The Volkswagen GTI stands alone in the marketplace.

That's not because VW has created some nifty new body style or rolled out some innovative new technology. It's because most other automakers doing business here have given up on hatchbacks.

In America, hatchbacks have come to represent cheap, entry-level cars, and few drivers want to be seen in them. Chevrolet, Daewoo, Honda and Suzuki are the only automakers besides VW hanging in there with a hatchback.

Tire-burning performance is what separates the GTI from its competitors. It's the only hatchback available with a V-6 engine. The GTI also has a spiffy interior and plenty of luxury items.

On the downside, the GTI is the only hatchback that costs far more than $20,000. And that could be its weakness. Although the GTI offers blistering performance and a terrific ride, its stubby rear end limits the car's appeal.


Volkswagen offers two models of the GTI. The mild model, the GTI GLS, sports a 115-horsepower, 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine. The wild model, the GTI GLX - the one we tested - came with VW's awesome 174-horsepower VR6 engine and a five-speed manual transmission.

When VW introduced the VR6 engine in the early 1990s, it was one of the world's best engines.

It still is.

The nearly noiseless engine packs a tremendous wallop when you step on the gas pedal. No 0-to-60 mph times are available, but I'd estimate a good driver could reach 60 in about six seconds. All that is required is one well-timed shift from first to second gear.

Power comes on strong with no peaks or valleys. The engine drives the front wheels, but you could never tell. You don't feel any interference when you accelerate quickly. Many high-performance front-wheel drive cars have a tendency to pull to the left or right when accelerating quickly. This is called torque steer. VW engineers have done a remarkable job eliminating torque steer.

VW also has improved the manual shifter, eliminating the vague notchiness that plagued earlier models. The clutch pedal takes less than average pressure to use, so driving the GTI in heavy traffic won't tire you out.

Beyond its refined demeanor, the GTI just feels great to drive. It may be a small car, but it has the trademark solidity we've come to expect from German-made autos. It feels as stable, secure and easy to control at highway speeds as it does at 25 mph.

Up front, a pair of MacPherson struts and a stabilizer bar help keep things under control. The rear suspension includes a torsion beam rear axle, coil springs and gas-charged shocks. The ride is firm but not bruising.

The power-assisted, rack-and-pinion steering and four-wheel, anti-lock disc brakes are of sports car quality.


For 1999, the GTI - which is spawned from the Golf - is all new. The '99 version is longer and wider than the previous generation.

The bigger dimensions, combined with an ultrastiff body and luxurious interior, have given the GTI a very grown-up, sophisticated feel.

Our loaded green test car came with leather upholstery and wood trim on the dash and door panels. The computerized air conditioner needed only for the temperature to be set and it did the rest. There was an electric sunroof, remote-control door locks, cruise control, a tilt steering wheel, power windows and mirrors. Whoever heard of a luxury hatchback?

The interior had a warm ambience. At night, the gauges are bathed in bright blue light.

Most average-size adults should have no problem fitting into the GTI. There is ample leg- and headroom, front and rear. Getting into the back seat is much easier than in most two-door cars. You flip one lever on the front seat, and it lifts up and forward, exposing a nearly clear path to the back seat.

Of course, the real appeal of a hatchback is its ability to convert into a cargo hauler. In that regard, the GTI comes up aces.

With a little finagling , large it ems fit easily inside the car. You have to remove the headrests and tilt forward the lower cushions before the rear seats fold flat. But once they do, the GTI is almost like a small station wagon inside.

On the outside, VW has done a nice job of making the new GTI look better than the chunky old model. The headlights and taillights are neatly integrated into the curves of the car. But the GTI still is squarish.

The regular Golf has the same body and starts around $15,000. That car has a decent shot at putting up some respectable sales figures.

The GTI likely won't even register as a blip on the sales charts. VW offers a Jetta GLX, which is basically the same car but with a four-door body.

The GTI is for those few dedicated high-performance hatchback lovers who want the best that money can buy. They won't be disappointed in the 1999 GTI.

1999 Volkswagen GTI GLX

Base price: $22,150. Safety: Dual front and side air bags, daytime running lights, anti-lock brakes and front and rear crumple zones. Price as tested: $22,675. EPA rating: 20 mpg city28 mpg highway. Incentives: None.

Truett's tip: The new GTI is a well-made and brutally fast road rocket. But who's going to pay $23,000 for a hatchback?