|There’s a bank in there, and a hospital, they make their own tomato ketchup and they have two power stations|
We’ll get to drive the mk6 version of Volkswagen’s Golf GTI a bit later. Tomorrow actually. At the moment it’s dark and it’s raining and we’re standing on a bridge. Out across the water on the other side of the lake is a glowing circle shining out like Batman’s logo in Gotham. Behind it are four tall chimneys, and stretching west for a kilometre is the front of the largest car factory in the world.
I’m sure you want to know what the mk6 GTI is like, so did I, but we’ve come to Wolfsburg to pick it up and the city is more than worthy of a moment’s mention before we start discussing tartan interiors. For example, how about this for a fact: the footprint of the buildings alone in the VW factory covers an area the size of Monaco! The whole site is as big as Gibraltar. It employs 50,000 people. There is a bank in there and a hospital, they make their own tomato ketchup and they have two power stations. It’s also twinned with Luton…
The city lies between Berlin and Hanover and was created by a man named Adolf in 1938 to facilitate the production of the Beetle. Back then it was known as Stadt des KdF-Wagens (‘city of the KdF car’, where KdF stands for Kraft durch Freude, which in turn means ‘strength through joy’). Then came the Second World War and a none too glamorous history of forced labour producing armaments, repairing Ju 88s and building Kübelwagens and Schwimmwagens.
As the war ended, a Major Ivan Hirst was in charge of the occupying forces and saved the factory from being scrapped. Instead, Hirst got it building cars for the British Army and so secured loans and established the company in the export market. Being an officer with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers he also ensured extremely high levels of build quality – an ethos VW has taken on as a marketing tool. What all this means, of course, is that the first director of Volkswagen was a Yorkshireman. The rest, as they say, is history. Suffice to say that the company is now so important that there is a saying that if VW sneezes then Lower Saxony catches a cold.
Outside the factory gates, the city itself is arguably even more interesting. The castle which gave its name to the city after the Second World War is 17th century (built on the site of a 14th century one) and is surrounded by classic wood-beamed, white-painted German houses. But you can see that sort of history lesson in any number of traditional towns all over Germany. What’s special are the houses, blocks of flats and petrol stations from the 1930s and ’50s that have been preserved and which we’ll explore in the GTI tomorrow.
Tonight we are staying in a hotel right at the heart of the Autostadt, an ultra-modern complex that celebrates everything car (not just VW). It is beautifully landscaped and there are weird and wonderful touches like a swimming pool floating in the middle of a lake (it’s heated to a bath-like 30 degrees by the waste heat from the adjacent power station). Inside one of the Autostadt halls is a transparent floor glowing with constantly rotating globes, each one depicting facts that range from the world’s time zones to where aircraft crashes or nuclear explosions have taken place. And then, outside, rising out of some water are arguably the most fascinating constructions of all – two towers filled with brand new cars. Each tower is 47 metres tall and holds 20 cars on each level. The towers are filled to bursting every evening with Polos, Toerags, Lupos, etc for customers who ticked the ‘factory collection’ option. Unbelievably, there is a complete turnover of stock every 48 hours and the whole operation from the car arriving in the base of the tower by underground tunnel to being lifted up and placed on its shelf is completely and spookily robotised.
So, if I had ticked the ‘I don’t like my local dealer’ box and arrived here to pick up my new mk6 GTI, what should I be expecting? Well, the 1984cc engine is not in fact the 1984cc ‘TFSI’ engine found in the mk5 GTI but instead the new 1984cc ‘TSI’ engine from the Scirocco. It’s got an extra 10bhp over the mk5 (and the Scirocco for that matter), taking the new GTI up to 207bhp between 5300 and 6200rpm. Peak torque remains at 207lb ft but arrives fractionally earlier at 1700rpm and is held all the way to 5200rpm. Also from the Scirocco comes Adaptive Chassis Control with its adjustable pneumatic dampers offering Comfort, Normal and Sport modes. Finally, there is a new electronic limited-slip diff, which Volkswagen has christened with the initials XDS. And despite all the extra trickery, the GTI’s weight has only increased by 35kg.
In the morning (after a very early dip in the pool – we’re talking practically moonlit so that none of the other hotel guests would see my embarrassingly ungainly attempts to stay afloat) there is a Tornado Red GTI waiting outside. It’s a good-looking car, less shovel-nosed than the press shots had led me to imagine. It also looks lighter, leaner and keener than the slightly cuddly mk5, especially in profile. The designers have purposely steered clear of giving it the Focus RS treatment of huge wings; in fact they have even made its side skirts appear slimmer than they really are to give a greater impression of lightness. At the front, the new lights look good, the lower grille is wider and there is the red-striped nod to 1976. At the rear, because having twin tailpipes bunched on the left was no longer unique to the GTI amongst VWs, the designers (after a long fight with the engineers, apparently) have split them to make the iconic Golf more easily spottable from behind. The excellent wheels from the mk5 have been retained simply because the designers liked them and couldn’t think of anything better.
