If you ask the folks at Merriam Webster, they’ll tell you that the word Scirocco — or more accurately, Sirocco — is a hot dust-laden wind from the Libyan deserts that blows on the northern Mediterranean coast. But to a Volkswagen fan, Scirocco is a Golf hatchback rendered in a lower-slung, sportier package, a car so beguiling it has taken on near-cult status.
The Scirocco was first introduced in the late 1970s and was sold in two generations through the early 1990s. After a 16-year break, the Scirocco was brought back in the form of the slinky three-door you see here. Well, for Europe, anyway; the U.S. market has been denied the new Scirocco, much to the chagrin of VWs die-hard enthusiasts here. After taking a spin in one brought to America by VW, we can say that indeed, we’re missing out on one awesome car.
First, the looks. The Scirocco is about two inches longer and an inch and a half wider than the Golf, but has a much lower roof. The long, skinny side windows taper inward toward the rear of the car, making the rear fenders appear wildly flared. A stubby, convex rump features a flip-up tailgate with a rather high cargo area liftover, but no one really cares about this car’s practicality, it’s a style statement.
The R model doesn’t look that much different than the standard Scirocco. Only the gaping front grilles with LED daytime running lights, meaty five-spoke wheels, fat dual exhaust tips, and R badge set the top-dog model apart from the pack. Where it really differs from the Scirocco is under the skin, where its 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engine is dialed up to 261 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. It is still front-wheel drive, and is offered with a choice of six-speed manual or seven-speed dual clutch automatic transmissions (this car was equipped with the latter). The suspension drops the body a tad and is stiffer, while brakes are upgraded in turn.
The R model’s upgrades may seem subtle, but they pay big dividends on the road, where the car’s wonderfully visceral character is more engaging than perhaps any other VW model sold here. The robust turbocharger provides a strong and delay-free rush of acceleration, and the DSG provides shifts so crisp and immediate in both manual and mind-reading sport automatic modes that it deserves a nod for canonization. Brakes grab quickly and haul you down to sanity with ease. Road textures transmit through a suspension that feels appropriately stiff, but far from brittle.
Steering is heavy at low speeds, never letting you forget this is a performance car and not a ’79 Buick Electra. The steering doesn’t’ stay heavy, though, lightening up at higher speeds, though it’s accuracy remains razor sharp. Front-wheel-drive cars are rarely this communicative, and almost none do so great a job managing the torque-steer tug.
The Scirocco R is not perfect, however. The bolstered leather sport seats, for example, which keep you firmly in place no matter how hard you turn left or right, are mounted so low to the floor that the steering column and dash feel a touch too high (the same sitting-in-a-bathtub feeling applies to the Audi TT, another Golf derivative). And the interior design, however classy, won’t win any points for originality, with many parts shared with the Golf-based Eos. Gotta love that flat-bottom steering wheel, though.
Now back to why Volkswagen teased us with this home-market honey in the first place. It appears that ever-methodical Volkswagen is starting to build a business case for the Scirocco’s return to America. Could it find some buyers here? Obviously yes, because any car this great is going to make at least a few customers happy. We suspect there’s even a decent market for one of the less-powerful Scirocco models that VW also builds (though we have to admit that an underpowered Scirocco would be rather pointless).
But such enthusiasm for the Scirocco doesn’t guarantee that VW will grant it a U.S. visa. VW already has the GTI and Golf R, sales of which VW believes would be cannibalized by the sexier Scirocco. And we completely agree, as we have yet to meet a GTI driver that doesn’t salivate over the Scirocco and rue VW’s decision not to give them the Scirocco as a second way for them to give VW fistfuls of their money.
There is hope, however. The VW group has very ambitious sales targets — one million annual vehicle sales in the U.S. by 2018. In order to run that high a tally, it will need to fill every niche. And while VW of America spokespeople firmly state that the company has no plans to bring the Scirocco here in the form you see here (which is about to undergo a mid-cycle update), they say that the next model will share the next-generation Golf’s new modular platform and could be assembled in Mexico alongside U.S.-bound Golfs. Considering VW’s ambitions, then, and the pent-up demand for the Scirocco here in the U.S., it looks like a reintroduction to the U.S. market sometime by 2018 less of a mere possibility than a probability.