The Volkswagen Golf GTI revolutionised our expectations of sporting cars. It blended everyday practicality, sharp handling and zesty performance into a package that anyone could aspire to – and it’s still great today
The definition of a sports car in the 1970s? Rear-wheel drive, sans roof, desperately unpractical and before too long and more often than not, a running ‘project’ worryingly soon after rolling off the dealer’s forecourt. The Volkswagen Golf GTI changed all that.
Launched in Germany in 1976, it wasn’t until summer 1977 that a batch of left-hand drive cars arrived.
Official RHD cars didn’t appear until 1979 – but it was worth the wait. British journalists had already waxed lyrical about the car’s handling, performance and refinement. But it was more than just a car – it was an entirely new ethos. It could do everything. It was smart enough to keep the head held high after parking it in the office car park, yet it was more than willing to indulge in B-road frolics too. It had performance and handling to beat any British roadster from point to point, carry four people in comfort – and a week’s worth of shopping. And thanks to its front-wheel drive layout, it could make anyone feel like a racing driver.
Just like the Mini Cooper a decade previously, it democratised sporty motoring, but unlike the Mini it didn’t punish you with poor reliability and less-than-great refinement. And in a time of fuel scarcity, the Golf’s small, lightweight engine made thirsty barges pointless.
It’s doing the same job now, 40 years on. But it hasn’t always been a rosy tale, as we’ll discover over the next few pages. We chart the rise, fall and comeback of one of the most important cars of the last four decades.
Thank the 1973 oil crisis. At a time when petrol was short, and when autobahns were closed on Sundays, big thirsty sports cars weren’t exactly in demand from the German public.
This came as a disappointment for two Volkswagen staffers who had motorsport coursing through their veins. A new approach to sporty cars was needed, so development engineer Alfons Lowenberg and PR director Anton Konrad nursed their dream of an FIA Group 1-compatible car past an initially sceptical senior management.
They worked on the idea in their spare time, building prototypes without official backing. That would only come two years later, in 1975 – but the potential was there to be seen.
The Golf GTI made its debut at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September 1975 and the response was electric. Here was a small car that could blast past 60mph in about nine seconds and keep the needle rising until 115mph. This put what was essentially a mainstream, family car on the same performance pedestal as such luminaries as the Ford Escort RS1800, Triumph Dolomite Sprint and, tellingly, the modern businessman’s saloons – the BMW 5-series and Mercedes-Benz W123.
But it was more than just the outright performance figures – it had style, too. The Giorgetto Giugiaro-penned lines were devoid of passé chrome, and the shape was fantastically futuristic as any supercar of the era. Inside, the VW trim and colour designer Gunhild Liljequist’s touch could be seen on the tartan-covered Recaro bucket seats and golf ball gearknob. This all created a car that was effortlessly cool. Everything about it just feels right – it didn’t seem to be just a car, it was a statement of quality. That essential rightness could be felt in the driving experience.
But it is that comparison with the BMW 5-series and the Mercedes-Benz W123 that really helped the Golf GTI become the aspirational set of wheels it still is today. It was as fast and refined as its larger rivals, yet altogether much more exciting – the Golf is significantly lighter, after all. But it was a small car that didn’t look out of place at a business meeting. It was an appealing formula – despite projecting just 5000 sales of the MkI, VW eventually sold 450,000 GTIs before it was replaced in 1983.
Herbert Schafer’s design for the MkII was bigger and roomier, but it wasn’t universally adored when it was released. Some critics said the new Golf’s styling lacked a certain panache, but that didn’t put off punters, and success was assured. Those devotees got a much more usable car, too. While hardcore drivers and journalists gave it a lukewarm reception, the engine had more torque than the original 1600, meaning the GTI MkII was as happy to cruise as it was to be thrashed. It wasn’t outrageously fast – 60mph came up in just over eight seconds, and it topped out at around 115mph. The public, however, loved it, and it became a Yuppie favourite.
Should you take it out of the city to visit the country, the GTI was an enthusiastic steer on B-roads too. Few cars looked just as good there or reflected in the windows of Kensington High Street. It wasn’t just a car, it was a lifestyle accessory.
At the time, VW sold most of its GTIs to men, but the David Bailey-directed TV adverts of 1987 made the Golf a must-have for women too. In it, model Paula Hamilton ditches her husband, jewelry and fur coat, but keeps her Golf’s car keys. ‘If only everything in life was as reliable as a Volkswagen’ was the tagline, and it summed up the appeal – stylish, understated and reliable.
In 1986 the Golf MkII finally got the engine it deserved, a 16-valve, 1.8-litre unit that meant more than 120mph at the top end and a scorching 0-60mph of 7.5 seconds. To put that into context, a 1988 Porsche 911 Carrera 3.2 can do it in seven seconds. Thus the Golf wasn’t just the budget alternative to that bewinged Stuttgart creation. In the eyes of the upwardly mobile, it was an equal.
The European-market GTI G60 was even faster, using a 1.8-litre engine from the Corrado. It delivered a healthy 160bhp thanks to the addition of a supercharger, but difficulties adapting the gearbox to a right-hand drive layout meant it never officially came to the UK.
By now, however, the GTI market was fierce, with notable challengers from Peugeot, Renault, Ford and Vauxhall. But all good things have to come to an end, and by the close of the 1980s GTIs had garnered a reputation as a magnet for thieves, with hyper-inflated insurance premiums as a result.
So it should come as no surprise that the MkIII Golf GTI had markedly toned down performance. It was a similar case with the styling. Gone were the sharp lines and crisp bodywork creases – the 1991 car was rounder and heavier. The first GTI from this era had truly asthmatic performance, its eight-valve engine only good for a 10-second 0-60mph time – a lot slower than the MkI.
