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LAS VEGAS — Volkswagen introduces a concept vehicle that reflects its roots in the sport compact tuning community.
The story began back in the early ‘80s, with a man named Bill Neumann. Bill founded the California based tuning firm Automotive Performance Systems (APS). He was frustrated with the fact that Volkswagen’s hot hatchback GTI had been sold in Germany since 1976, but hadn’t yet come to America. Bill had driven the GTI in Europe on several of his parts-searching trips, and he was convinced it would be a big hit in America. So he sent letters to the factory. He wrote to enthusiast magazines and lobbied Volkswagen dealers for support. Then, he put together the proof that a Rabbit-based performance car was capable of generating both stunning performance numbers and lots of attention from the American automotive press corp.
Thus was born the original Thunder Bunny.
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The APS-modified Rabbit was delivered to Motor Trend magazine late in 1981. Even though its staff was use to driving the best cars in the world, they were blown away by the little Volkswagen hatchback. As it was written in the March 1982 issue: “The little white wonder packs its own kind of lightning-quick rabbit punch — one that’s guaranteed to kayo unsuspecting boulevard bullies.” And when Road & Track magazine got its hands on the car, it reported a zero to 60-mph run in the low seven-second range and slalom times that at the time had been bettered only by the Ferrari 512 Boxer, Lamborghini Countach and Renault R5 Turbo. Exalted company, indeed.
Bill’s frustration ceased in the fall of 1982 when the GTI finally came to America, but by then Thunder Bunny had done its job. It put Neuspeed, the APS-trademarked line of parts and accessories, on the map. It also helped launch a vital North American community of specialists in watercooled Volkswagen performance. Modifying Volkswagens, of course, was not new in America — the Beetle had spawned a huge following of enthusiasts — but the new generation of Volkswagen cars hadn’t sparked much interest in the go-fast crowd before the early ‘80s.
Neuspeed continues to be a leading force among the world’s Volkswagen tuners, and it has never stopped building special projects. The latest is also called Thunder Bunny, and it was built in commemoration of Neuspeed’s quantum leap forward all those years ago with the original rabid Rabbit. Designed in collaboration with Derek Jenkins, Chief Designer at the Volkswagen Design Center California located in Santa Monica, the new Thunder Bunny is an updated, thoroughly modern version of the original, and it debuts alongside the Concept R GTI on the Volkswagen stand at the 2006 SEMA Show.
Today’s Thunder Bunny is a blend of subtle design massaging and tuning technology, built to show how a comfortable daily driver can also provide an exciting motoring experience. Creating the thunderous noise from under the hood is a newly developed turbocharger system, designed by Neuspeed especially for Volkswagen’s 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine. The high quality installation includes a modified intake manifold, Garrett ball-bearing turbocharger and air-to-air intercooler. A stainless exhaust and specially baffled aluminum oil pan were also sourced from APS for optimum flow and cooling. Boost is restricted to a maximum of seven lbs. in this Stage 1 kit, but it still produces 225 horsepower, 75 more than the stock 2.5 L, and a hefty dose of low-end torque. A performance clutch and Quaife differential were added to the powertrain for durability and a more efficient delivery of power to the front wheels.
Thunder Bunny’s gleaming candy white exterior is made distinctive by several design studio touches. The concept’s body kit includes a larger central grille and a more muscular rear valance framing a twin R32-style exhaust from Neuspeed. Like the R GTI, Thunder Bunny’s paint was overlaid with graphics Jenkins calls “topographical” in pearl silver. They were meant to evoke the contours of the car’s geography or waves of air that flow over the surfaces. However they are interpreted, the pearl silver graphics make a unique visual statement as they appear to blink on and off in the changing angles of the sun.
Like the original Thunder Bunny, the forged alloy “street” wheels are painted gold. In 19×8-inch sizing, they’re wrapped with Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 235/35-19 tires. Similar sized multi-spoked forged alloys were sourced from Neuspeed’s RS line of wheels for track use. Both sets are lightweight, in keeping with the core GTI quality of nimble handling. The front brakes are 328mm two-piece floating cross-drilled discs from Brembo, gripped by bunny-bedecked Brembo four-piston brake calipers. That’s right, bunnies. A veritable warren of Thunder Bunny logos dash to and fro across the surface of the white-painted caliper. At the rear, 310mm disc brakes are fitted.
Handling prowess comes from a suspension fitted with a Bilstein coil-over shock system and APS/Neuspeed sways bars, measuring 25mm front and rear. The suspension system is adjustable for both ride height and for shock stiffness, giving the new Thunder Bunny a dual character, suitable for the street or the track. A Neuspeed short-shift kit and custom spherical aluminum shift knob, created in the design studio, put the driver in closer touch with the manual transmission. A stock GTI steering wheel was recovered in alcantara to go along with the upgraded upholstery and trim.
Stock GTI seats were recovered in black and white checkered tweed that echoes styling trends from the early ‘80s, and the striking fabric is elegantly framed by surrounding black leather with white stitching. The color scheme is perfectly complemented by the white carbon-fiber interior trim provided by OSIR, experts in hand-laid composites and also major contributors to the design studio’s Concept R GTI.
All those years ago, Bill Neumann asked a simple question. Volkswagen responded with the GTI, while Neuspeed became a leader in Volkswagen tuner circles…why a new Thunder Bunny? Think of it as a beautifully crafted response to another question, “What happens when you give a modern Rabbit to one of the original water-cooled Volkswagen tuners?”