In most sports, you'll find three stratified levels of participants. There's the average guy that goes out and messes around at family picnics. He knows just enough about a game to teach his kids and if it weren't for a size advantage and ever evolving rule set, he'd probably lose miserably to the kids every time. Next is the weekend warrior, the guy who plays in an adult league on Saturday and limps into work Monday with stories about how he put the smackdown on some legally blind, 120-pound accountant. Then there's the professional, the guy that makes a living playing his sport. He devotes his life to it; it consumes his being and focus.

II Performance Strata
It doesn't matter what sport we're talking about, whether it's darts, football or auto racing. These strata also exist in the tuning hobby. You have the basic bolt-on guy who wants things a little quicker and sharper, but really isn't willing to sacrifice his warranty or his entire income in the name of performance. The next step is the guy with more money, patience and consequently speed. Maybe some cutting or welding is necessary; he'll even install components that aren't easily reversed. The warranty is a moot point, but he'll only buy good, proven stuff. Some sacrifices can be made for performance, but there are still limits. The top-level enthusiast is willing to go all out-one-off parts, custom fabrication, doing things no one else has done before. If it blows up, he'll rebuild it stronger than the last time.

These three GTIs represent all three levels. The black car, owned by Jordan Martin, has your basic bolt-on parts along with some rare O.E. European cosmetic parts, but nothing too dangerous. The white four-door is owned by ec's own Anthony Gelinas. An off-the-shelf big turbo kit, cockpit-adjustable coilovers and an aerodynamics package take his GTI to the next level. Last, we have the monster GTI originally built by VF Engineering and taken to Frankenstein levels by Jarod Legsdin and the team at GIAC. With a custom big turbo, near-race suspension, a lightened interior and bolt-on fender flares, it's not understated, but may well be the all-around fastest front-wheel-drive car we've seen.

On the road, the varying levels of performance become clear.

Martin's black GTI uses revised software, and a less restrictive intake and exhaust that add a few more horses and allow the turbo to spin constantly. Sport springs give flatter, more predictable cornering, and Koni FSD multi-rate dampers allow for quick movements to absorb bumps while tightening up to slow body movement from acceleration forces. These are a great compromise for enthusiasts looking for stock levels of comfort and upgraded performance. The uprated suspension really helps the car use the entire width of the ultra-low-profile Falken tires. Instead of picking the inside edges up off the road, it keeps the contact patches flat.

Gelinas' VF RSS car attains the next level. Its Patac coilovers includes a race setting, which with stiffer sway bars just about eliminates body roll and keeps dive and squat to a minimum. They're a big step up in cost, but allow the driver to select damping rates instantly, as well as set ride height and corner balance the car. Handling is more precise; turn in and the car seems to settle into notches in the road. Roll on the throttle and the GT28RS spools without hesitation. Coming out of tight second-gear turns, wheelspin can cause the car to push wide on exit. Nothing that can't be dealt with via throttle modulation and careful steering inputs, but a limited-slip diff would go along way in dealing with the problem all-together. The car's big brake kit really comes into its own in canyon sections with tight corners connected by short straights. Repeated stomps are met with constant stopping power. The stiffer calipers give a more confidence-inspiring pedal. Even after a hard day of driving, nothing on the car seemed tired and the drive home was comfortable with just a turn of the knob to adjust the suspension back to the "autobahn" setting.

Legsdin's big-turbo car is almost out of its element in a canyon. It wants more space to open up and run. With a massive turbo that doesn't like spinning below 4500 rpm, it takes skill to keep it in boost. Get it wrong and you'll wait until a sudden surge of power pummels the front tires on corner exits. Get it right and it pulls out of the corner like a rally car on crack. Forget everything you know about modern turbo cars; this one has lag, and plenty of it. Flooring the throttle at 2000 rpm gives you time to pick up your drink, have a sip and put it back before the power comes on. But once it does, you better have your Slurpee secure because all hell breaks loose. This car is equipped with a limited-slip differential and takes full advantage of it clawing at the road with both front tires. The powerband is wide enough that you don't lose boost between gears, so velocity is delivered with urgency into easy triple-digit speeds. The bigger turbo produces roughly 30 psi, so it was necessary to lower compression, meaning less power off boost which just heightens the sense of lag. This engine might be tough to live with on a daily basis, but as a track toy, it's hard to beat.

Likewise, cornering is go-cart flat. Front camber plates allow the geometry to be dialed into a more aggressive setup. The extra camber may not be great for a straight-line contact patch, but it adds extra grip in cornering. The car will move around a little bit on bumpy surfaces and you have to fight it to keep it going in the intended direction. The tires have an amazing amount of grip, and once planted in a turn the g-forces are almost painful.

While the suspension is simply awesome on a track or in the canyon, it isn't ideal for the street. The spring and damping rates can make for a rough ride. The tires are great on dry roads, but a motorist spitting out the window in front of you could send you backwards into a guardrail. And just about everything on the car is custom, the entire charge cooler system for example. The software is also customized for this turbo, while a whole host of other parts were needed to be made to bring the beast together. You might daydream about ordering all the parts and bolting them up on a Saturday afternoon, but a car like this really takes a whole shop to build.