The 16-valve GTI of 1993 improved matters, offering around 150bhp. It developed a committed following, but this is really when the GTI badge started to lose its sporting allure. But could Volkswagen have done anything different, given the prevailing wind at the time? Not only did the GTI badge mean enormous insurance premiums, but the mid-1990s saw a move away from performance cars as a popular, mainstream lifestyle accessory. But if the MkIII was a disappointment, much worse was to follow with later generations.
The MkIV GTI was an abomination, and just a branding exercise for the UK – there was no such car in Germany. It was faster than the MkIII – 139mph at the top end and an eight-second 0-60mph time from a torquey, turbocharged 1.8-litre engine but the quest for refinement and safety, as demanded by VW chairman Ferdinand Piech, had left the GTI pretty numb to drive.
This was particularly galling for enthusiastic drivers, as Ford’s Focus was much better to drive even in base-model specification. By the turn of the millennium the hot hatchback was back in fashion, with challengers from the likes of Ford, Alfa Romeo, Honda, Vauxhall and Renault. VW responded, but with the six-cylinder, four-wheel drive R32.
The GTI was a mere footnote in this era, but out of darkness comes light.
The MkV Golf had to be good for Volkswagen, as profits had plunged just before its release. But the company couldn’t let the much cheaper Ford Focus off for being better to drive and cheaper to buy. Despite the huge cost, VW sanctioned investment
in a multi-link rear suspension set-up, though platform-sharing across the Volkswagen Group helped to mitigate the expenditure. Electro-mechanical power steering was an addition that helped sharpen the Golf’s steering.
Then came the GTI in late 2004. It was announced with a memorable advertising campaign featuring a Mint Royale remix of Gene Kelly’s Singing In The Rain, with the tagline ‘The original, updated’. It certainly seemed to live up to that billing, with interior and exterior detailing that harked backed to the MkI. It was similarly fun to drive, because with 197bhp on tap from a turbocharged, 2.0-litre engine, 0-60mph was done and dusted within seven seconds and you could carry on all the way to 146mph. The MkV Golf GTI won awards across the board for its handling, refinement, comfort and sheer shove, topping the majority of group tests it was entered into. It became a popular car with tuners too, with the turbocharged four-pot offering almost limitless options for big horsepower at low cost.
The king of the hot hatches was back, and while the current hot hatchback horsepower arms race is fought between Ford, Mercedes, Audi, BMW and Volkswagen itself with the R models, the GTI is still an alluring draw at a much lower price than those.
Much like the MkI, the MkVII is all the sports car you’ll ever need. Not bad for a car conceived as a limited-run special edition of 5000.
It’s the fizz that wins your heart – each time you open the throttle on an open piece of road, feel the rush of acceleration and watch the tacho needle racing for the redline. This boistrous bundle was built to put a smile on your face – again and again, and again.
Very few cars are as special as the Volkswagen Golf GTI. Equally, only a handful are hardwired into your synapses quite as effectively. The German giant’s bosses might have sceptical about the prospects of a sporting Golf before they drove the original prototype in 1975, but hearts and minds changed when they gave the final product a good seeing to at the Wolfsburg test track.
At first glance, they’d have seen something subdued and subtle, with few hints to what lay beneath. Today, one of those hints, that red-pinstriped grille, has become the signature for all that’s great about the GTI. Then there’s the deep front spoiler and the wheelarch extensions.
Volkswagen wasn’t the inventor of the hot hatch or even the first to slap G, T and I on the rump of a car. But these lovely visual touches remind you how the manufacturer has made both its own.
Slide into the interior and the immediate impression is of a car that means business. It has an appealingly minimalist design – every feature has been honed with the keen driver in mind. The on-board computer, known in VW-speak as the MFA, was advanced for its time, and still very useful today. It’s the same with the gearchange indicator for saving fuel – smart, practical. The golfball gearknob has become as iconic as St Andrews,
and is still used in modern day GTIs.
The driving position is excellent. You sit high in the slim-pillared interior, and are presented with a commanding view out. Placing this hatchback on the road is a piece of cake, as a consequence. And it’s a friendly place – not a word you’d generally associate with sports cars.
Fire it up, and the engine sizzles enthusiastically, goading you into playing footsie with the throttle. Pull away, and the light clutch, positive gearchange and agreeably weighty steering fill you with confidence and joy. Even in town, you’ll find yourself wanting to slice through rush-hour like
a Parisian taxi driver.
But the fun has only just begun. Hit the B-roads, turn it up to 11, and the GTI truly wakes up. The steering feeds back the road surface in minute detail, and loads up remarkably in bends – it’s a good feeling, and there are huge amounts of grip. It’s addictively chuckable. You will love the way it tucks in as you trail off the throttle, countering any unwanted understeer – although other road users might find the way it will cock its inside rear wheel in the air in tight turns just a tad alarming.
Our Campaign model is powered by the later 1781cc engine, pushing out 112bhp and 109lb ft. This is enough punch to give this 860kg hatchback genuinely thrilling acceleration. It’s not all about revs like the earlier 1.6-litre GTI, even though it pulls cleanly to 7000rpm. There’s plenty of torque, and it hauls strongly from as low as 2500rpm – just like a large-engined small car should.
All the stories about the GTI’s poor brakes are spot on, though, which can erode some of that confidence and joy when cracking on. Coming to a halt can take a fair bit of effort on the middle pedal, even if the underlying quality of the stopping power is there.
In short, the Golf GTI deserves all the praise that’s been heaped on it over the years. It is a genuine phenomenon, a gamechanging sports car. It’s also one that’s almost as good to drive now as the latest version in the line. You will be much more forgiving of the original’s few dynamic flaws, and more appreciative of the crackerjack feeling you get every time you hit the road in it.