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One perception: GTI is a driver's car

It's amazing how two people sitting next to each other -- driver and passenger -- can have completely different perceptions of the same car.

I'm at the wheel of a 2006 Volkswagen GTI. There's no question that this a driver's car. The GTI has plenty of power (200 horses) and lots of torque at low rpms. It's much like a 1970s muscle car, except this one comes in a compact hatchback package.

But Mrs. G, riding what we once called shotgun, was singularly unimpressed. She could care less about the GTI's nimble handling, slick six-speed manual transmission, 18-inch wheels, or big-time braking ability.

''The legroom's OK, and there's a lighted vanity mirror," she said. ''Otherwise, it's nothing special. On the other hand, there's nothing notably wrong with it, either."

If you have to sell your significant other on the GTI, make sure he or she gets to do more than ride along for a test drive. Because the driving experience is the reason to buy this car.

That was proven when we came around a curve on a country road to find a freshly fallen evergreen tree across our lane. If we'd been driving an SUV, there would have been no problem in crunching over this green version of road kill. But with only 5.6 inches of ground clearance, our best option was to do a swerve-left-swerve-right maneuver that would have been dicey with many taller vehicles, but was routine for the GTI with its electromechanical rack-and-pinion steering setup.

It was a move you'd normally make with cones on a test course. For me, it was a practical application of the car's avoidance capability. Not to mention a major relief that we didn't have to call the good folks at VW to explain why their GTI had a yule wreath in its honeycombed grille.

The handling is a result of a stiffer unibody overall and new independent suspension in the rear. The rear suspension geometry and squared-off hatchback shape also help with rear cargo space options, especially in conjunction with the 60/40 folding rear seats. The antilock braking system also is integrated into an antislip system and upgraded electronic stability control.

Should your significant other not be thrilled with the idea of a manual transmission, this is one time when you might consider the automatic. VW has put Audi's Direct Shift Gearbox -- a six-speed automatic with Tiptronic paddles for manual operation -- into this model.

The unit is proving to be quicker and slicker shifting than even a professional driver with a manual gearbox and clutch.

Still, there's something -- actually, a lot -- to be said for picking your gear and kicking the car into the passing lane.

Especially because the new GTI features a bigger 2.0T (the T is for turbo) transverse-mounted four-cylinder engine that produces 200 horsepower and a prodigious 207 lb.-ft. of torque. The combination is more old-time American power than the equally quick Honda Civic Si, which produces similar performance with a normally aspirated (i.e., nonturbo) but high-revving Vtech engine.

VW originally marketed the GTI as the Rabbit GTI in the United States, though it later became a free-standing model here while being sold in Europe as the Golf GTI.

The 2006 would have been a two-door version of the Golf here, except VW last month said that the Golf would be rebranded as the Rabbit again in North America.

So the GTI is going back to its naming roots, while continuing its heritage of high performance and handling with exclusive interior and exterior design.

However consumers perceive it, they're buying. VW reports March GTI sales were the company's best in 20 years.

And that's probably because the folks from Wolfsburg have made this a driver's car.

It's good news not only for those who have known and loved the GTI in the past, but also for a new generation of drivers.

2006 Volkswagen GTI

THE BASICS

Base price/as tested: 21,990/$28,510
Fuel economy: 23 m.p.g. city/32 highway (EPA figures)

THE EARLY LINE

The original GTI, born of a VW Rabbit, was brought to the United States in 1983, when most manufacturers were still trying to make their vehicles run well with antipollution plumbing. This fifth-generation GTI has all the expected modern gadgetry.

THE SPECIFICS

Drivetrain: front-wheel drive
Seating: five passengers
Horsepower: 200
Torque: 207 lb.-ft
Overall length: 165.8 inches
Wheelbase: 101.5 inches
Height: 58.4 inches
Width: 69.3 inches
Curb weight: 3,308 pounds

THE SKINNY

Nice touch: The navigation system, an $1,800 option, had a great map and guidance system, one that took me neatly across the (for me) uncharted streets of Newton in Friday rush hour traffic to find a ball field.

Annoyance: Cruise control is standard -- a good thing on this vehicle -- but you'd better learn how to operate it blindfolded, because it's hidden behind the steering wheel.

Watch for: Improved reliability. VW has been plagued with reliability issues in recent years; our test vehicle, with 5,000 hard testing miles on the odometer, was defect-free.

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