In the end, modification is all about individuality. While you may not be willing to go all-out on a big turbo kit or race suspension, simple bolt-ons can give you the performance you're after. Figure out what you want your car to do and be honest about how you're going to use it.

Gearing Up

Components Jordan Martin Anthony Gelinas Jarod Legsdin
Revo stage II flash, Eurojet
downpipe, Greddy cat-back
exhaust, Eurojet PCV fix,
Eurosport Intake
VF RSS big turbo kit with
Garrett GT28RS turbo, VF intercooler,
Milltek Turbo Exhaust
VF RSR big turbo kit with Garrett
GT35/76R turbo, custom water to
air charge cooler, Pauter Rods, JE
Forged Pistons, Del Rio Cylinder
head with custom exhaust cam,
Tial 38mm external wastegate,
GIAC/VF Proprietary injectors,
custom turbo-back exhaust
Transmission Stock DSG Stock DSG 6 speed manual, Peliquin
planetary LSD, VF short shift kit
Suspension Eibach Pro-Kit springs and
Koni FSD shocks and struts
Patac cockpit adjustable coilovers,
Neuspeed sway bars and billet
end links
AST 7-setting, two way adjustable
threaded body coil-overs,
Eibach sway bars
Brakes Stock VW JBT front big brake kit, Neuspeed
brake lines and factory rear brakes
Alcon 4 Piston street sport
brakes(f), stock(r)
Wheels and Tires VMR VB3 19x8.5 Falken ST115 225/35 Volk Racing CE28N, 19x8
Vredestein Ultrac Sessanta 225/35
Volk Racing RE-30, 18x9,
Toyo RA-1 245/40
Exterior European Market OE Golf GT Grills, smoked tail lights and rear
wiper delete
Seibon carbon fiber hood, Oettinger
body kit incl: front bumper and grill,
side skirts, rear valence
Caracter body kit, DTM Auto Haus
carbon fiber hood, custom
fender flares

Factory Tooling
Who better to tune a car than the guys who built it?
*There's something in human nature that helps us deal with aging: nostalgia. I'm continually telling younger guys that they missed the glory days of the Mk II GTI and everything that Volkswagen was about back then. It goes like this: When I was in high school we had great Volkswagens. Cars that were easy to tune, cars that, while good from the factory, could be made truly incredible with a few choice modifications.

Then VW came along and slapped me back to reality. The company recently invited me to AutoClub Speedway in Fontana, Calif., where, I was told, there would be a couple of surprises. Those surprises were what you see here, and I wasn't disappointed. If pounding around the road coarse and the autocross for a day wasn't enough, the cars came to the office for a week to really drive the message home: VW is serious about performance and knows what its customers want.

The GTI is lovingly referred to as "Red Racer." Aside from great suspension, brakes and increased power, it's truly defined by how it delivers that power to the ground. In between the engine and the road is a DSG transmission equipped with a VW Motorsports U.K. limited-slip differential. If you've never driven a car with a true mechanical limited-slip, you're missing out. Being able to put down power with both wheels at the same time may seem a necessity, but only cars with the highest sporting intentions come so-equipped from the factory. An LSD changes the dynamics of the car in ways suspension tuning alone can't touch. Most manufacturers feel that electronic limited-slips are enough, but these are basically nothing more than glorified traction-control systems.

The added motive force won't make a complete car, however. The standard suspension on the GTI is good, but when it came to deciding between mainstream "sporty" and racetrack precision, VW decided mass-market appeal was best. Usually we tend to agree with this for a corporate strategy, but we know enthusiasts like us want more. A set of threaded body coilovers that are both compression and rebound damping adjustable were installed on Racer along with adjustable camber plates. This set-up allows different geometry and damping settings to be tested, but also equates to a car that lives up to its reputation in handling. All the suspension bushings are either solid spherical pieces or polyurethane. The really interesting thing is that VW techs were able to shim the lower subframe forward slightly to gain a little bit of needed caster. This is also something that should be possible for any weekend mechanic with a Mk V.

The brakes were taken straight off an R32. They're maybe not as sexy as aftermarket big brake kits, but certainly as effective. We worked them all day on the track and couldn't get them to give up. They even used factory pads, but we may have opted for aftermarket pads if for no other reason than to cut down on brake dust. The Charleston wheels are O.E. VW as well, available from your local parts department. These were painted black to add a purposeful look.

The engine was augmented with new software and a cat-back exhaust. APR components were used as off-the-shelf alternatives to in-house fabrication, maybe VW just wants to see how this stuff holds up. We'd estimate the car is running just north of 250 hp while maintaining factory driveability and reliability. It pulls hard and will still spin both front tires in first, but second gear is all bite, even out of tight corners.

