In 1983, the U.S. was just emerging from the automotive weariness of the 1970s. The Arab oil embargo had made everybody leery of gas supplies and rising prices and, to make matters worse, automobiles strangled by inefficient emissions controls had made performance pretty much a thing of the past.
In that dour atmosphere, the Volkswagen Rabbit GTI seemed like a jolt of excitement. Here was the original “hot hatch,” a sports version of the humble VW econobox, something that was fresh and entirely new, combining practicality with sporty performance.
Maybe not high performance by today’s standards, but the GTI version of the Rabbit (as the Golf initially was named for U.S. consumers) provided the power, tight handling and steering precision previously found only in sports cars costing way more.
Fast forward a few decades and Volkswagen recently introduced the seventh generation of the Golf GTI. To mark the occasion of the car’s media introduction, VW brought out examples of the first six models of GTI, going back to the original pocket rocket of 1983. We were able to sample the vintage VWs along with the latest models in drives around the San Francisco area.
As a Future Classic candidate, I’m looking at the first three generations of GTI: the Mk1 that went from 1983 to 1984 (although European versions date back to 1976), the Mk2 from 1985 to 1992, and the Mk3 from 1994 to 1999.
The Rabbit GTI Mk1 that I drove was a 1984 model, and it was like encountering an old friend after so many years apart.
I can’t remember when I last saw one of these boxy critters in any condition, much less as preserved as this one, in classic silver paint with red highlights.
It was so much fun to get behind the wheel (tall drivers alert: legroom is tight) and run this little buzz bomb through the streets. Horsepower for the 1.8-liter engine may seem slight at 90, but the GTI’s curb weight of just 2,000 pounds translates into sprightly acceleration. That’s also a lot more power that the 65-hp provided by the standard Rabbit.
The earliest GTI felt somewhat crude, maybe like something a Euro hot rodder might have come up with in his garage. This example also was saddled with some kind of custom exhaust that made it go “blat!” every time power was applied. Fun at first, but quickly tiresome.
But I could definitely see being attracted to one of these as a low-cost, drivable collector car that would be a rare head turner for those who recall how much fun they were in their day.
I don’t see many of these early ones for sale, although there was a restored custom 1984 GTI set up for SCCA Pro Solo racing offered recently in my locale. It was priced at $3,500, which is about what these go for in decent condition, topping off around $10,000 for the very best restorations or remarkably preserved originals.
The second-generation GTI Mk2 was a major step up from the Mk1 in just about every way, sharper looking, more powerful, more refined and roomier inside. I drove the 1992 Mk2 on the same street course as the earlier one, and it impressed with its high-revving engine and sophisticated drivability.
The hotter 16-valve, 2-liter engine cranks out a convincing 134 horsepower, though curb weight is up to nearly 2,500 pounds. Unlike the Mk1, the Mk2 feels totally modern rather than quirkily vintage.
In great condition, these range in value today from around $4,000 to $9,000. But like the Mk1, most of these cars were used and abused and allowed to rust away. A great one would be a real find.
The GTI Mk3 got a boost in performance from VW’s narrow-angle 2.8-liter VR6 engine that pumped out 172 horsepower, although weight also went up, to 2,800 pounds. Critics of this model note that it’s softer and heavier than the previous generations, but the extra pull brings it home. Some also find the styling too bland for a performance car, compared with the cool-looking Mk2 that went before.
The 1995 Mk3 that I sampled felt pretty sweet, and provided a reminder of the pleasurable performance of the VR6.
Unlike most of its contemporary hot-hatch competitors – and there were quite a few that latched onto the GTI formula – the early VW GTIs were solidly built with premium interiors. A class act for a budget performance car back then, it remains at bargain levels today. But despite 10s of thousands being produced, the difficulty today is finding a good one that hasn’t been thrashed, rusted or victimized by a nasty customization.
Although the Mk1 has the charm and purity of an original, I think my choice would the Mk2 for its aggressive drivability and styling. That’s when VW’s pioneering hot hatch hit its sweet spot.