By on May 26, 2014

mk31

All the stereotyping of Germans as uncompromising people dedicated to engineering ideals and whatnot aside, it’s slightly terrifying to see how willing the automakers of the Fatherland have been to adjust their product and presentation to fit customer misconceptions. Example Zero: The “E” at the end of Mercedes model designators like “280E” meant Einspritz. Fuel injection. This was meant to distinguish Benzos with injection from the sad-sack 230 and 250 models, which despite costing as much as a house in a decent neighborhood failed to ingest their fuel under any pressure beyond that of gravity.

This makes perfect sense, but to Americans who never saw the carbed models in showrooms, “E” came to mean mid-size. Like 300E, 500E. The proper response to this blithe country-club idiocy would have been to complete the Amerika Bomber and to use it to saturate America’s upper middle class with leaflets and/or cluster munitions, whatever worked better to drive the correct usage home. Instead, however, the men of Mercedes-Benz simply decided to create the “E-Class”, which is why the automobile that should be known as a 460E TURBO is currently mis-badged “E550″. What a disgrace.

Example One: the worst GTI in history.

Even Generation Xers have a hard time remembering that Volkswagen originally broke into the US market because its products were cheap. As late as 1970, VW maintained a monstrous price advantage, selling the Beetle for $1995 against an average new-car transaction price of $3600. (A well-optioned Corvette could stretch to $8k.) If you wanted an American car for that kind of money, you had one option: the Pinto.

The reasons that VW failed to keep its costs and pricing under control could fill a book and range from currency fluctuation to the outrageous adventures of TTAC’s previous Editor-In-Chief, but the bottom line was that by the time the Nineties rolled around, a Volkswagen was a premium product by virtue of pricing. I should know: I bought a Brazilian-built Fox with a sticker price of $10,200 in 1990, when a Tercel EZ sold for $6995. Even with production subcontracted to borderline Third World countries like Brazil and Mexico, VW couldn’t manage to match the price of Japanese competitors.

Those of us who purchased Volkswagens liked to believe that we were buying Autobahn-ready panzerwagens of unprecedented sophistication despite the obvious evidence of four-speed transmissions, CIS fuel injection, and half-lives comparable to that of fermium-257. Back then, Dr. Karl Benz had yet to invent the CLA250, so proles with low bank balances who wanted the distinctive smell of German plastic had no choice but to be funneled into VW dealerships like cattle in a Chicago slaughterhouse. The prices kept going up, but as long as they were below the ask for, say, a 318is, we continued to buy, and sometimes the dealership threw in a “fahrvergnügen” T-shirt.

The Mk1 and Mk2 Golfs were far from luxury goods, but even as the third-generation model was in the planning stages it was grimly obvious that not even building the things in Puebla, where the average wage wouldn’t keep a Tijuana donkey in feed, could keep them from being priced as the Patek Philippes of compact cars. Nor was it possible, or even desirable, to reset Americans’ idea of the Volkswagen brand from “German car” back down to “cheap car”. It was decided, therefore, to make the Mk3 Golf a premium vehicle, and the Mk3 GTI even more of one.

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The first thought you’ll have when you sit in the 1995 Golf, having recently sat in its predecessors, is this: they changed all the hardware. Prior to 1994, most water-cooled VWs felt about the same to the touch. From the Dasher to the Quantum to the Rabbit to the Scirocco, they had the same trigger-pull door handles, the same steering wheels, the same switchgear, the same instruments, the same smell, the same mouse-fur on the seats, the same plastics. The third-generation Passat, the first to be called “Passat” in the United States, had a significantly upgraded interior, with all-new touch points, and the Mk3 shared many of those. All of a sudden, you’re in a modern Volkswagen: thick doors, thick pillars, a dash that bends around you, and the earliest forms of the infamous VW soft-touch plastic that feels like a million dollars and wears like paper-mache.

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The interior in the 1995 GTI that VWoA has provided for me to drive hasn’t held up nearly as well as that of the beat-up Mk2 that I’d driven immediately beforehand. It’s faded, cracking, revealing colorless alien flesh behind the thin black epidermis of the door rests and various switches. The plastic key feels fragile, but twisting it brings the mighty two-valve VR6 awake. Oooh.

