The scenic “La Borromea” toll road that twists its way down the 1,491 metres of northern Italy’s Monte Mottarone is renowned for offering splendid alpine panoramas and views of neighbouring Lake Maggiore. But for Pirelli and Volkswagen the road, draped across the mountain like a carelessly dropped strand of spaghetti, proved ideal for a far less peaceful use.
La Borromea’s steep descents, hairpin curves and sparse traffic provided all the ingredients required to show off the capabilities of Volkswagen’s Golf GTI Pirelli. Returning in May after a 24-year hiatus, the not so ordinary hatch has high expectations to meet – its predecessor sold 10,500 units in just six months, a far higher quantity than anticipated, and quickly became a much sort after classic. So to prove that the 2007 Golf GTI Pirelli is every bit as much built of the right stuff as the 1983 version, in October Pirelli and Volkswagen invited media representatives to put their new creation through its paces.
“After 25 years we are very proud to produce the new GTI Pirelli,” says Dr. Christian Rosen, head of product management at Volkswagen Individual GmbH, the division of the German carmaker responsible for developing and marketing niche models with lifetime sales of less than 20,000 units. “When we began work on the new model, we asked ourselves the question – what made the original GTI Pirelli so special? And we incorporated all these features into the new model, including obviously the Pirelli rims and tyres.”
But the difference a quarter of a century has made, both in terms of car and tyres, is staggering. The original GTI Pirelli from 1983 came fitted with a 1.8 litre engine that delivered 112hp, less than all of today’s petrol-engine Golf models save for the entry level 1.4 litre ‘S’. This engine took the 1983 GTI Pirelli from nought to a hundred in a sedate 9.2 seconds and could attain a top speed of just 183kh/h. The tyres fitted to the original GTI Pirelli, the P6 in a 14-inch 60-series size, were therefore tyre aplenty for the car. But today’s Golf GTI Pirelli is a much less tame animal, and the contemporary P6, although itself a respectable performance tyre, was deemed no match for the job at hand. In its place is the latest generation P Zero, released earlier this year and streets ahead of its predecessor in all key performance criteria.
“The new P Zero gives a lot more tread on the tarmac,” comments Marco Mariani, head of product management at Pirelli SpA. “That allows us to use compounds that are much more aggressive, therefore we can have a tyre with much greater mileage than the old P Zero.” The P Zero is fitted to the GTI Pirelli in its 300km/h rated 18-inch 225/40 guise, more than sufficient to reign in the 230hp produced by the two litre turbocharged direct injection engine, a unit capable of propelling the GTI Pirelli to 100km/h from a standstill in 6.8 seconds and reaching a top speed of 245km/h. The P Zero is wrapped around the Pirelli 5 P rim, made entirely of ultra light aluminium alloy and incorporating the company’s long P logo on each of its five spokes.
Aside from the Pirelli rims, a number of modifications differentiate the GTI Pirelli visually from the standard GTI, the Edition 30 and the R32. Inside, the driver and front passenger seats have been given the Pirelli treatment, with the P Zero tread pattern embossed on the seat backs and the Pirelli logo embossed on the leather head restraints. The seats, handbrake, gearshift and steering wheel are accented with yellow stitching, and the steering wheel contains a further reminder of the Golf’s pedigree in the form of GTI lettering on an aluminium inlay.
While statistics and details of unique features may make impressive reading, no list of specifications can ever hope to do the driving qualities of the P Zero and the Golf GTI Pirelli as much justice as even an hour behind the wheel on a mountain road. The combination of tyre and car permitted the tight corners of La Borromea to be taken with a level of enthusiasm not seen in everyday driving conditions. This takes a few minutes to get used to, especially for passengers who may be tempted to dig their fingernails deep into the door armrest as the bend in the road and a forest of sturdy trees looms ever closer. But the GTI Pirelli and its P Zero tyres negotiate even the most unforgiving of corners without a molecule of protest – no boy-racer squealing of tyres, no sense that the car is bordering on losing traction, nothing. The moment one comes to terms with what the GTI Pirelli is capable of, the possibilities for driving pleasure become immediately apparent. The new Golf GTI Pirelli may not as yet cemented its place in history as a motoring classic, but it is incredibly rewarding to drive.
Along with more than half a dozen brand new specimens, Volkswagen brought an original GTI Pirelli from 1983 along to Italy. This particular car, with less than a thousand kilometres on the clock, normally leads a quiet life at the Volkswagen museum in Wolfsburg, Germany and is one of only a few completely original examples still in existence. Therefore it was a rare treat to see both old and new in factory specification standing side by side. Despite the obvious differences resulting from four generations of vehicle development – in 1983, as Dr. Rosen points out, a leather steering wheel and rev counter was considered sufficient to make sports car – there was no mistaking that the two vehicles were created out the same passion to build a car that can be used in everyday life but is still a lot of fun to drive. This emphasis upon driving enjoyment can be summed up by the decision to include the Pirelli logo on the new model’s exterior – there was nothing on the outside of the 1983 GTI Pirelli that betrayed its true identity – but only on the rear of the car. When asked why the front was not similarly adorned, Christian Rosen is quick to reply: “In this car you only want to be seen from the back, as you accelerate away. So we only put it on the back.”