By on November 14, 2012

Stephen writes:

I have a 1.8T GTI, owned since new and more or less problem-free. Its clutch went early, and it occasionally eats a sensor, but otherwise it’s been a contrast to the image of VWs as unreliable money-pits. Now, this is a MKIV, which if you listen to Jeremy Clarkson or any of the VWvortex boffins, is about as desirable as an 80-year old Russian lady with the clap.

But it’s fine – enough get up and go to entertain me, and it handles fine. I’ve tried a new GTI – the DSG model gets to 160kph astonishingly fast with very little drama, but between the sound insulation and the (better) suspension the overall experience is a bit numb. In the MKIV you know you’re up to something.

My instinct is to do some performance upgrades and have some fun with it, as long as gas is cheap, then pick up a performance diesel in a few years if manufacturers can ever get around to importing them, 535d notwithstanding (errr, $50k).

Sajeev answers:

ZOMG SON, don’t you know that everyone on the Internet (and Jeremy Clarkson in particular) are never wrong? Never, never, ever.

I do consider the MKIV Golf to be a colossal turd, but with a caveat: everything is awesome when the original owner loves and cares for their machine.  Turbo SAABs, 3.8L Sables, 2.7L Chryslers, Diamond Star Triplets, etc…you see my point. But is it wise to start modifying such a troubleprone platform?

My beef with your plan is that modified GTIs are the usually the examples with serious problems, even if you aren’t the stereotypical GTI owner at this stage of the depreciation curve.  I would go super conservative: no turbo upgrades, no crazy electrics bound to wreak havoc on an already fragile German system.  My thoughts, in more detail but still generalized cuz I don’t know shit about Vee-Dubs:

  • Exhaust upgrades are great for Turbos: consider eliminating the stock muffler (straight pipe a la Dodge SRT-4, the turbo is already a muffler) and upgrading the catalytic convertor to a higher-flow unit.
  • Intake tube/air cleaner modifications or replacement with aftermarket part.  Just make sure you don’t replace your respectable cold-air setup for a ricey hot-air intake.  It must be isolated from engine heat.
  • Stock springs with your choice of premium shock: Koni, Bilstein, etc.
  • Swaybar upgrades? Not sure, but a matched set is always important in my world of Ford restomods.
  • ECU reflash: something mild, nothing insane.
  • Intercooler upgrade: if for no other reason other than to keep the system cooler and therefore healthier.
  • Sticky Summer tires to hold everything down to the road.

Good luck with your impending nightmare!



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13 Comments on “Piston Slap: Modifying the 80-year old with the clap?...”

  • avatar

    This is an easy one. In order, here are the mods you should do to your GTI:

    1. Mod the driver. Get some lessons.
    2. Good, sporting rubber. Pilot Super Sports for the summer.
    3. A light sprinkling of the “Stage 1” products found here:


  • avatar

    I have an Mk5, I understand what you mean about feeling a bit numb compared to the Mk4. I had the first year Mk4 GTI, the one that didn’t come with a turbo, it just had the same 2.slow from the regular Golf. And it was FUN, didn’t matter how fast it wasn’t, the handling and responsiveness was great. Of course it had all the typical electrical issues the Mk4 is famous for, so you are really lucky to have a good one. So now you want to tempt fate and mod it??

    My advice is to not change a thing on the engine. The extra power you will get is just going to overwhelm the FWD anyway, and it really isn’t going to be all that much faster, you will just end up breaking things. I wouldn’t even bother with ECU/downpipe/cat removal/CAI, you will just invite problems. If you really like the sound of an aftermarket exhaust, do it for that reason but not for power. Go for the suspension mods and maybe some nice wheel/tire upgrade, short shift kit, and thats it. Save the rest of your cash for keeping up with the stupid little things that break on Mk4 VWs like interior trim, handles, etc.

  • avatar

    I’m in my forties, but spent countless hours in my twenties thinking of how to hop up my ride. To cut to the chase, I outgrew that phase of my life. You’re not going to listen to what I say anyway, but let me repeat: you’re one day going to think the phase you’re going through right now is a waste of time and energy.

    You see, when you’re a young man, you have all these hormones driving you to download pictures that would shame your dad let alone your mom; to go to places that encourage intoxication because your country’s laws don’t actually reward the concept of personal responsibility until you become a legal guardian; and spend $200 for a $2 T-shirt that surrogates as your identity.

    When you modify your car, what you’re doing is trying to resolve a deep insecurity. This is what’s wrong with modifying your VW: what issue are you exactly resolving? Safety? Reliability? Lowering your cost of ownership? My answer: you’re just bored with your ride. If you acknowledge that to be the case, you now recognize that you’re living a boring K-selection lifestyle and now is your chance to move towards an R-selection lifestyle in the fast lane.

    So start modding that car. Because cars are often the only thing that has meaning to a young guy. Then, when you’re looking at settling down in 10-15 years, feel free to discard it all and start over again. Meanwhile all those boring people you dusted with your hot car have done things like travel, paid off debt, or upgraded their skills so they can write their own ticket in a down economy.

