I was devastated. It was 4:30 PM and I was aboard a Virigin America flight sitting on the tarmac at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. About 2 minutes before departing I checked my email one last time before we were in the air. My heart stopped: the HR person I had been coordinating with broke the news that the interview I was scheduled for the following morning in Los Angeles was cancelled. Did they know I was coming from Chicago? They must’ve; my resume had my Chicago address, I stated in my initial email to the HR person that I resided in Chicago at the time… what gives? Finally, before the plane was sealed, and after a few frantic emails, I finally penned that I would permanently be in Los Angeles in 2 weeks and if the job is still available I’d love to reschedule. “Hi Peter, just let us know when you are back in town” is what I received as I stood along the infamous sea-of-chaos arrivals area at LAX.
Well alright! Joy of joys, I had approximately 18 hours to kill in Los Angeles. Luckily I had also planned to catch up with some good friends and grab In-N-Out at least once. Amid all of the mixed feelings of frustration, exhaustion, and rage, I had also totally forgotten that I had reserved a 6-speed 2015 Volkswagen GTI 5-door through Turo. The price was hard to beat (especially for only a day) the owner had good feedback, and it was the latest generation Golf platform that I was totally unfamiliar with.
I was familiar with the Mark 5 as my mother drove a 2006 GTI (I know, what a cool mother), a friend of mine had a nicely tuned, UrQuattro-sounding Mark 5 Rabbit, and another friend of mine in Chicago has a Mark 6 GTI that is still in excellent shape after accumulating 110,000 miles in just 3 years. I was also into VW tuning for several years in my late-teens: my first “real” car that I cared for, wrenched on, and prepped for autocross was a 1990 Jetta 8 valve.
Around 8:30 PM I rolled up to the Turo lot, a quick 5-minute shuttle ride from LAX, and introduced myself to the owner. He was very friendly and seemed to be in a rush, so he gave me the key, told me to have fun, and hastily disappeared down a nearby staircase. It was a little dark in the lot but the defined, sharp German lines painted in Carbon Steel Metallic really popped. The bold, aggressive headlights and front bumper pick up and reflect every lumen available, giving the car a true sense of presence. The little athletic hatch stands out, but in a very reserved sort of way. This is inevitable with cars that have been around for more than a few generations, especially from Germany: with many style revisions comes style progression. Well, the jury is still out for me regarding the 991 911.
I opened the driver’s front door, and the instant feeling of solid build quality was apparent and did not stop there. The owner opted for the Titan black leather seats, and every surface was nice to the touch. No feeling of shoddy build quality whatsoever. This is something I even recall from my old ’90 Jetta; the interior was very nice and a cut above its American and Japanese competitors in 1990. It was also the Carat model, which meant it had an immense 5 more horsepower and headrests for the rear seats (I cruised around the Western Suburbs of Chicago in luxury). The GTI’s interior lighting and controls were pleasing as well: while the various LEDs, accent bars and gauges were easy on the eyes, the touchscreen entertainment system was a little laggy and hard to quickly navigate through. I quickly re-positioned the seat and mirrors, and proceeded to put it in gear and pull out of the lot.
As a Mazda owner I’m a little spoiled when it comes to shifter and clutch feel. The inputs are typically light but feel very solid, even on my ultra-base 2014 Mazda2. The GTI… not so much. This was a cable-shift gearbox paired with a clutch pedal that was more numb than my own hands would get in 15-degree Chicago weather sans gloves. Great for anti-theft, not so great for Fahrvergnuegen. I’m glad the owner had hastily disappeared as he surely would’ve cringed as I tried to find the take-up point on his very new, less-than-25,000-mile-GTI. Once I found it the solid Teutonic steed let me know that I was not good with my inputs as I bucked around a little bit letting on and off the clutch slowly navigating my way through the parking lot, and out onto nearby Lincoln Boulevard.
With my foot at about half-throttle and letting the tachometer get to about 3,000 RPMs before shifting to 2nd, I instantly forgot about the crappy, interview-less situation I was in, the anemic shifter and clutch, the fact that I had to be at LAX the very next day at 2 PM, everything. The sound and feel of the 2.0 liter, 16-valve TSI engine coming on light boost and making a very badass burble as it lightly pushed me back into the seat was such an excellent, relieving experience.
Pulling onto the LA freeway system after 8:00 PM on a Tuesday meant traffic was sparse and the 210 and 405 freeways were the perfect stretches of asphalt to open it up. After getting past typical LA drivers who all love to merge at 50 MPH, I was easily able to get to the far left and dump it. That 258 ft/lbs is no joke: I got into really expensive ticket territory in absolutely no time at all. Before I knew it the Rosecrans exit on the 405 was fast approaching so I had to juke back right and cut my new-found addiction short. The plan was to pick up my friend at his home in Redondo, then head back up North to meet our buddy in Culver City and grab In-N-Out. Luckily I caught the green arrow onto Aviation from Rosecrans: I came in quick, trail-braked, held it at half-throttle, then when the wheel was just about unwound, I dumped it and shot Southish down Aviation. I made it to a desolate Pacific Coast Highway in no time, but held back as its prime speed trap territory. I grabbed my buddy and we went the same way back.
