The return of the pocket rocket

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Pocket rocket has long been a term of endearment for auto enthusiasts.

It was used to describe a small car with unusually high fire power, a tire burner that packed a lot of muscle into a small frame and acted like, well, a rocket off the launch pad.

But now gas prices have made it politically incorrect to talk about packing anything other than high mileage – and batteries – into a machine, whether small, medium or large.

Volkswagen scoffs at that with the remake of its compact GTI hatchback for 2006.

The GTI is the high-performance two-door version of the Golf sedan. For 2006 both share platforms with the larger Jetta in a cost saving move.

We tested the GTI, which now sports a 3-inch longer wheelbase and about 1 inch more in length.

The new platform is complemented by a new, very fashionable look with an eye-catching honeycomb grille that leaves no doubt this is a sports model.

A nice touch on the test car was a thin red strip separating the upper and lower part of the grille, like adding just the right piece of jewelry to an outfit. Out with the frumpy front end.

Though there is a little more cabin room and a little larger footprint for better road manners, the most noticeable change, after appearance, is a 2-liter, 200-horsepower, turbocharged 4-cylinder replacing the 1.8-liter, 180-h.p. 4.

And to get the most performance out of the turbo 4, there’s a smooth-shifting 6-speed, a change from the 5-speed. That, of course, is most appreciated by purists who favor moving through the gears on their own rather than having it done for them.

A 6-speed automatic with Tiptronic for clutchless shifting is available for those who don’t.

The 2-liter is potent with minimum turbo lag. But expect some torque steer and front end wandering when you floor it in this front-wheel-drive compact.

Electronic stability control and traction control are standard to keep you in the direction pointed.

While the speedometer climbs to 180 mph, VW governs the top speed in the GTI at 130 mph. VW also reminds on its super stiff. You feel every ripple in the road transmitted back through the steering wheel and into the seat. The rougher the road, the harsher the ride. Small bumps feel like tree limbs were placed in your path.

The GTI is fast but the ride isn’t friendly. It’s right out of the sports car aficionados’ mantra of no pain, no gain. And that’s a copout, since the Chevrolet Corvette has proven you can enjoy top speed, optimum handling and still have a comfortable ride free of tooth-rattling gyrations.

Comfort suffers as well from the fact that though the GTI is slightly longer than in the past, the cabin is still snug. The seats are not only narrow, but the sides of the seat cushion bottoms also flare up to provide thigh support while the side bolsters pinch in on the ribs to support the upper body in high-speed maneuvering.

That would be OK if VW hadn’t used Paris Hilton’s frame in setting seat dimensions.

Couple other gripes, one being that the optional power sunroof needs some work. The German engineers who know how to get a lot of power out of a small-displacement engine need a lesson in how to calm the noise when the power sunroof is fully open. A constant and aggravating hum forces you to open the roof only part way as a result.

On the plus side, just pull the handle on the top of the front seats and they tilt and slide forward to create a wide aisle to the back. And for a compact, rear-seat room is generous, especially for head and legs. Stowage compartments are built into the rear-seat sidewalls as well.

Press and lift the large VW logo on the rear to use as a handle for the hatchlid. The lid opens wide and liftover height is low to make for easy loading and unloading.

Good cargo space, and if you need more, pull the levers on the top of the rear seats, and they fold down. There’s a power plug in the cargo hold as well.

Base price of the 2006 GTI is $21,990 and includes power windows and mirrors (not seats), power locks that automatically open after an air bag deploys, AM/FM radio with six-disc in-dash CD player, air conditioning and rear-window defroster.

The power sunroof comes packaged with a choice of XM or Sirius satellite radio with free service for three months at $1,370. You can cover that by taking a pass on the DVD navigation system that runs $1,800.

To get automatic climate control and heated leather seats and washer nozzles, you have to move up to another package that runs $3,160 – with the sunroof and satellite radio.

And those summer treads cost $750.

A fun car that will satisfy mostly purists. If not a diehard enthusiast, however, stick with the Beetle.



