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.

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