We arrived in Culver City in no time at all, and I proceeded to stuff my face with a shake, fries and 2 cheeseburgers. I consumed them in that order as this was not about savoring the coveted-by-all In-N-Out experience, but rather not having anything in my stomach for the past 8 hours besides 2 gin n’ tonics on the plane. I also wanted to eat quick so I could hop back in the GTI and feel that addictive boost once again. Normally, on the way back to my buddy’s in Redondo where I’d be crashing, I would want to pick up a six pack on the way to help relax after an emotional day. This time however, I was so infatuated with the spunky little VW that I could not stop thinking about how to pass the time tomorrow before my afternoon flight. My schedule the next day was easy to figure out: I’d make the trip up to Angeles Forest after rush hour and play around for an hour or two before heading back to LAX for my flight back to Chi-City.
After getting a good night’s rest I awoke to a typical sunny, beautiful day in the Los Angeles Basin. Traffic had calmed down and after grabbing a quick bite I was on the 110 heading North towards the mountains. I arrived in La Canada in 40ish minutes, perhaps a new record. Perhaps the almost car-less Glendale Freeway had something to do with it: there are some very smooth, very fast sections of pavement on that short ribbon of concrete. I pulled up to the stoplight and Angeles Forest Highway and the 210, then made my way uphill, re-adjusting my seat, turning off the AC, etc. When I started to open it up I took it easy: I wanted to ease my way into this car, know how it reacted to gentle and hard inputs, smooth apexes and shitty ones. It took everything very well and body roll was surprisingly controlled for a bone-stock, heavy hatchback.
Speaking of heavy, I used to talk a little smack about how fat the GTI has gotten since 1992. I was always a little negative about the fact that the hot hatchback weighed around 3000 lbs, even though my mother’s mark 5 handled itself fairly well. This mark 7 on the other hand, changed my perception completely: it was plenty nimble, the turn-in was excellent, the torquey TSI cranked out plenty of torque to pull it around, and the turning radius was something else. My own featherweight, tiny Mazda2 didn’t even have this kind of a turning radius. As I made my way further and further into the San Gabriel Mountains it only got better and better.
The extremely-comfortable leather seats that this plucky little German hatch was equipped with were very much appreciated in the tighter bends and hairpins between La Canada and Mt. Wilson Road. I had to get used to not having to rev it out and not bury my foot in it to get back up to speed out of corners: the huge amount of low-end torque proved to be really useful once again. Cutting a normal FWD line through the various sections was very easy to do in the GTI as it stayed so composed, balanced and just plain flat through even the tightest hairpins, including my favorite section at the base of the canyon just south of Mt. Wilson Road. Being methodical and feeling what the car was doing was incredibly satisfying as there was a good amount of feedback through the chassis. The steering, while nicely weighted, did not offer as much feedback and the cable shifter did not feel as satisfying moving it back and forth through the gears, either while rev-matching under braking or gaining speed coming out of corners. The way the chassis rode over any surface was excellent: it felt sporty, but in no way beat me up. In fact, I was expecting it a lot more roll with such a compliant ride, but it blew me away that it stayed so flat.
This intuitive, nicely-equipped vehicle was equipped with auto rev-match. This was nice, and good on VW for programming their car to shift the correct way, but I still enjoyed blipping the revvy TSI throttle myself. The 225/40/18 performance all-seasons squealed plenty but never got overworked. The brakes felt firm for most of the ride, but unsurprisingly started to fade when I pushed them in the downhill sections heading back towards La Canada. This was perfectly acceptable as I was really putting them through their paces with some late-braking and scrubbing off some pretty hair-raising speed. OEM pads and fluid can only do so much.
When I started to get closer to civilization I let off the throttle more, got back to some more pedestrian speeds, and coasted down the mountain into La Canada. I was sweating, I had developed a light pain in the right side of my neck, and my right collarbone was starting to ache a tad (I broke it a few years ago in a bicycle crash): these were all indications that I had experienced some pretty impressive G-forces and had really put the little Germanic steed through its paces. I must also share that I could not wipe a gigantic smile off my face. I took a few deep breaths, giggled to myself over the excellent lines I cut and advisory speed limits I broke, and cruised along going exactly the speed limit. I felt satisfied and sure as hell got my money’s worth out of the Turo rental.
Despite initially making this trip out to Los Angeles for absolutely nothing, I actually accomplished quite a lot. I got a good solid introduction to the hundreds of miles of twisty roads surrounding the Los Angeles Basin in the Transverse Ranges. I got to pilot a VW for the first time in many years and be reminded of their ride quality and plush, upscale interiors (well, by my standards coming from Mazda). I even got to briefly see some dear friends. One thing that I definitely realized was that Southern California was indeed for me; this one job wouldn’t (and didn’t) work out, but things actually worked out really well in the long run. As I write this, I am sitting in my modest Koreatown apartment 4 miles from Downtown Los Angeles, recuperating from a tiresome-yet-fulfilling workweek at a completely different job. There is no doubt that I’m earning better money and in a way more convenient location (location is everything when it comes to living in the basin). I am also pretty close to many amazing roads, and have done quite a few canyon runs since I moved out here with my slow-yet-surprisingly-fast-in-the-corners Mazda2. I look forward to doing many more, and when the time comes to find something new, despite the cable-shift gearbox the GTI is definitely on my shortlist.
Reposted from author's blog, which can be found here