This is a place where the horizon doesn’t as much fascinate you, as haunt you. As the world’s largeolst desert, the Sahara is by equal parts scary and fascinating. In its vast expanse begins our story, almost literally out of thin air.
It’s been hot in Europe and the weather systems have been girding their collective North African loins in response. Off the desert sand rises a hot, dry wind, that like a happy burro, carries sand by the bagful and causes coughing bouts all the way from Morocco to Syria. As the sand-laden gusts hit the balmy Mediterranean Sea, moisture enters the picture, even as the gentle billows turn increasingly violent.When this cyclonic gale, guaranteed primetime on Italy’s equivalent of the Weather Channel, blasts into Europe’s shoe’s toecap, it gets a name that’s highly relevant to our story. The Italians call it Sirocco, and violent as it is, they don’t like it much. Actually, I just found out from Wikipedia, that the Ghibli (remember that slinky Maser?) is actually what Colonel Gaddafi would call a Sirocco. Oh, and Scirocco and Sirocco are the same thing, the pronounciations starting with sh- or s-. Me? I like the latter, so that’s what I’ve decided to call the lovely Volkswagen I drove in Portugal, which is just a short left turn from Italy in the global scheme of things.
And now, that I’ve digressed all the way from Africa to Europe to explain one measly word, let us get to the car in question. Volkswagen’s Scirocco is a deeply iconic brand for the German company. Back in the day, almost exactly at the same time as when Barry Manilow scored with Mandy. Er, on the charts, I mean, Volkswagen predated the Golf launch with the debut of the Scirocco. The Maserati-type moniker-ed beauty flowed from the pen of Giorgetto Giugiaro and was meant replace the Karmann Ghia, another design icon. But at the time, Volkswagen was not really sailing the high seas of auto sales. As water-cooled cars became more popular, Volkswagen air-cooled boxer staples were flagging. Fortunately, and you’d hardly believe it was luck alone, the Scirocco proved popular with 25,000 Germans instantly. Its engines (up to 85 bhp on the top model), agile handling and hard-hitting wedge styling were an irrestible corporation. Better yet, the Mark I, also known as the Type 53 internally did well and led to a string of ever larger sales, until a smoother looking Mark II came around.
The high winds lasted till 1992, when the second generation Scirocco finally bowed out. In that time, the Scirocco had a GTi version that was marginally less powerful than the Golf GTi topping out at 123 bhp and those quad headlamps that are probably the most important of the car’s symbols. The Scirocco also claims to be one of the earliest platform cars, with the underpinnings supplied by the Golf, that would debut a few months later after the first Scirocco.
Then in 2006, Volkswagen unwrapped a lozenge green concept called the IROC. As monikers go, the name was about as subtle as a wolf in a henhouse. Everybody grasped two things instantly. One, the name came from the middle syllables of Scirocco. So much for subtlety then. And second, that the IROC was simply gorgeous to look at. And that most people would like to see a lot more of it. The teaser, so to speak, for the Scirocco went down like an extra creamy cold coffee with ice cream on a hot summer day.
Which caused a potentially serious problem two years later. You see, the production Scirocco, while vivacious on its own accord, could hardly hold a candle to the IROC. The lime green was swapped for a rather undistinguished blue, the classy-aggro grille was replaced by a sliver of shiny black plastic connecting two menacing headlights that recalled the original’s quad headlamps. The production cars looked like Milla ‘Multipass’ Jovovich - gorgeous, but the IROC was Mel B - voluptuous, equipped with a singing voice and liable to get far more airtime.Outside the heated environs of net chatrooms, car-enthusiast fora and email discussion lists, the Scirocco fared far better. For instance, as we crossed Ponte Vasco da Gama - a new bridge across Lisbon’s impressive Rio Tejo in our blue (the white’s classy-sexy and the green’s flashy-hot, damn the French journos who got to them earlier) something very strange happened.
The man in the Civic hatch, caught us, blowing nearly to 160 kph in the effort, in a 120 kph zone, where we were holding about 140 kph like all the locals around us. He pulls alongside and gives us a thumbs up and 32 pearly chasers. Hmmm, I think he liked the Scirocco. Just like the kids in the back of the Seat Alhambra. And the chap driving the courier van, and the old man at the coffee stop, and... you get the picture. The Scirocco draws admiring glances. And I have a feeling it has little to do with the fact that it is made at AutoEuropa, Volkswagen’s swank plant near Palmela in Portugal.But I should hardly be surprised. The first time I saw one in white, I nearly tripped on the cobblestones myself. There’s a certain magnetism to the look that the camera won’t capture. It really does look rather good.Yes, the IROC hangover does affect your judgement somewhat, and I must say rear three-quarter in white is the Scirocco’s best angle. That swooping roof line, with the bulges over the hatch hinges, sharp window line and exaggerated haunches makes the Scirocco look rather hot. A hot-looking two-door coupe? Who can resist this?
The resistance melted further when the keyfob glinted 147KW back in Portugal’s rather abundant sunshine. So what do we have here. Under that svelte blue bonnet is the top-of-the-line petrol in the Scirocco line up. See, here’s the thing. When you go to a car launch you make a beeline for the India engines. But when the maker hasn’t made up his mind, you snag the biggest, most powerful motor they’ve got. And that’s exactly what happened. A small, light, lithe thing with two doors and 200 bhp, Portugal was looking very inviting already. Now, 200 bhp, in today’s horsepower race, isn’t much. But when a practical four-seater pushes you back into the seat, burbles on the trailing throttle, blips on downshifts and roars mutedly on the power, you can’t really complain. You can beg for a more powerful state of tune, or the addition of a few more turbos or even the 240 bhp V6 from the R32, but you cannot complain.