What’s a VR6? It’s a 15-degree narrow-angle V6 designed to fit where a four-cylinder fits. It sounds frankly magnificent and as I pull away from the rest of the forlorn “heritage” GTIs on display, the torque is immediately present and fully accounted for. After the wheezing 16v, this feels like a big-block Corvette. Which was the intention at the time: VW knew the new car would be yet again heavier than its predecessor and decided to address the problem with cubic inches.

In no time, the VR6 GTI is sprinting for the first right-hand turn, where it all falls apart. The old cars had balance but no grip; this has a small amount of grip but the balance is miserable and it heels over like it’s in the America’s Cup. And there’s torque steer in spades, yanking me off-line with no inconsiderable strength. Surely ninety percent of the weight in this car is over the front wheels. (It’s actually 64/36.) Best to straighten out the front wheels and just revel in the torque and the rush to the low redline, accompanied by that unmistakable snarl.

From the advertising of the time, you get the sense that VW was aiming the GTI at the E36 325i. That may be, but they missed that car and hit the E39 540i instead. It’s big, comfy, with great seats, and it grunts out of every corner after grumbling all the way through it. It’s not really a GTI, and no wonder: the oh-so-superior Europeans got a 150-hp four-cylinder GTI. Overseas, this car was known simply as “VR6″, not GTI.

I’m hugely fond of the car immediately, but remember, I’m the moron who used to have two Phaetons. The idea of a luxury Volkswagen doesn’t shock me. And that’s what this is, really: the most luxurious and powerful version possible of a compact car that has lost any pretense of being an “economy car”. It makes brilliant sense for the way Americans really drive their cars; it’s at home on a freeway or sprinting from stoplight to stoplight. On a twisty back road it would be a mess but hey — when this car was new, original Rabbit GTIs were a dime a dozen in the classifieds and you could have had one of those for less than the cost of the VR6 upgrade from a standard “2.slow” liter Golf. At 2800-plus pounds, it’s nearly as heavy as the current GTI but somehow it manages to feel like it weighs more.

Having delivered a GTI that actually felt and drove like the premium item the Monroney indicated, VW must have felt bewildered when it failed to receive positive opinions from the critics or the buyers. Nearly all the reviews complained about the suspension and refused to acknowledge the car as a true GTI. (Attentive readers will notice that, by the time, the GTI had been getting negative reviews for nine of its eleven years in the United States.) Still, 1993 would up being the absolute nadir of Volkswagen sales in the country. The Mk3 reversed the tide, although it was $199/month teal “Jetta ///”s that did the trick, not high-dollar GTI VR6es.

The stage was set for VW to push even further upmarket, a push given a push of its own by the arrival of Imperial Leader Piech on the scene in 1993. The next Golf would be a masterpiece of sorts, making this Mk3 the most forgettable of all. Unless, that is, you have a straight road ahead and the windows down.

(Disclosure: VWoA provided transportation and accommodation for this event, said accommodation being willfully misused by this author for the purpose of enjoying the company of a single mother from New Mexico, leading him to arrive late for the morning briefing and earning him the “stink-eye” from at least two journosaurs.)

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51 Comments on “Capsule Review: 1995 Volkswagen GTI VR6...”


  • avatar
    OneAlpha

    My German friend that was here during my 7th-10th grades used to say that “fahrvergnugen” really meant “stupid Americans.”

  • avatar
    OneAlpha

    The Germans aren’t the only ones who misname cars.

    For some reason, the current Dodge Polara is running around wearing “Charger” badges.

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    Good to see that you enjoyed the company of a “single mother from NM” more than the VW…LOL

  • avatar
    mypoint02

    Good review, Jack. This was my first nice car out of college (a black ’95). I always wanted a Corrado VR6, but couldn’t swing it and this was it’s successor. Total sleeper. It could beat a 5.0 Fox Mustang off the line by the time you were shifting out of second gear. Power was always available and listening to the soundtrack from the VR6 was half the fun. It did have a pretty good amount of torque steer, but nothing that couldn’t be kept under control. The real problem was that it was way too softly sprung for the amount of weight over the front wheels. The weight distribution felt more like 75/25 to me. It would snowplow when hitting the brakes and would wallow in the curves. Installing lowering springs and a set of Bilsteins did wonders for it.

