As car enthusiasts, we don’t need much cajoling to get behind the wheel of Volkswagen’s charismatic GTI, a car that VW has more or less perfected over three decades. With its turbocharged four-cylinder engine, flawless transmissions, and delicious handling, VW’s perennial hot hatch puts an ear-to-ear grin on our faces every time we drive one.
But to drive a one-off, 500+ horsepower, all-wheel-drive, GTI concept car? One that is based on the all-new, “Mark 7” Golf GTI that’s hasn’t even been introduced here yet’? Well, that occasion happens exactly never, so when VW reached out and offered us such a chance with its stunning Design Vision GTI concept car shortly after its appearance at the 2013 Los Angeles Auto Show, we showed up early and stayed late.
The three-door Design Vision GTI was developed to wow the crowds of the Wörthersee tuning festival in Austria last spring — think Caligula, but with Volkswagens — and sadly, will not be produced as is. Rather, it's an exercise in style, intended to “give a spectacular glance into the future of the GTI,” and to show the flexibility and performance potential of the “MQB” chassis it shares with the upcoming Mark 7 GTI and a number of other VW and Audi models ranging from compact cars to three-row SUVs.
And what style it has. Rendered in GTI’s traditional white-on-black-on-red garb, the Design Vision blends classic GTI cues and futuristic, video-game extremity. The long-nose, stubby butt proportions have long been GTI calling cards, though they’re taken to the extreme in the Design Vision GTI. It Dimensionally, it rides on the same wheelbase as the standard GTI, but is 0.6 inches shorter, 2.2 inches lower, and nearly three inches wider.
In the metal, the Design Vision is both beguiling and terrifying, like the lovechild of a Golf and an Audi R8 GT. Nearly everything done stylistically accentuates its added breadth, starting with its wide, grinning lower air intake flanked by gloss black blade-like strakes in the fascia trim. Thin headlamps and LED running lamps peek out from beneath scowling, smoke-tinted lenses, while the GTI’s trademark thin red stripe strikes through the light covers and the grille, spanning its entire width.
The body sculpting is amazing, with the lower half of the doors pulling inward and separating from the fat front fenders; the rear fenders are so wide that the bodywork separates from the cabin altogether, pulling the C-pillar sheet metal into flying buttresses. Out back, the angular, wraparound LED taillamps mimic the headlamps, while the bumper contains vaned diffuser elements and fat twin exhaust tips. Oh yeah, and there are four more scary black blades.
Stuffed into the wheelwells with virtually no fender clearance are massive 20-inch wheels that not only look like the innards of a Cuisinart, but act like them too, integrating air blades to direct cooling air toward the massive carbon ceramic brakes. Concealed wheel bolts give the appearance of a center-lock design.
The Design Vision interior is fitted with lots of dark gray carbon fiber and nappy Alcantara trim. Unlike workaday GTIs, the Design Vision is a strict two-seater; the rear area is occupied by an elaborate carbon fiber cross brace and a pair of helmets nestled into a secure housing near the tailgate. Punctuating the overwhelming blackness are splashes of bright red on the four-point racing harnesses, stitching and piping on the steering wheel and seats, and little tabs used to open the doors. But make no mistake, especially with the blacked-out windows and windshield, this place is a cave.
As we install ourselves into the slim racing Recaros, we survey the austere, futuristic dashboard. We see familiar-looking turn signal and wiper stalks, and that’s where the similarities to the standard GTI end. In place of conventional dials, needles, and buttons, are an array of LCD screens in the instrument binnacle and center stack—none functional, unfortunately—including one that theoretically shows power, torque, and turbo boost, the map of a given racetrack you may happen to be pounding, and lap times. The system is also said to be able to communicate with other cars on the same track, or even beam real-time information and/or views from the onboard cameras to one’s friends and family in the event that you want to give your paranoid mother a real reason to worry.
Pressing the red engine start button on the steering wheel summons the Design Vision GTI to life. The V-6 engine develops a monstrous 503 hp at 6500 rpm, with 413 lb-ft of torque on its way to all four wheels by 4,000 rpm. Shifting is provided by a paddle-shifted DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission. A drive mode selector switch on the steering wheel would allow the driver to choose among “Street,” “Sport” or “Track” settings, though, like the screens, it was also non-functioning. Volkswagen says the Design Vision GTI can hit 62 mph in 3.9 seconds with a top speed of 186 mph.
Those are some scintillating specs, though the Design Vision is still a very much a concept car, and thus I intend to handle it with a certain amount—make that a great deal—of care on the short, temporary course VW has prepared for us in a vast parking lot adjacent to Hollywood Park horse track. I creep away from the starting line and summon, let’s say, a couple hundred horsepower and am rewarded with swift acceleration, and despite the gravely surface, utter stability. Since the car is properly warmed up, I ease it up toward redline to hear the distinct, barely muffled sound of the twin-turbo VR6. Damn, this thing sounds amazing.
I take it easy on this first lap, noting the brittle ride over the lumpy pavement and viscerality of the brakes. The steering is weirdly slow and way too light, keeping me busy in the chicanes, but other than some squeaks and rattles from hand-built cabin fitments, the Design Vision GTI seems remarkably well screwed together for a concept car.
My confidence builds and I charge into the next lap, savoring the VR6’s banshee wail as I summon as much of the engine’s might as I can before having to stab the brakes before the S-turns. Turbo lag is minimal, and body roll is nonexistent, though the car’s width through the cones is considerable. I dare not run anything over, considering that scarcely an inch, maybe two, exists between the exhaust plumbing and the ground beneath it.
As it turns out, 503 hp and an exhaust note brought forth from the seventh circle of Dante’s Inferno can make even the most expansive parking lot feel as confining as a toddler’s playpen. I long for a real road and a smoother surface so I could let the über-GTI stretch its legs, but alas, never get out of third gear.
Still, as I lap the short course a few more times, I feel I’m getting what I came for: a glimpse into the future of the Golf/GTI brands. While it will not include a fully developed version of this car, VW has certainly heard the near-unanimous approval of the Design Vision’s styling, so it’s a safe bet that you’ll see some of this car’s design features on future performance versions of the Golf from the front-wheel drive GTI to the all-wheel-drive Golf R. What’s also clear is that there’s a bright future for the VR6 in MQB-based vehicles, if not in the Mark 7 GTI or Golf R, both of which feature turbo fours. That said, one VW insider predicts that the all-wheel-drive Golf R’s engine in particular could get “more grunt.” D’ya hear that, Subaru STI and Mitsubishi Evo guys? You’ve been warned.
Full disclosure: The manufacturer provided meals, air transportation and lodging for this review