As we entered the next of the countless hairpin corners we tackled that morning, my passenger questioned the ability of the brakes. With a sheer rock face on one side and an unprotected fall on the other, he was understandably anxious.
If I'm honest, the pedal had been feeling a little "wooden" for the past few hairpins, but this was the Col de Vence - possibly the best road in southern France and previously a stage of the Monte Carlo Rally.
We'd been pounding the tortuous mountain route for ten miles or so and the brakes were starting to feel the pain. Although the pedal remained firm, stopping distances were increasing but I told myself everything was fine. I didn't want the adventure to stop. So while I continued to leave the braking as late as possible, I found myself over-shooting the entry point and messing up the apex. It was time to cool off and take a breath. I didn't want to be labeled as the first to total the new Mk6 Golf GTI or be the assassin of Vortex's Jamie Vondrunksta alongside me.
We pulled into a secluded spot under some trees and the brake pads instantaneously erupted in billowing clouds of smoke in protest at the abuse. Having driven the wheels off the new GTI on one of the most challenging roads in Europe, it was possible to assess what just happened. It remains the best all-round hot hatch on the market. Driven harder than perhaps sanity should permit, I couldn't imagine anything would pull out much of a lead over this VW. Perhaps a 911 Turbo or a Mitsubishi Evo might claw out a few tenths on corner exit speed, but the GTI would lose nothing in braking stability or corner speed.
We had used exactly the same road for our first drive of the Mk5 GTI (et 2/06), and the Mk6 lacked none of its ability. In fact, with its new XDS electronic diff and updated ESP, the new car was possibly even better!
Driving at triple-digit speeds, we found amazing steering precision. Exiting corners with the traction control on, you got satisfying wheelspin as full power was applied, whereas the old system would cut the ignition as power was robbed to restore traction. This new system was far more natural and significantly quicker across country.
In addition, VW unveiled its new XDS electronic diagonal differential lock on the GTI. It detects when the inside wheel is unloaded in a turn, applying slight brake pressure to restore traction and reduce understeer. The system ensured the GTI was remarkably neutral at all road speeds.
Another revolution in the GTI's arsenal is the DCC electronic damper control. It gives the ability to select sport, normal or auto modes. Each setting makes small but crucial alterations to the damping force, producing neither wallow at low speed nor a jarring ride at high speed. It was the perfect addition to the grown-up GTI but is currently unlikely to make it stateside because of the financial burden it will impose on the bottom line.
Other equipment US owners won't be getting includes Climatronic, self-dimming mirror, park distance, headlamp washers, etc. This is to keep our base price low and because VW of America has seen that few buyers choose to fully-load their GTI. But don't fret. When the Mk6 hits US showrooms in 10/09, it will take up from where the Mk5 left off. In fact, it shares many of the same components, such as its roof and glass. You can look at it from two angles: glass half-empty - it's simply a facelift; or glass half-full - it's addressed some of the Mk5's weak points and reformatted it in an attractive, dynamic package. We're in the "half-full" camp and definitely see the Mk6 as a positive step forward.
With its semblance of a two-slat grille and twin headlamps, the designers were clearly trying to echo the original GTI, even wheeling out a 100,000 mile Mk1 GTI for us to drive, which did little more than remind us how far technology had come in the last 30 years!
The new family face is shared with the latest Scirocco our European counterparts are enjoying, while the front bumper is remarkably close to the twin-turbo W12 GTI 650 concept we saw in et 8/07.
At the rear, the GTI gets R32-style twin tailpipes and less offensive light clusters. The side of the car also loses its side rubbing strips and gets cleaner door handles.
However, we don't get the additional 10hp boasted by European versions. Our cars will retain the ample 200hp of the Mk5's 2.0TSI and we doubt few will notice the difference. And those who do, know how to get significantly more with software upgrades.
The new cabin is a welcome improvement over the outgoing model. The steering wheel looks considerably better and the main instruments house auxiliary dials within their faces. However, the biggest advance is the adoption of the latest touchscreen nav unit that's so much simpler to operate and allows music to be downloaded to its hard-drive or played through aux inputs.
More good news is that the Interlagos cloth trim remains, in a slightly updated form. And we're told it will be available on the seat centers in combination with leather outers to create a special ambience.
Volkswagen has also put effort into making the GTI feel more refined, giving it thicker glass, better door seals and more insulation. Along with aero-acoustically optimised exterior mirrors, wind noise has been reduced by 3dB(A) at 75mph, it's also 3dB quieter at idle, and the engine is 5dB quieter.
These new measures have ensured the Mk6 Golf GTI remains at the top of the pile, king of its castle. It's still incredibly satisfying to drive and should be just as affordable to own when prices are announced later in the year. What's more, there's already talk of high-performance derivatives, with perhaps the costly R36 being overlooked for a more nimble 260hp AWD Golf 2.0T for the US. And provided manual transmissions are made available, this exciting car should set pulses racing with its potential for 400hp and optimum traction.