Sporty Golf provides driving satisfaction
Volkswagen’s Golf GTi legend began more than 30 years ago when an engineer proposed a limited run of sports versions of the family hatchback. The standard Golf was little more than a year old when VW's marketing department reluctantly approved production of 5000 GTis. GTi sales topped 10,000 in 1976, the first full year of production. By 1979 - when it was first offered in right-hand drive - VW was building more than 50,000 GTis a year. The Mark 3, profiled here, arrived in 1992, and ran until 1998.
Available as three and five-door hatches, the Mark 3 was more conservative than its predecessors. Hardly any were sold new in New Zealand because the model was deemed too expensive. Consequently, most second-hand GTi Mark 3s on sale here are used imports from Singapore and Japan. Asian imports may be automatics, but the true spirit of the GTi is found in the manual gearbox cars. With an overall length of 4020mm, the GTi is far from small. The wheelbase is the same as the Mark 2 and interior space is generous. GTi market appeal widened with the Mark 3 because it was offered with five doors.
The car's classy looks are still elegant, apart from the heavy rear pillars that restrict rearward visibility. The Mark 3 meets impact regulations much better than earlier Golfs; it's also lighter to drive and quieter. Earlier models didn't have power steering. Build quality is good, doors shut with a reassuring feel, and the tailgate clicks home without requiring slamming. Interior trim is dark, so you'll need to be able to live with a sombre-coloured cabin. Instruments are well laid-out, with simple rotary knobs for heating and ventilation and superbly integrated switchgear. The GTi has conventional enough suspension - MacPherson struts, lower wishbones and coil springs at the front, trailing arms with torsion beam and coils at the rear. Both ends have anti-roll bars, and the steering is geared to 3.1 turns lock-to-lock. Brakes are strong, with 280mm ventilated discs at the front and 226mm rear drums; the standard alloy wheels wear 195/50 tyres. Golfs hold their prices well and many for sale locally have led relatively quiet previous lives in Asia.
What to look for
VW Golfs have above average reliability, but that doesn't mean they're trouble-free. They're solidly built, usually rust-free and devoid of major problems. There are occasional timing belt, vacuum hose and mass airflow sensor failures. But it's rare to find transmission, driveline, steering, suspension or brake problems. Air conditioning thermo switches can play up and fresh air blower series resistors are prone to unreliability. Some early Mark 3s had ignition switch failure, and from 1995 there were reports of main power problems and failure of the anti-theft control unit. Major servicing times are slightly longer than rivals', and maintenance costs can be higher than Japanese hot hatches. Cambelts should be changed at least every 100,000km, and check for gearbox and gearbox flange seal oil leaks. A cold engine tappet rattle is okay provided it goes away as the oil pressure kicks in and the mechanicals warm up. Passenger seat height adjustment and adjustable steering columns were fitted from late 1993, and electric windows gradually became standard. Airbags and immobilisers were standard from 1994. Door locks on early Mark 3s could be troublesome but were improved as the model continued.
On the road
The GTi got bigger and heavier in the metamorphosis from second to third generation, and its performance was blunted. But that doesn't mean the driving experience isn't satisfying. As a driver's car, the Golf can't match best in class, yet there's good balance and fine all-round performance. The 85kW 1988cc engine is highly flexible and feels under-stressed. And though this eight-valve engine lacks the more powerful 16-valve's outright performance, it's smoother, less fussy and a better everyday proposition. During several long runs in Golf GTi, we easily averaged 6.3 litres/100km (44.6mpg) in a car that would accelerate to 100kph in just over 10 seconds. The 16V does the same run in 7.8 seconds and has a top speed of 216kph - 23 higher than the 8V's. But you probably don't need that extra performance and the 85kW car cruises well, with the engine spinning around 2800rpm at 100kph in fifth gear. Extra bulk and more safety equipment means the Mark 3's power-to-weight ratio is inferior to the Mark 1 and Mark 2's. An excellent gearbox is matched to easy clutch and throttle action, and a level of refinement that's still good. Expect good ride comfort for a sporting hatch, a lack of torque steer, good steering response, fine grip and body control. Add to that the bonus of an excellent driving position. The GTi's accomplished chassis has a poise and level of control that's missing from many of its contemporaries. Pound the VW into a tight corner with verve and an inside rear wheel will lift, although the car doesn't lose its composure. GTi and VR6 front-end suspension geometry differs from the less powerful Golfs, resulting in better on-road behaviour. Though the Mark 3 GTi may not seem as frisky and vibrant as its two predecessors, it's still a satisfying way to travel and definitely more refined.