Right badge, wrong model
Our VW GTi lacked the European sizzle, writes GRAHAMSMITH
THE Japanese are so dominant in the small-performance hatch arena today that if you were to land on this planet for the first time this week you could believe they wrote the book on them.
Actually they didn’t, they were created in Europe in the 1960s, when Mini Coopers showed you didn’t need a V8 to go fast.
The Europeans have continued to refine the formula and can claim hot hatches like the VW GTi, which are refined and sophisticated.
The GTi made a fleeting appearance here in 1990, when the thenimporter launched a detuned version of the European model.
The model that came here was a disappointment. It looked the same and had the right badges, but lacked the sizzle of the model sold in Europe.
THE Golf GTi that landed here in 1990 was already a dated model in Europe, part of the secondgeneration Golf launched in 1983.
It only just beat the significant update that came a year later, so the excitement of finally being able to buy the GTi was somewhat dulled.
Enthusiasm quickly waned when it was realised the importer had chosen to market it here as a luxury sporting hatch rather than an all-out performance model.
The engine chosen was a mundane 1.8-litre single overhead camshaft four-cylinder engine strangled by emission gear. It developed only 77kW at 5400 revs and 155Nm at 3800 revs.
With those sorts of numbers it’s clear the GTi wasn’t a rocketship.
Instead it was smooth and refined, terms normally used when a car fails to excite the senses.
A five-speed manual gearbox was standard at launch, but a three-speed auto was added in 1991.
Though the local GTi lacked the punch of a hot hatch it had a raft of features. It came standard with air, central locking, a trip computer, fog lights, Pioneer sound system and mirrors were powered and heated. Oddly, it didn’t have power windows.
Inside, there was pretty good room with comfortable seating front and rear, and a decent-sized boot left over for luggage if needed.
The dash was functional and well laid-out, but the Europeans hadn’t quite made it to the level of the Japanese when it came to fit and finish of interior parts.
They were fiddly, clearly plastic, and not put together very well.
On the road, the modest output of the engine dulled the GTi’s performance, but with a reasonable amount of torque available in the mid-range it could be stirred along thanks to well-matched ratios in the five-speed manual gearbox.
ON THE LOT
THE GTi is now in the old-car category and largely overlooked by the trade. Take the time to find a car in good condition.
Try independent VW service specialists. They often have inside knowledge of good cars they take care of that are coming up for sale.
Pay $4000-$6000 for a car in solid to good condition.
IN THE SHOP
IN 1990 the Europeans were still coming to grips with the build quality of their Japanese rivals. They weren’t producing cars with anything like the same quality.
By today’s standards the VW plastics were poor and made for European conditions rather than the ferocity of the Australian sun.
As a consequence they warped, buckled and split under the relentless attack from the sun.
Look also for faded metallic paint, a legacy of the change to waterbased paints the industry was going through, and the force of the sun.
Mechanically, the GTi is robust and reliable, and little of a serious nature goes wrong with them.
It’s important, though, that they are well-serviced and have regular oil changes. If the oil isn’t changed regularly the valve guides can wear and that will lead to oil use.
Parts are reasonably priced and readily available, and servicing isn’t expensive if you seek out a specialist rather than use factory dealers.
Maintained well, it’s generally held a GTi will do 300,000km or so without significant problems.
AN AGILE chassis with nimble handling was the GTi’s main safety mechanism in an era before anti-skid brakes were widely used and airbags were unknown. Sturdy construction comes into play when the metal starts to crumble.
AT THE PUMP
WEARING a performance tag means a GTi can be driven hard and fuel economy suffers. Look for 9.0-10.5 litres for 100km in normal use around town.
HAD the badge but not the grunt to back it up.
Hatch and dispatch: Volkswagen Golf GTi enthusiasm waned when Australians realised it was a luxury sporting hatch not an all-out performance model.