    It’s only time and money.

    • 0 avatar

      Stephen, when I was in my late teens and early twenties I spent thousands of dollars of my money on cars, motorcycles, women and drugs. But the rest I just wasted. Ignore WaftableTorque and go for it while you can. There’s plenty of us who’ve traded bling for diapers and traded excitement for mortgage payments. Live it up while you can. And then come tell us about it.

    • 0 avatar

      If not being bored with the car, and replacing a couple consumables at the same time, delays the next car purchase for a while, it might be a lot cheaper.

      Between the ages of 19 and 24 I spent roughly $7000 modifying a $2000 CRX, ending up with a car that might be worth $4000. However, I’ve also gotten eight years of use out of the car during and after the modifications; and it’ll be a couple more years before I have to put more money into it. Serial stock Miata ownership might’ve been cheaper, but not by much, and I also went from being fairly unskilled with tools to being able to do any mechanical or electrical repair on the car and fabricate parts for it. Short of a flood, a big wreck, or rusting out due to a few years of heavy winter service, it’ll last as long as there are parts available for 88-00 Civics.

      If for some reason I were to sell it, the buyer would get a bargain – an extremely responsive FWD car with enough power and traction to get any cornering balance you’d want, serious punch up to over 100 MPH, ridiculous agility, and low running costs due to a small, naturally aspirated four-cylinder turning 14″ tires.

  • avatar

    I agree with mnm: Stick to handling/braking performance upgrades. They are far less likely to cause problems and in addition to all the added fun, the handling improvements add to safety.

    ……I’m in my forties, but spent countless hours in my twenties thinking of how to hop up my ride. To cut to the chase, I outgrew that phase of my life. You’re not going to listen to what I say anyway, but let me repeat: you’re one day going to think the phase you’re going through right now is a waste of time and energy….

    I, too, are in that same age bracket, and I have to say this: I don’t regret a penny that I have ever spent on upgrades to any of my cars over the years. In fact all the fun I had doing the modifications and the fun I had driving the modified cars still makes me smile. And I still modify. Maybe the difference is that I did not spend tens of thousands, just thousands..even my station car received the high dollar parts like Konis and Michelins and never regretted it. I regret more the money wasted on booze than any money spent on cars…

    • 0 avatar

      Now it is my turn to agree with @golden, I am in my 40s too and the only thing I regret about my 20s is that I didn’t get my dream cars earlier and mod them accordingly! I still mod my cars, I still enjoy working on cars, and I do not see that ever ending. Is it a waste of money?? Not if I enjoy it, and it sure beats golfing.

      Everyone of course has different priorities, and if your priorities are “safety, reliability, and lower cost of ownership”, they make a really nice Camry for you. That was about the most depressing post I have read in a long time. I am going out to the garage now to work on my MR2 chassis bracing.

  • avatar

    Original poster here. This question is somewhat old, and events have since swept the GTI out of my hands. We now own a 4-door Golf TDI (which is great, by the way) and the sister-in-law got the GTI for a song.

    The comments are all over the map in what they assume about me. I’m 39, have a kid, and work in the internet tech industry.

    I appreciate all the “don’t dick with the ECU” comments. I really do. Until this thread, I always thought the first thing to do is get an APR ECU installed. The 1.8T engine has tons of design headroom and is bulletproof as long as you keep feeding it synthetic. (Which I was.) The ECU seemed an obvious first step to me.

    The sister in law got it with Pilot Sport AS’s I’d put on it this past spring. She and her husband are geeks, and I hope they have fun with it.


    • 0 avatar

      Congrats on the TDI, they are really great cars too, I sometimes wish I had gotten one of those instead of the GTI, usually right after I fill the tank after averaging 22mpg in my car.

    • 0 avatar

      Your initial instincts were right. Flashing the 1.8t is not a big deal. After that short shift (diesel geek or forge for ex) tires and suspension. Exhaust last. Really this is a widely modified engine and the car has huge aftermarket support. No mystery to it.
      All of that also applies to your new TDI by the way. Apr or unitronic for a stage1 file then just tighten things up a bit. All they are doing is raising output to equal what is available in Europe from the same engine in its top trim. Mileage will def improve and you’ll have a 300 lb/ft front driver.

  • avatar

    I’d like to add that these cars aren’t nightmares BC people modify them, they are reliably modified all the time. They earned that rep BC of dash electronics for the most part. The mkIV nightmare stories come from innocent bystanders expecting a Camry experience.

    The 1.8t is an ideal engine for aftermarket power actually…I’ve been in many that output 250 as daily drivers.

  • avatar

    Just another case of Look at me, Look at me, Status Anxiety. Some bald guy wrote a book about:

    “This is a book about an almost universal anxiety that rarely gets mentioned directly: an anxiety about what others think of us; about whether we’re judged a success or a failure, a winner or a loser. This is a book about status anxiety.”

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