    Inside, it was pretty well appointed. The only option available was a CD changer and it came with front heated seats from the factory. The climate control was second to none. Plenty of corners were cut though. The door cards couldn’t possibly have been any cheaper and there was no glove box. The only upholstery choice was the patterned cloth you see above. Still, it was a comfortable place to be for the numerous cross country trips I took in it.

    I drove mine for 10 years and 180k miles. It held up well mechanically. The VR6 was sturdy and it still ran great when I sold it. But by that time the 10 plus years it spent in the rust belt were starting to take its toll on the body. Plus its boy racer personality no longer fit me. I still miss it from time to time just because so many of my prime/early adult years and experiences happened while driving it. It was a good run!

  • avatar

    This is yet another example of the cultural differences. To Germans, we live a very cheap market. We don’t pay ruinous displacement taxes like the French, or carbon taxes like the Brits. The typical German we see is a small six or big eight…until recently. In Germany, owning the gasser six is big, and owning the gasser eight means you are clearly on the way to your private Villa on The Bodensee. Normal folks buy a four or six, usually diesel. BMW recently got lots of criticism for sending us a blown four for the price of the sweet six…in our market, the gas difference in a 50k car is meaningless, we just got shorted two cylinders, no matter the benefits in the euro market.

    Almost no one in Germany buys the SUV models….you simply can’t afford to feed them at $10/gal. I was at a BMW dealer in Bavaria once…all diesels, 60 + cars, with two gas cars on the lot.
    There was exactly one X5. This was also reflected on the road-the one X5 we saw was a work truck for a caterer.

    Americans want //M, or AMG, or S-Line. We can’t use them, but we want the biggest engines possible, full boat. This is why there are so many problems with some of the big guns…they sit in traffic on the West Side Highway, idling down to Wall Street with the head filling with carbon. Unless “the kid” gets ahold of it, totally wasted potential-they never get up to temperature.

    Popping a VR6 into a Golf made perfect sense for them. The buyer has little add on cost (taxes/fees), Muricans like Torque. We don’t tolerate “zingy” engines. (I had a 16v GTi, Recaro package, and if you spin it, it goes quite well). Fuel costs in our market, till recently, were considered irrelevant….we still buy SUV !!

    The US is also a cheap market, in that we don’t pay for quality most of the time. Walk around the Auto Show (any of them) and look for quality, not Bling….two different items and not always price dependent…unlike Germans, who tend to buy for cash after saving, we want the lowest monthly payment. Cash buyer will do preventative maintenance, but lowest payment will drive it till it stops. This is why “gm will run crappy longer than most cars run at all” but euro cars get blasted as garage queens.

    • 0 avatar
      Kyree S. Williams

      “This is why there are so many problems with some of the big guns…they sit in traffic on the West Side Highway, idling down to Wall Street with the head filling with carbon.”

      I think that’s even the problem with my Mk3 Jetta VR6. The previous (and original) owner had it for seventeen years and only really drove it the relatively-short distance from her home to the college campus at which she taught. Hence, when I bought it at the start of this year (with only 91K miles) it gave me all kinds of trouble. I don’t think she ever really opened the throttle and drove it the way it’s meant to be driven. And a good buddy of mine, whose a mechanic at the VW dealership, says that the main problems he sees with newer GTIs and GLIs comes from people driving them like commuter cars and causing an overabundance of carbon buildup.

      • 0 avatar
        sproc

        This is how I justify scaring the piss out of my wife when I drive her A3 on the weekends. She couldn’t find the redline if I painted it on her forehead ;-)

        • 0 avatar

          I knew a guy with an early Accord who had plug fouling issues. Since he was the only person with a normal car I’d ever heard of with this issue….turns out HIS redline was 3k. I drove the car once and took it up to 5k….I still recall the abuse I took. I tried to explain that I didn’t hurt the car, but…

        • 0 avatar
          CRConrad

          Well, that *is* a hard place to find stuff; you’d need a mirror.

      • 0 avatar
        JD23

        “the main problems he sees with newer GTIs and GLIs comes from people driving them like commuter cars and causing an overabundance of carbon buildup.”

