features as well as refined creature comforts, there's no question this is the best GTI to date. Some still question the car's not-so-German exterior styling, but it's agreeable to most.
I'll take mine in black, thank you.
Sitting Shotgun with VW Boss Adrian Hallmark
Interview by Robert Hallstrom
During the international launch of the fifth generation GTI, I had the pleasure of having Adrian Hallmark as my co-driver. We met a week prior at SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) where he was announced as the new executive vice president of Volkswagen of America. It was his first day on the job. Exactly one week later we're traversing the narrow and winding streets along the scenic French Riviera.
Mr. Hallmark carries a distinctive suaveness about him. Speaking with a distinguished British accent, his confidence is calming, an example of his relaxed and insightful demeanor.
He spoke of his fondness for VWs and his vision to help reinvigorate the fabled brand.
ec: Sema 2005 marked a number of firsts for Volkswagen. In addition to the unveiling of its twin-turbocharged Project R GT concept cars, it was the first time the company had an official presence at the show. It's a first for any German automaker, for that matter. It was also your first official day on the job. What was your overall impression?
AH: My first day was a surprise and left a far better impression than I dared to imagine. It was a great experience really. I hadn't yet seen the R GT cars in person and was initially worried how they would come across. The response was fantastic and we're quite pleased.
ec: There are rumors of an R series à la BMW's M line for the Jetta, Passat and other models in the future. Will we see an R GT-inspired car on the showroom floor?
AH: We are looking at what we can do to create limited edition niche models, perhaps not as extreme as the concept cars, but more than we currently offer. It's certainly exciting to think about. Beyond that, the accessory line will continue to evolve, beginning with exterior trim components.
ec: With the success of the R32, it's unfortunate we won't get it with the Golf V. Can we expect an R36 in its place?
AH: We would like to and it's something that's being discussed.
ec: In the past few years, Volkswagen has diversified into new market segments, including moving more upscale. There is now a wide price disparity between the entry level New Beetle and the flagship Phaeton. Has VW targeted the best market segments for the company?
AH: In terms of product and market segments, it's important to expand and evolve both vertically and horizontally. The Beetle is our current entry-level model and it's been a great icon for the brand, but there's actually a very large market just below it. We need another people's car. Something well below $15,000. This said, we've got two or three different alternatives, which would create a new entry point for the brand.
ec: Conversely, sales of the Phaeton have been slow. Can Volkswagen change the way people think about spending $75,000 or more for a VW?
AH: I believe that Volkswagen as a brand doesn't just mean an affordable car. It means quality German engineering, good solid styling and a real driver's experience. And that can apply at whatever price point. VW is not a zero emotion brand. It engenders something special and this is true throughout its entire model range. We may not have the current customer base that readily associates with the idea of paying a premium price for a VW. What we found, though, is when you look at the more than 3,000 unit sales the Phaeton has made, the level of customer satisfaction is extremely high. Their loyalty is incredible. And they love the product. So from my point of view, no one ever expected that we would launch the Phaeton and have an instant segment buster. It's going to take two or three model generations before we can be an equal or dominant player in the top end marketplace and we're comfortable with that.
ec: The GTI is now in its fifth generation and it embodies some of the best qualities of past GTIs, especially in performance. What's your take on the car?
AH: I love the GTI. I drove one for several months while on the board at Bentley. It makes me feel ten years younger. Takes me back to the mid eighties. But then I've always owned VWs both new and old, including three GTIs and this latest generation has really restored my faith. This is the first GTI in many years that has anywhere near that level of excitement I remember. It's a good solid, fun car to drive. In effect, it's gone back to its roots. It's also got a wonderful presence. If you pull up anywhere in a GTI nobody would think you're in a cheap ordinary car. And that's what's great about Volkswagen. It's not the premium luxury brand, but it's got this level of acceptability and respect that's part of the brand image.
ec: What are your primary goals for the company moving forward?
AH: To renew confidence and trust in the brand. It's no secret Volkswagen has great brand awareness, but we have weaknesses in the customer's consideration of the brand. Our goal is to develop products that specifically meet the price, size and feature needs of the North American consumer while maintaining the VW brand values. We will also be working hard at providing a better level of support for our dealers and helping to keep the distribution system well represented, structurally, visually and physically with the best possible products and service. In the end, we want the customer to drive away with a better overall dealer experience than they had prior or ever imagined.
ec: You were with Bentley for several years and Porsche before that. Why VW?
AH: VW owners are a passionate bunch. They really feel ownership of the brand and they care what happens to it. If that weren't the case, I would have some real concerns. We have something worth fighting for. And for me, I'm not selling VWs just because I like cars. It's about the brand. And I could only work for a brand that I really felt had something to offer, a brand that I can feel passionate about.