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.