        The poorly designed early DI system in VW/Audis is certainly a significant factor, as the non-DI models of similar vintage do not suffer from the same levels of carbon build-up.

  • avatar
    carguy

    I so wanted one of those back in 96 but had to settle for the 2.slow version of the Golf instead. It was remarkably refined and probably had the best interior of any compact in its day. However, just as well I didn’t spend any more money on the bigger engine as it was the most unreliable car I have ever owned. Out of the two years that I had it, it spent 6 months in the shop with failures that just about involved every component in the car.

    Like Jack, I still like Volkswagens but not enough to buy one until I see some green ratings on Mr Karesh’s TrueDelta reliability rankings.

  • avatar
    tedward

    I really like these articles, especially your willingness to review the cars without resort to “rose tinted glasses.” (you seem to save those for 90′s fords for some unfathomable reason)

    I think the difference between MKII and III is nicely summed up here. The first two generations, when driven today, feel like vehicles of their era and somehow work in that context. The body roll, skinny tires and light weight all seem to be worn naturally and are fun to work around. Get in a MKIII and later however and you can’t help but apply more modern standards to the driving experience. These cars need suspension work to be viewed favorably by a driver, and all of a sudden super grippy tire compounds seem like a necessary upgrade. I wonder if it’s as simple as the weight increase between generations or if something more is behind it.

    • 0 avatar
      mypoint02

      All of the above. The weight was a significant factor, but the car was over-damped and under-tired from the factory. The stock Eagle GAs could be spun all the way through first gear without much effort and were downright dangerous in the rain. Tire and suspension upgrades made such a huge difference that you wondered how much thought was put into them when the car was designed.

    • 0 avatar
      imag

      I agree, and this is the essence of TTAC to me.

      EVO just did a very rose tinted review of the GTI line in their last issue. Baruth has captured the full spectrum of the cars, and his reviews are better for it.

      The manufacturers may not appreciate him poking fun at their marketing and brand positioning (let alone the the cars), but I’m glad someone is doing it. Good car appreciation means appreciating the whole, not glossing over the shortcomings.

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

    Ah yes, VW’s answer to Nissan’s Skyline aka the nosepig; I forget what the precise cornering g figures were for the first VR6 equipped Golfs, but I do remember well they compared unfavorably to 70s Detroit sleds still shod with bias-plies.

  • avatar
    alsorl

    A friend of mine had a Corrado vr6 with new cams and a chipped ECU. That car would eat M3′s and Mustang GT’s at every stop light. That engine was way underestimated back in the day.

    • 0 avatar
      05lgt

      My wife’s old VW mechanic had an MK1 with a turbo’d VR6 in it. I asked if it did anything besides roast tires and he joyfully replied “no, but it’s really good at it!”

    • 0 avatar
      JMII

      A buddy of mine had a Corrado VR6 and it was all kinds of awesome, it even had the spoiler that popped up at a certain MPH. However it is the car that I learned the definition of “torque steer”. If both hands were not at 10 and 2 when you floored it you wound up in the next lap ASAP.

      Good on JB for a calling out the stupid soft touch plastic parts of these VeeDub interiors. Our ’99 Passat’s dash and door bits flaked and peeled like a sun burned tourist after only 4 years. I’ve got an ’02 Dodge Dakota with your standard crap domestic interior but after 12 years in the Florida sun it is still PERFECT.

  • avatar
    omer333

    I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone with a Golf or a GTI, every person I know that had a VW had a Beetle (old or new), Passat, or Jetta.

    I know people buy Golfs, I just wonder why.

    • 0 avatar
      Beerboy12

      It’s the big door at the back. The Jetta has a huge trunk but at the end of the day you cannot beat a hatch for practicality.

    • 0 avatar
      FormerFF

      I had a Golf GTI, main reason being versatility. One weekend I’d load it up with windsurfing equipment and a couple of friends and head to the beack, a few weeks later I took it for a track day. It did both with aplomb.

  • avatar
    davefromcalgary

    I always thought the VR6 was an excellent design concept. I heartily enjoy ingenuity.

