The 1997 Volkswagen GTI-VR6 may seem like the high-performance bargain of the year - or the strangest little car you've ever been in. You'd never guess that the little hatchback has the suspension of a $30,000 sports car and a mighty
172-horsepower engine under its plain brown wrapper exterior - for a base price of under $20,000. But the GTI is such a quirky car, it can't help but trigger arguments. He: Let me try to conjure up a visual image of the GTI-VR6 with two
words - Guy Car. She: You mean "blind guy car." He: What I'm trying to say is there is no mistaking the GTI for a family sedan, or even one of those "secretary specials" like the Chrysler Sebring or the Ford Probe. From the minute you
slide into the sport-bucket seat, grab the leather steering wheel and slam your foot into it, the GTI screams "For Men Only." She: Let's start with the phrase "slide into the sport-bucket seat." You'll be able to do nothing of the sort in the GTI.
The motion is more like hiking yourself up into a saddle because the sides of the front seats curve up so high. Very difficult to maneuver if you are wearing a skirt or have back problems. And then there's the GTI's rather intimidating, mainly black
interior. None of that chenille-like fabric or soft-touch buttons in here. It's as imposing as Darth Vader's mask. And you can make it even more intimidating with the $550 blackleather upholstery. Functional, yes. Friendly, no. And I will ignore that
politically incorrect remark about secretaries for the time being. He: I rest my case. She: You do have to make a real case for buying the GTI-VR6 over a cheaper, plain-old GTI, which is basically the hot-rod version of Volkswagen's
long-running Golf. Yes, the engine is superpowerful in the VR6, but my experience driving it was that you have to respect all of that power and pay a lot of attention to it. Be prepared to drive with both hands on the wheel. There's no talking on
cell phones or eating a Whopper while you're driving and trying to shift the five-speed manual transmission. The engine is so powerful, you have to hold on tight or you'll be veering off the side of the road when you accelerate. I guess you guys call that
"torque steer." He: I better not catch you eating a Whopper in my GTI. I didn't expect you to fully appreciate the performance capabilities of the GTI-VR6, which is a truly formidable vehicle. Volkswagen actually stiffened the suspension settings
on the '97 model, so this car feels even more buttoned down than a 3-series Bimmer. You're right; there is a bit of torque steer. But the GTI is generally well-behaved. No, it's actually amazingly agile. You can fling it around with abandon, and
it's so responsive, you can easily gather it up again with little fuss. She: Sounds like male fantasizing to me. So I'm going to jump in and explain my "blind guy" remark. You would have to be blind to styling if you were to buy
the GTI. It's got that severe and boxy hatchback look that suggests stodgy, not sporty. That's the biggest disappointment about this Volkswagen. The styling doesn't live up to the performance. This kind of power needs swoopy lines and a less boxy look.
And a big old spoiler, not the little kind that's attached to the top of the rear window in the GTI-VR6. What do you get overall? Something that looks like a shrunken-down panel van. Yuk. He: No question that an Eagle Talon is considerably more
sexy. Problem is, the Eagle will draw the attention of the constabulary far quicker than will the GTI. Give me the performance first. I can live with the hatchback look, which I actually don't mind. Boy, you women are so fashion-conscious. She:
Safety conscious, too. And that's where the GTI-VR6 actually shines. The front-wheel-drive system features standard traction control, which helps keep your wheels from slipping on slick roads. And antilock brakes are a standard item. Plus you
t daytime running lights, which I think are becoming more and more indispensable. I find myself turning on the headlights in most cars during the day just so other drivers will be sure to see me. Even the seat belts in the GTI are height-adjustable, which
means people of any size can feel comfortable wearing them. And it's also got a standard anti-theft alarm system. He: So what you're saying is you're really getting the best of all possible worlds at an extremely attractive price. Besides
top-drawer performance and safety, look at all the standard equipment that comes with the $20,000 price tag - air conditioning, power accessories, a killer stereo system, even a power moonroof. Tell me what's a better buy on the market in a car with the
sporting flavor and ability of a GTI-VR6. She: Depends on what you're looking for. If high performance isn't all that important, I'd opt for the regular GTI with a four-cylinder engine and a base price $16,300. I'd also be concerned with things
like the relatively high insurance cost on the GTI-VR6. Our local AAA quoted us a price approaching $1,500 on this car. We've driven some $30,000 cars that weren't as expensive to insure. But you can probably console yourself with the fact that the
GTI-VR6 gets decent gas mileage, despite all that neck-snapping power. The EPA rates it at 19 mpg in the city and 25 on the highway. So you can see how it would be easy to talk yourself into buying one. He: Yeah. Especially if I were only talking
to myself and not to you.