Saturday, November 19, 2011

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Remember how the Rabbit Cup cars of the early '80s would lift an inside rear wheel in tight corners? How the first imported '83 Volkswagen GTIs would dance around that tight road course in the commercials set to "Kleine GTI," the German version of the Ronnie and the Daytonas song? Sure, the original Rabbit GTI's live rear axle is long gone. Still, there's something in the character of the GTI that suggests an affordable, yet well-balanced hot hatch -- the original hot hatch -- that leaps about corners with an attitude defying and yet celebrating its front-wheel-drive.

Volkswagen's Mark V GTI recaptured that spirit, despite its independent rear suspension, after two generations of hot hatches that were well-mannered in their benign understeer too the point of feeling overweight and uninteresting. Good news, hot hatch fans. The Mark VI GTI on-sale this fall as a 2010 model, just like its immediate predecessor, does not feel overweight and it's not the least bit boring.

While VW says it has reworked its front strut/rear multi-link suspension, it feels pretty much just like its predecessor, with much of the Mark V carried over but with new sheetmetal and a more refined interior. Mark V to Mark VI GTI, and its Golf basis are much like the difference between C5 and C6 Corvette. Dimensions are virtually unchanged, though all the sheetmetal below the daylight opening is new and slightly more angular, with wider taillamps and the right-side dual tailpipe moved to the right side of the underbody to make the GTI look lower and wider.

The chief mechanical difference for the new car is the addition of XDS electronic transverse differential lock, which uses the limited slip differential for neutral handling. What it does best is brake the inside rear to coax the tail into place in fast turns. In other words, front-wheel-drive oversteer, without the drama of lifting the wheel.

What's more telling is what the European spec GTI has that the North American spec car doesn't. We won't get, even as options, adjustable electronic damper control, park assist, passenger airbag deactivation, rear foglamps, automatic climate control, a self-dimming mirror, storage drawers under the front seats, headlamp washers or manually adjusted headlamps. (We do get standard cruise control, but not the European-spec adaptive kind, and different cupholders. We can't be trusted, apparently, not to use the Euro version's slick built-in chrome bottle opener to pop open Miller High Lifes.) Xenon headlamps are now optional.