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    I have considered buying an old VR6 heap just for the sound. With some suspension mods and some throaty bolt ons they are a nice little run around. I would love one now actually but they get about the same gas mileage as my 350Z with 500lb less weight and 100 less horsepower. Inexcusable

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    I’ve got a “Sequoia Green” 1997 Jetta VR6 (automatic). It feels like a nicer and more solid vehicle than a Corolla or Civic (or especially Cavalier) of that vintage, but it also drives like a heavier vehicle than it is. Maybe the one with the manual gearbox is lighter on its feet; I don’t know. And, unfortunately, the VR6′s parts seem to cost twice as much as those of the other engines. Mine is out of service right now because the A/C compressor exploded and threw shrapnel into the radiator, ruining it.

    But I still really like the car.

    Also, they must have changed the steering wheel during the facelift because my 1997 has a different airbag cover on the wheel.

  • avatar
    50merc

    Yes, “Volkswagen originally broke into the US market because its products were cheap”. I knew a guy who in the late 60′s was selling gray-market Beetles brought into Houston where he’d have US-spec equipment installed. He called the Bug “a hundred-dollar car with a thousand-dollar paint job”.
    In that spirit, I’d call the functionally superior but fragile competitor Renault Dauphine a hundred-dollar car with a ten-dollar drive train.

  • avatar

    The handling missteps of the MkIII VR6 can be addressed with a cup kit (matches progressive rate springs and monotube shocks) or coilovers, some camber plates in the front, and a big fat sway bar in the back. That recipe is older than me.

    The weight balance not so much, but they still make fun track cars. And the sound of an uncorked VR6 is out of this world, even if they’re still running high 15′s.

    So much more character than the abominable “1.8T” that replaced it.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    About inconsistent naming: get over it. I’m sick of hearing about it.

    Naming always has been driven by marketing. It’s always been, and always will be, inconsistent. From the 4.5-liter 280SE to the 316 and 316i that were both fuel-injected to the turbocharged 3.3-liter 745i to the “Z3 2.3″ with a 2.5-liter engine to the 190E with five different engine displacements to the failure of any “eta”-engined BMW to accurately reflect its 2.7-liter displacement and on and on and on… this is not new and not a sign that The World Is Going To Hell.

    Oh, and, by the way, sometime well before the Big Mercedes Name Shift “E” stopped standing for “Einspritzung” and started standing for “Executive.”

  • avatar
    Victor

    I remember those Mk3 Golfs in Brazil. VW brought them to fight the Fiat Tipo. The Tipo was a better car, in every possible way.

    They brought the 1.8 GL from Germany, and then the 2.0 GLX and GTI from Mexico. The cheaper car was far better built, and didn’t have the US-market huge bumpers. Handled better, too. The Mk3 GTI was specially an embarrasment, as it was slower than the Gol GTI.

    Then they brought the Mk4 strait from Wolfsburg, and suddently we had VWs that were almost as expesive as the Audis the Senna family were importing.

  • avatar
    mikeg216

    The year was 1999 the economy was moving along bill Clinton was in the white house and life was good. I was a newly minted loan officer at the age of 18 and I had a pimpin ass loft apartment downtown and I was making it rain dollar bills faster than a rapper at a strip club in Atlanta. I decided I needed a car to fit my new lifestyle. I found a 1996 jetta glx vr6, black on tan with every option at a price I could afford. I went back to my office and jumped on that wonderful al gore invention the internet and Google led my soon to be car and came across the vwvortex. I called the salesman and told him I would not be purchasing the fine Bavarian bahn burner and promptly went to the Mitsubishi motors store and financed a brand new car at 3k under sticker and 0% interest. Quite possibly the best decision I made in my teens.

  • avatar
    RogerB34

    Good read.
    2L engines EU go back to the Ford Model T. 1937 was the V8-60 sold in the EU and USA. Driven by taxes.
    Classic Cars on Line has four VW listings between 1979 and 2000. An indication they were not valued by consumers.

  • avatar
    Johannes Dutch

    What we really have here is a VW Golf GFE, Große Fahrt Einspritzung.
    Gran Turismo Iniezione doesn’t sound right on a German car.

  • avatar
    wmba

    Ah yes, the infamous Mark 3 Golf.

    CAR magazine in the UK featured one on its front cover alongside a similarly sized lemon in the early ’90s. Inside they demolished the car.

