SEMA, 2005: The baritone roar of 1000 horsepower reverberated throughout the hall, and the sweet stink of combusted race gas permeated the atmosphere. Surprisingly, this automotive sturm und drang came from a pair of Volkswagens, unlikely platforms, it would seem, for such unbridled exhibitions of ultra-high performance.
But it was VW's first official appearance at the world's most important showcase of aftermarket parts and accessories, and the company was determined to make a memorable impression. To showcase the potential contained within its production car technology, Volkswagen of America designed a truly astounding trio of ultra-high-performance project vehicles, dubbed Project R GT, and they turned the heads and opened the eyes of industry insiders with their skillful blends of style and performance. Combining the artistry of VW's California design studio under the direction of Derek Jenkins, a mix of VW's best passenger vehicle technology and the aftermarket wizardry of HPA Motorsports, the three project vehicles--Jetta R GT, Passat R GT
Do they indicate a sincere step in an exciting new direction? Will we see a Passat 3.6 4MOTION DSG in America? Will the Jetta be offered with 4MOTION? How about an R36? Where do the twin turbos fit in? When can you buy a Touareg fitted with 21-inch wheels like you can in Europe?
Those questions and more remain to be answered. But we're heartened to see that VW is seriously studying the American market, and its hardcore enthusiasts, like never before. And we're thrilled to see VW preparing an offensive of new products that will, we believe, re-ignite the love affair that began with the GTI. There have been rough patches through the ensuing years, but VW's upcoming vehicles, new leadership and renewed respect for our peculiarly American motoring needs all point to a very exciting future. If product planning were up to us, of course, we'd see the R GTs and more in VW's American showrooms, and soon. For now, though, let's be content to savor the brilliant concept and execution of the Project R GT vehicles, but let's also congratulate Volkswagen for remembering and honoring the long association with U.S. driving enthusiasts that began with the GTI in 1983. May it thrive into the future.
Thirty-five years ago, a little magazine called VW Greats covered the burgeoning aircooled Volkswagen scene. The name was later changed to VW & Porsche and finally european car. Obviously our roots with VW are deep. We consider VW family and have a sort of "unconditional but tough love" towards them. Like the VW enthusiasts, we have stuck by Volkswagen for better or worse, in sickness and in health and when their cars were good and not-so-good. That Volkswagen is recognizing its fans is a good thing. That they have come to SEMA packing heat is even better. It's our fervent hope that this is the start of a new era, a time when VW cars will once again symbolize the quintessential European hot rod. If you can't already tell, we're excited. Bearing that in mind, we were very concerned driving these cars. If something happened before their big debut, well, it would really suck. Therefore, if my diving impressions seem somewhat topical, it's because I drove gently, occasionally prodding the mid-to-upper limits, but it was mostly quite sane. The bummer is these cars were built to be hammered--we'll wait till after the show for that. We managed to get into all three cars, squeezing our time between shooting photos, talking with the designers and wrangling a cantankerous Madagascar scorpion (long story, don't ask).
The first thing you'll notice about this trio is their distinctive sound. It's akin to a sustained, rolling growl, much lower than a standard VR6. Select first gear, roll off the line and the fun starts before 2300 rpm. If you equate "fun" with all hell breaking loose, this is your setup. Boost builds so rapidly it's easy to ping off the rev limiter in the first three gears. And unlike many aftermarket force-fed engines, the power is linear and unrelenting. If there's a curve in the powerband, we could not feel it. We've been fans of the HGP twin-turbo systems since HPA brought one across the pond nearly two years ago. We'd always believed if VW was to do the same, this is the way it would be. According to Group Product Strategy Director Stephan Liske, Dr. Bernhard (Volkswagen Brand Group Chief) was curious as to how the R32 would handle such newfound power. Obviously reliability and drivability were major concerns.
"Dr. Bernhard and I took a twin turbo R32 out for a quick spin," Liske recalled."I figured we'd be back in 10-20 minutes at best. About four hours later, Dr. Bernhard was still at it. He was having a really good time. I don't think he wanted to go back to the office." Told ya it was good.
We'd like to think that Dr. Bernhard's enthusiasm is indicative of where the company is heading (or at least a direction). When people who love to drive start calling the shots, good things tend to happen."We get so caught up with just selling cars that we forget to have fun with them," Liske said. "This whole project has been about enjoying what we build to the fullest. Yes, it's been challenging, but the entire team likes playing with cars, driving them hard. I think our hearts are in the right place."
Anyway, back to the drive. When we describe a car as "ripping through the gears" it's more of a figure of speech. However, in this case, these Volkswagens do indeed rip. Again, it's the sound that is so unusual, something akin to tearing a bolt of high-octane canvas (if there was such a thing). And carve this into memory: DSG is good. DSG is great. I will get the DSG transmission in my next car. We've said it before and we will say it again: DSG is better than a manually shifted gearbox. You will be faster, smoother and more focused on the task at hand. Moreover, downshifts are punctuated by a pronounced "blaaaaat." That alone is worth at least half the admission price.
Our test track was Horse Thief Mile, a serpentine stretch of pavement above the big track at Willow Springs in Rosamond, Calif. The course was supposed to emulate a typical Euro-style road course, something like Nordschleife. However, its elevation changes and challenging corners were deemed too dangerous for public use, hence, it's sat there unused for several years. Parts of the track had been washed out while others were coated with a fine layer of silt. Luckily, these VWs were equipped with 4MOTION drivelines, a system built specifically for this kind of environment. Although I was prepared for an Audi-like experience, these cars have a more visceral feel, more raw if you will. And unlike a standard R32, the propensity to oversteer seem greatly reduced. No, I did not throw these bad boys slideways at 100 mph but I've driven enough cars to quickly shakedown their character. Ultimately, these Volkswagens offered a singular driving experience, a mixture of both the best front-hookers and the vaunted Sport Quattro of yore.
HPA's association with KW Suspension yielded underpinnings some 35%-40% firmer than the factory rates. Cornering on the Passat and Jetta is flat and precise and allows you to carry intense speeds. My approach was "fast in, apply brakes, slide a bit and power out." Not exactly the ideal method but given the huge power on tap, I looked like a star.
The Touareg required a different take as its weight came into play. Forty-two hundred pounds approaching a 90-degree corner at 80 mph caused some concern. I pretty much hit the binders full-tilt, made a complete stop, turned and gunned it. The brakes are impressive as the engine--both offer huge returns and are above mere mortals. Walter Rohrl needs to drive this car. He would know what to do. I'd bring four friends and take notes while they played the PSPs and scrolled through the integrated iPods.
Although each made car made more than 400 bhp, the designers paid attention to unsprung weight.
"We contracted AVUS to build these forged wheels," said Abeng Halim, a senior VW designer. "They went from blanks to what you see now in less than three weeks. I'd like to put a set on my Eurovan."
As it turns out, Halim is a fellow Eurovan owner, and like me he fitted his car with larger wheels and performance rubber. Abeng went with 20s... what a wildman. Apparently, Eurovan owners are a fairly tight-knit group. During a recent VW-sponsored consumer clinic, 20 people were thrown into a room, all of them unaware of who the others were. The term "Eurovan" came up and bonds were instantly forged."These folks had no idea who the other people were and yet they had this unusual but strong bond. We find that interesting," Halim said.
As stated above, Volkswagen is something like family to us. Apparently we're not the only ones who feel this way. Let us hope the family album grows more exciting in the coming years.