The term "pocket rocket" was originally coined to describe the VW GTI. When it first appeared, the GTI was little more than a Rabbit with bigger tires, special paint, an 85 horsepower engine and a set of Recaro-like seats. But it was enough to spark a revolution in the car industry that soon spawned dozens of imitators. As the popularity of the hot hatchback grew, the GTI became more powerful, with better handling and more creature comforts intended to appease the mainstream masses flooding VW showrooms. Today's GTI holds true to the original formula; it is still a two door hatchback with a high performance attitude, special sport seats, custom wheels and is a heap o' fun to drive.
To get a good idea of how the GTI rides and handles depends greatly on whom you talk to. In the past, hardcore enthusiasts complained that the GTI's ride had become too soft and that it's handling was suffering as a result. Volkswagen clearly listened seriously to the GTI's core audience and firmed up the springs and shocks on this latest version. Those who want an even firmer ride and a lowered look can now opt for a special sport spring made by Eibach; the springs can be ordered and installed by the dealer. Along with the stiffer springs, better shocks and larger anti roll bars, the GTI has been given an enormous set of wheels and tires to help it stay put; 16-inch on the 1.8T and 17's for the VR6.
The GTI's standard engine is the award-winning 1.8-liter turbo, known affectionately as the 1.8T. This magnificent power plant is as smooth as silk when running, fast as lightening when pushed hard and as frugal with fuel as a miser with his money. From the start, you'll experience only a momentary lag as the car takes-off in first gear. Once the tach needle enters the 2000-rpm zone, lack of power ceases to be an issue, even as you are approaching redline. Because the lightweight 1.8T does not weigh down the front end of the car, the GTI has excellent front to rear balance making it oh so much fun to toss around. The GTI will not corner like a Mini Cooper, but on the other hand it won't punish your kidneys after hours of driving either. Power is transferred to the ground via the car's front wheels and is managed by a host of electronic monitors that include traction control, an anti-slip regulator and electronic differential lock: an optional Electronic Stabilization Program (ESP) can be ordered to further help control the vehicle in emergency situations.
If the 1.8T does not stir your soul, perhaps the powerful VR6 model will. Fresh from an upgrade that increases the number of valves per cylinder from two to four (this helps the engine breathe better, thus producing more power), the VR6 may only have 20 more horses than the 1.8T, but it produces significantly more torque. Torque is what allows the VR6 to best the 1.8T when it comes to passing and all-out top speed, though in truth it is not by much. Yes the VR6 is powerful, but some may find it a bit thirsty at the pump, a trade off that makes the 1.8T seem all the more attractive. There is one other major difference between the two models: the transmission. The base GTI comes standard with a 5-speed manual that is not as tight as it should be, with long throws and too much play in between gears. The VR6, on the other hand, has a wonderfully tight 6-speed manual borrowed from the Audi division; this transmission shifts much quicker than the 5-speed and feels much more in line with the GTI's sporting image. Both cars can be equipped with VW's optional Tiptronic automatic transmission that allows you to manually select gears without the use of a clutch pedal.
If performance were all the GTI needed to succeed, it would have little to worry about. But this is a tough segment, filled with innovation and cutting edge technology; for this reason VW has seen fit to give their little motion machine an interior second to none. Look inside and you'll find a beautifully finished interior made of the highest quality materials, soft touch plastics and of course VW's trademark Cornflower Blue dash lighting. You'll also find a really great set of height-adjustable sport seats with lumbar support for both the driver and the passenger; VR6 models get power seats with memory. The list of creature comforts and safety enhancements is as long as it is impressive. All GTI models come standard with front side-impact airbags, a side head-airbag curtain, air conditioning, one-touch up/down power windows, remote keyless illuminated entry, tilt/telescopic steering wheel, speed control, heated power outside mirrors, trip computer, AM/FM/CD with cassette and 8 speakers, anti-lock brakes, leather-wrapped sport steering wheel and shift knob and a set of 16-inch alloy wheels surrounded by performance rubber.
A bonus for 2003 buyers is this year's limited edition 20th anniversary GTI that features custom sport seats with red stitching, an all-new 6-speed manual transmission, 18-inch wheels, special body cladding and side moldings and a golf ball shift knob just like the first GTI's had. Color options will be limited to three: Imola Yellow, Jazz Blue and Black Magic Pearl.