    Here in Canada, the lowest spec model had a 1.8 engine, a smoother thing than the 2.0, but possessed of only 90 hp. My friend leased s ’95 like that, treated it like sht, and it ran flawlessly for years, even after he outright bought it. He bequeathed it to his young son, who lowered it, ran cheapo Chinese low profile tires and sport seats. It’s life ended against a brick wall several years after that. Each time I looked at it, the CAR magazine cover would flash into my mind. The poor little red car that someone actually managed to screw together correctly lasted a full decade with virtually no mechanical trouble at all, and certainly no care.

  • avatar
    Zykotec

    Never been a fan of German cars, and VW in particular, but this one was worse than most. I guess the Brazilian built ones were even worse, because there are still (too) many Mk3′s on Norwegian roads, stumbling about without a care in the world (except some overheating and headgasket failures) Their interiors still feel well built in trashed 20 year old examples, but rust and general lack of care is finally helping us get rid of them. Compared to most other cars in its class back then it offered a premium feeling up front, but rear seats were tighter than most (except the Civics, which were better at just about everything except sound and rustproofing, sadly there are still 30 Golfs for each Civic here)
    The VR6 makes no sense to me considering that they did make an Audi 80 V6 at the time. Maybe it worked as an ‘entry-level’ Audi V6 alternative? but then that again makes little sense since everyone really wanted a 5-cylinder Turbocharged Audi, and the V6′s were more of a stepping stone above the pedestrian 1.8/2.0/2.2 versions…
    Nothing in VAGs history the last 20-25 years explains to me how they can still be in business at all…or how Honda can struggle to sell cars over here…
    but , as I started out, I’m not much of a fan of German cars in general. Unless they were built in Cologne, in the 60′s-70′s

    • 0 avatar
      mypoint02

      The Audi V6 was 90 degrees and mounted longitudinally for Quattro models. It would never have fit in the Golf or Jetta as designed. As someone who has driven both, the VR6 was a superior motor anyways.

      • 0 avatar
        Zykotec

        I know, I didn’t mean they should put the V6 (which I think is the better engine) in the Golf/Fox. I just think spending the develoment money on creating an engine for a car whos only competition is the Audi seems weird, and probably wouldnt work without the hysterical fanbase both VW and Audi has over here.

  • avatar
    mnm4ever

    Didn’t the US get a 4-cyl GTI for the Mk3 as well as the VR6? Maybe not the first year but eventually? I skipped this generation, by the time the Mk3 was released I was into Hondas and then family SUVs. By the time I went back to sporty cars the Mk4 was released and I got one of those.

    You know, all of these VW classic reviews should make me nostalgic for the GTI and make me want to keep my Mk5. It doesn’t. I am still selling it. :)

    • 0 avatar
      mypoint02

      Yup – there was a Mk3 4 cyl GTI. No 4 banger the first year of the GTI (’95) though. GTI was only a trim package on the 4 cyl version. It got you alloy wheels, different headlights and taillights, and nicer seats than the Golf, but you were still stuck with the same 2.slow motor.

  • avatar
    Jimal

    You would think that the VW folks would have gone to the trouble of giving these cars a once-over before using them for media events. Of course that would require them to do so critical thinking and planning, and we all know they seem to lack in those areas.

  • avatar
    Stumpaster

    they don’t lean in America’s Cup anymore either
    http://images.tvnz.co.nz/tvnz_site_images/americas_cup_2013/2013/09/americas_cup_2013_s2013_eprace_9_abandoned_663905954.jpg

  • avatar
    Numbers_Matching

    I had a ’98 ‘Driver’s Edition’ GTI VR6. Owned for 9 years 247,000 miles.

    To sum it up: great powertrain in a not-so-great chassis (I did add Eibach springs – which totally transformed the car).

  • avatar
    Robert Gordon

    “The “E” at the end of Mercedes model designators like “280E” meant Einspritz. Fuel injection. This was meant to distinguish Benzos with injection from the sad-sack 230 and 250 models, which despite costing as much as a house in a decent neighborhood failed to ingest their fuel under any pressure beyond that of gravity.”

    Surely you mean ‘atmosphere’ not ‘gravity’


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