The combination of all the parts makes for a pretty amazing drive. The car's character really isn't that much different from a regular GTI, but more serious about its actions. The ride is definitely stiffer and not as comfortable, but nothing out of the ordinary for most enthusiasts. This loss of comfort is traded for touring car-like cornering. The better part of the stock body roll is gone and on turn-in the car settles onto the tires nicely with slight weight transfer to the outside wheels without the lifting the insides as on a stock car. Even with the stiff suspension, balancing the car on throttle is still very possible. Lifting results in a nice tuck-in and if combined with a little extra steering flick you can get the car to rotate. Coming out of turns, the LSD really pulls the car on line and keeps it there. On rougher surfaces the car tends to bounce a little, especially when loaded up, but it never upsets the balance.

During braking, dive is reduced, but the fronts are still doing the majority of the work. Initial bite is good and modulation feels great. For even the stickiest street tires the R32 brakes have more than enough stopping power and allow the driver to go deep in fast while easing off while turning in.

When we had the car on the street it was still set up for the track. If it was our daily driver we probably would raise it up a half to three quarters of an inch, but then again we have a parking garage with speed bumps affectionately known as Everest and K2. Otherwise, the car is completely livable. Maybe not to the point that it should be on every GTI sold, but as a limited-run car it could really work.

Mk V Jetta GLI
Of all the Mk Vs we've seen since its launch in 2006, this is by far the best looking and best handling. It's essentially a TDI Cup Car clone without the TDI engine. This includes the TDI Cup front bumper, which changes the entire look. Side skirts, a rear valance and a rear lip spoiler round out the aesthetics. We're sure that these parts will fly out of VW parts departments like grilled bratwurst during Oktoberfest.

The suspension set-up on the clone car is even more serious than the GTI's. It's almost punishing on the street, but on the track, its natural home, it's amazing. Dampers are custom units from Sachs, the springs are from Eibach, and it was all set up by VW race engineers. The only off-the-shelf parts are the H&R sway bars. With the stiffness of the springs and damping rates, we aren't really sure just exactly how much they're getting out off the sway bars, but since they are adjustable, they allow for fine-tuning of the car's balance. Like the Red Racer, this car also uses adjustable strut tower mounts to dial in static camber, and the geometry is held constant with spherical bearings all around.

Whoever did the brakes must be the kinds of guys that fish with dynamite; overkill just isn't in their vocabulary. The front brakes are straight off the mighty Audi R8. The giant assemblies required Passat front spindles and custom mounting brackets to fit the eight-piston calipers. Audi did as much as possible to decrease the 15-inch rotors' mass, but on street tires it's tough to justify the extra weight. We never experienced the slightest fade, but we'd stick to the R32 brakes if it were ours.

The engine is tuned to same level as the GTI, APR software and exhaust. The biggest difference in the drivetrain besides being a manual in the Jetta, is the lack of the differential. When we tested, the diff was still back at headquarters waiting to be installed. This demonstrated the difference between an LSD and an open diff. Coming off corners saw tire spin and the car wasn't nearly as ferocious at chasing apexes. We found ourselves turning in later and trying to straighten out exits to use the fronts more for forward thrust than lateral g-forces.

On-track the suspension showed flat cornering and no dive or squat. You imagine yourself Hans Stuck banging fenders with a Mercedes DTM car. The car is neutral at the apex, but gets a little understeer going when boost comes on. Going into the corner, the brakes are insane, while the street tires struggle to get even half of the potential stopping power to the ground. Modulation is still good and they are surprisingly easy to use on the street, but again, they really are overkill.

Divining The Future
Driving both of these cars reaffirmed our belief that Volkswagen is back on track, but it's hard to know what to make of the projects exactly. Are they test beds for future performance parts? Are they testing ideas for the next-generation GTI and GLI, or maybe even R-line vehicles? We don't know and VW isn't saying, but it's encouraging that they exist nonetheless. Who wouldn't like to see a full line of factory-warranted performance products available at your dealer, or even available to purchase on brand-new cars? That would be something we didn't even have back in the Mk II golden age.

2008 GTI "Red Racer"
Tansverse front engine, front-wheel drive

2.0-liter inline four, dohc, 16-valve, turbocharged and intercooled.APR stage-II software, cat-back exhaust

Six-speed DSG, VW Motorsports U.K. clutch-type limited slip differential

VW Motorsports U.K. coilovers

OEM Mk V R32 assemblies

*Wheels And Tires
VW Individual Charleston, 8x18Continental Sport Contacts, 225/40

2008 Jetta GLI
Tansverse front engine, front-wheel drive

2.0-liter inline four, dohc, 16-valve, turbocharged, intercooled.APR stage-II software, cat-back exhaust

Six-speed manual

VW Motorsports U.K.-tuned Sachs dampers, Eibach springs

Audi R8 eight-piston calipers, 15-inch steel rotors (f), single-piston calipers, 10-inch rotors (r)

*Wheels and Tires
Ronal alloys, 8x18
Bridgestone RE-01R, 225/40

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