Practical four-seater? Oh yes. The Scirocco reminds me of driving the Toyota Celica years ago. My fevered imaginings of an ex-WRC pedigree car were quickly replaced with surprise at how a car that looked as neatly Oriental-aggro as the Celica hid a practical four-person interior. The Scirocco is the same cocktail. The Celica was served with a little paper umbrella, the Volkswagen comes with a shot of pure Tabasco. The four seats are all pretty generously sized. Of course, being a two-door, getting into the back seat takes a bit of origami, but hey, once you’re inside you’re okay. Yeah, the windows are a bit small but everything else works out. You won’t really rub knees on the seats up front, and you won’t rub your hair gel off on the roof liner either.But forget the seats, the thing even has a pretty impressive boot. Our last drive was to the airport via a roundabout route and it swallowed the collective belongings of three journos, one of whom, knows bugger all about travelling light. So far, so good? You bet.
With the navigation system telling us where to head, I basically floored it when the locals did, and backed off when they did. And I discovered that the newest Volkswagen is a really likeable car. The engine has an endearing voice, muted but strident when the revs are up. Power delivery is as linear as a logical thought and the six-speed DSG gearbox (seven-speed DSG reserved for the 160 bhp petrol) shifts rather nicely too. Basically, you floor it and it goes. No time wasted thinking about how many gears to go down and such shenanigans. By the time the shoe sole makes an impression on the rubber of the pedal, the electronics have already figured it out, primed the correct gear and at a twitch of a muscle, the car fires in the right gear and off you go. I also got a chance to row a manual gearbox on the lower spec petrol engine, and while the 200 bhp motor definitely edges out the smaller engine, that isn’t a work shirker either. I’ve read that the 140 bhp diesel isn’t a slouch either, but I didn’t actually drive one (170 bhp diesel due next year...). The manual offers short-ish shifts, feels positive enough, but more sporty family sedan than hot coupe, to be honest. The road led us to Setubal, the jumping off point for going to golf-heaven Troia and to see whales. And some really terrific driving roads. The mountain road that runs through the Parque National de Sierra-Arribada has no name. Which is a shame because it more than deserves one. If it were in America, there’d be umpteen Scenic Byway shields spoiling the views, souvenir shops selling fridge magnets, big SUVs blocking all of the zillion apexes and RVs sloshing barbecue sauce everywhere. Instead, there’s only us in the Scirocco, a horizon veiled in distant mist, an appreciative sun, a gorgeous coast and the mountains that are hosting this paradise in the palms of their hands.Threading a Scirocco through the apexes is easy and satisfying. The taut chassis and responsive feel get on famously with the practical nature of the car, and I for one, wouldn’t mind driving one of these in India as a daily driver. Yes, I could even take one to the airport to pick up people, confident that the curving ramp up to the doors will be handled as gracefully as the humungous suitcases that are sure to come out of them. I’ve also read that the steering could have had more feel, but my impression is of a neat, impressive little coupe that rather enjoys cornering.
Your efforts are reigned in, of course, by nannytronics, but there’s feel, accuracy, grip and thrills to be had before something on the dash waggles an admonishing finger. The optional continously adjusting suspension helps matters. I tried the car on both comfort and sport settings and they do make a marked difference. Comfort errs on the sporty side of plush, but Sport gives it a harder edge. The car seems to hug the road’s contours more tightly and while the car doesn’t really roll that much to start with, Sport makes its cornering attitude as flat as leftover beer from the party last week.As we exited the other side of that unnamed twisty road, we hit the N378, which meant it was time to head back to our sleep station and call it a glorious day. Which would have gone swimmingly, if it wasn’t for the fact that I’d overshot some turn or exit and the lady on the navigation system essetially drew herself up to her full height and took to screaming, ‘Make a U-Turn if possible.’ Madam, I’d love to, but I can see signs back to Lisbon on this road already, and I’m heading in that direction.
Finally, I pulled over to try twiddling the navigation to suit my liking. The navigation system works but I’ve used better ones. The inclusion of a touchscreen with an abcde type keyboard makes typing clumsy. And when I finally keyed in the name of our hotel’s street, it found three of the streets with that name. Thankfully, all in the same location, so getting to the hotel didn’t look like it would become a problem.And it wasn’t. Energies expended, suspension back in comfort mode, the Scirocco blended smoothly into a mile muncher. The seats proved comfortable, the engine, set on cruise at 140 kph, handled the duties and you could relax. But the employment of cruise control with another motor-journo in the car is social suicide. You might as well wear a tatty fig leaf to your son’s PTA meeting. But fact remains, when you’re not in the mood, the Scirocco reverts to a more subdued persona and is quite happy to hang back and handle the driving. You still must steer, of course.
When I finally parked up at our hotel, I was, frankly, impressed. Volkswagen have really done a rather neat job of this. You entirely forget the (humble?) Golf siblingship and the Scirocco is its own person. And a rather likeable person, at that. You know, if I had the money, and if Volkswagen were selling one in India, I’d seriously spend a productive afternoon at the nearest showroom.
I know I said something like this after driving the Fiat Stilo, but I cannot see who would not appreciate the youthful, exuberant and yet practical appeal of this coupe, with its iconic name and all. But then, the Stilo flopped. This time, however, I’m confident that I won’t be wrong.