2006 VOLKSWAGEN GTI

Wheelbase: 101.5 inches

Length: 165.8 inches

Engine: 2-liter, 200-h.p., turbocharged 4-cylinder

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Fuel economy: 23 mpg city/32 mpg highway

Price as tested: $27,700

The sticker

Base price: $21,990

$3,160 Option package No. 2 with power sunroof and choice of XM or Sirius satellite radio, automatic dual-zone climate control, heated front seats and washer nozzles and leather seats

$1,800 DVD navigation system

$750 18-inch alloy wheels with summer performance radials

Add $630 for freight.

Pluses:

Remake on longer Jetta platform.

Much more stylish front end with honeycomb grille.

More powerful turbo 4 yet respectable mileage.

New 6-speed manual.

Pinpoint handling.

Electronic stability control and side-curtain air bags standard.

Minuses:

Hard-as-a-rock ride.

Narrow seats.

You’ll need a set of winter treads for the Snow Belt.



Q. Are the Big Three American car companies living in the past?

Don’t get me wrong, I love the new Ford Mustang, Dodge Challenger and Chevy Camaro. But why are the Japanese companies going in the opposite direction in bringing out mini cars? I know domestics can’t build small cars here for a profit, but for every plant they shut in the U.S., shouldn’t they be opening one in Korea or China, where they can make a small car at a profit? If they keep lowering production capacity here, doesn’t that increase the legacy cost for each of the fewer vehicles they sell, which makes it harder to sell for a profit?

-T.P. Naperville, Ill.

A. Though Honda, Nissan and Toyota are bringing out the Fit, Versa and Yaris respectively, this spring, Chevy has had the Aveo for a couple of years and General Motors’ Daewoo operations in South Korea are working on a new mini. Ford and Chrysler have them in the works, too. Ford is expected to build its mini in Mexico or Europe as a world car to spread the costs around and make a profit. Chrysler is still looking for a partner to build a mini.

is losing money in North America. Shame on you, T.F., for not noticing that this is the situation throughout the industry. One reason new-vehicle sales have not grown beyond 16 million to 17 million annually for years is that cars last longer.

Q. I’m a widow who must sell my late husband’s 1930 Model A Tudor sedan. It’s not a show car and hasn’t been run since 2001, but it has new tires, and the original upholstery is in good condition. However, the windshield is cracked, and the dash and door handles need work. I’m getting all kinds of advice that people don’t buy these cars anymore or that only young kids buy them or that the car is worth $20,000. My son saw a Model A on eBay for $4,000. Any ideas?

-C.J., Geneva, Ill.

A. Phil Kuhn Sr., of Chicago Classic Cars in Gurnee (formerly the Chicago Car Exchange), said that, if pristine, your car might be worth $9,000 to $10,000. If it were a rumble-seat roadster, it could bring $25,000. But it’s not. Your car needs work and is the least desirable Model A for collectors, he said. And there is no shortage of Model A Tudors, so it might bring only $4,000 to $5,000. You can try eBay or to dispose of it through your local paper’s classified section. Collectors scour those ads.

Q. Any news about the Dodge Challenger concept? I’m interested in buying one.

-A.B., Wonewoc, Wis.

A. Chrysler Group spokesman Sam Locricchio said no decision has been made whether to produce it. “It’s still a concept, still making the auto-show rounds, and we’re still collecting comments on it so we can judge. But, so far, the response has been overwhelming.” If you want to add your comments, Locricchio said you can send him an e-mail at SL67dcx.com.

Q. I’m in the market for a used car. Is there sales tax on a used car or only on new cars? Are used-car prices firm or can they be negotiated like those on new cars?

-J.P., Oak Forest, Ill.

A. The state requires sales tax be paid on new and used cars, and you can negotiate the price on any vehicle – new or used. The salesman might not budge, but there’s no law that says you can’t try.



(Write to Jim Mateja, Chicago Tribune, 616 Atrium Drive, Vernon Hills, IL 60061-1523, or send e-mail, including name and hometown, to jmatejatribune.com.)



(c) 2006, Chicago Tribune.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-04-21-06 0612EDT

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