Get inside and you are embraced by excellent ‘Interlagos’ trimmed (tartan) seats and a made-to-measure driving position with one of the most reach- and rake-adjustable steering wheels of any car. The wheel itself stands out in the interior as something special and is beautiful to hold with a perfectly sculpted rim. The rest of the interior is dark but very stylish and a touch above others in its class with its chrome highlights. The final cherry on the spec cake is an optional reversing camera that pops out from the badge on the boot.
The only way to leave the hotel is by a road that looks as though the Romans forgot to finish it, so someone put a couple of railway sleepers down then someone else who does cobbles had a go, then there’s a bit that looks like a British council got involved and finally there is a smooth section. It’s actually a road charting the history of road building, but it shows that the GTI rides tautly but not uncomfortably. We drive past Major Hirst Strasse and on out into the residential areas in the suburbs. Everywhere we go the streets are wide, designed to cope with the heavy traffic when there is a shift change at the factory. The city is immaculate, no kids in hoodies hanging around street corners, no litter, no tatty buildings. Apparently even big Bundesliga games – held, naturally, in the Volkswagen Stadium – are genteel affairs. The place is not unlike a film set.
And then you realise the spookiest thing. You should expect it really, but it still seems strange when you notice it. Every car is a VW. Apparently over 90 per cent of the cars registered with the famous WOB number-plate prefix are VWs. And those that aren’t are usually Audis, SEATs or Skodas. When you add this to the fact that most of the advertising is for Volkswagens you start to wonder if VW CEO Martin Winterkorn is sitting somewhere as the director of a German Truman Show.
Eventually we leave the clutches of VW world and make a bid for freedom in the countryside. Germany really isn’t known for its great driving roads. Obviously it has some nice straight multi-lane affairs that you can go very swiftly on (I manage to wind the needle round to 143mph on a brief dash between junctions), but that’s not really what the GTI needs. Thankfully, after about half an hour we emerge from the far side of a village into a forest with fast, flowing roads.
The corners are largely sweepers that need a decent amount of speed to be interesting as they lack the imperfections that make UK B-roads so brilliant. Instantly the new engine feels more eager at lower revs, but it then reverts to its predecessor’s almost un-turbo-like linearity, only betraying its forced induction reliance by a relatively low useful rev ceiling of 6500rpm, after which it starts to labour. Compared to the Mégane R26 or the Focus RS, the GTI feels brisk rather than fast. Likewise the sound is mildly interesting but never troubles the hairs on the back of your neck.
The ACC modes are subtle in their differences: Comfort leaves the car slightly floaty when you drive it hard, Normal seems to be the most satisfying balance, Sport is a touch too harsh. In general the handling is accurate and well balanced with consistently weighted steering, but it doesn’t instantly dazzle you with a lightning fast front end or intrigue you with a particularly lively feeling rear.
After several miles nothing is really grabbing my attention with the new GTI. It’s really just like a very slightly sharper version of the mk5. Which is no bad thing, but where it was a enough to shine like a beacon of rejuvenating hope for the larger-hot-hatch market in 2004, in 2009 things have moved on. A headline figure of 207bhp now seems slightly weedy, and although VW might claim that the GTI is meant to be a bit more of a civilised all-rounder than the Focus or Mégane, I think people still expect great, class-defining things from a VW wearing a GTI badge. But as I link one fourth-gear left-hander with another fourth-gear right-hander there just aren’t any fireworks making me go ‘ooh’ or ‘ahh’.
Then we reach The Corner. It’s a right-hander, third gear, perfectly sighted with a slight dip just after you turn in, eventually opening onto an uphill straight. The fact that it’s a decent corner is signalled by the unique appearance (possibly in the entirety of Lower Saxony) of red and white candy-cane Armco. It’s on a more technical corner like this that the GTI shows you that it’s easy to underestimate its abilities and also demonstrates why it performs so fantastically on UK roads. Suddenly the predictability becomes reassurance and the precision is exactly what you crave so that you can attack with confidence. You can throw the car into the corner really, really hard and still hit the apex.
There’s more grip than you might expect, so even when the car does slide you never feel like the slide is going to go on for hours and land you miles off line. And it slides neutrally rather than extravagantly, which makes the fact you can’t completely turn ESP off less of an issue. The fun comes in carrying speed and taking a road apart with the chassis, playing on a high-grip limit that feels tense but exploitable. From the first run through the corner I’m remembering why we rate the GTI so highly. By the fourth time through I’m turning in, the car’s sliding with all four wheels to the white-posted apex and then the XDS is helping to drag us out the other side. Then the road turns less interesting again and so does the GTI.
The mk6 GTI is a great car – more entertaining than the Scirocco – but it is undoubtedly trying hard not to alienate a mainstream market (albeit a flush one as the starting price is £22,000 for the three-door), meaning it is less extroverted than some of its rivals. I also think it needs – and could cope with – more power, so here’s hoping for a few special editions. Say 300bhp, no back seats and some near-slick tyres. Go on Wolfsburg, you know you want to...