By on May 25, 2014


(Sorry for the stock photo — had some camera issues during this trip — jb)

Moby Dick. Beethoven’s Ninth. Led Zep’s debut album. As much as we’d like to think that greatness is immediately recognized when it appears, the truth is that most of the time it’s widely pilloried. Such was the case with the second-generation Golf, which was widely considered to be absolute junk for most of its production run yet is now considered by many to be the apex of Volkswagen’s water-cooled production.

Everybody loved the first-gen Volkswagen GTI. But when the Westmoreland-built Mk2 (pronounced “Emm Kay Two” by the charmingly zaftig young blonde assigned to the “classic” portion of VW’s press fleet) debuted, the press turned vicious in a way that they rarely did even back then. Start with the styling, courtesy of VW in-house design director: far from replacing the timelessly creased Giugiaro Mk1, this car appeared to have eaten it, bulging unattractively at the waistline with tumblehome, sticking its ass up in the air like Miley Cyrus backing it up to a Beetlejuice-suited Robin Thicke. Up front, it was your choice of poverty-spec single sealed beams or the world’s least characterful DOT-approved “Euro” lamps.


The 100-horsepower GTI came in for the most criticism: slower than the car it replaced, less characterful, heavier, blander, and shot through with the notorious quality defects of American assembly, it was widely regarded as a disappointment. To address the issue, VW added the must-have fashion item of 1986: four valves per cylinder for an additional 23 horsepower.


The critics weren’t appeased in the slightest, moaning about the new lows in nose-heavy handling displayed by the “16v” and spitefully noting that the extra power appeared to be tucked into the last fifty revs on the tach. To address this complaint and several others, VW finally released the “Big Bumper” GTIs in 1990, along with a displacement bump to two liters and 134hp. The Big Bumpers traded the generic Jetta face of the old GTI for a quad-round arrangement. The resulting car was eventually considered the ne plus ultra of water-cooled Dubs, particularly in Montana Green.

And that’s what VW’s set out for us at its test day: a 1992 “Monty” 16v. The last time I actually laid eyes on a Monty, some six years ago, it was in the possession of a brilliant and mercurial young woman who would later on lose it to flooding. Death by water.

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

But as Townes once sang, it don’t pay to think too much / on things you leave behind. Before its Biblical reckoning, that GTI had been in meticulously fettled condition, but Volkswagen’s “heritage” car is, to put it mildly, beat to shit. It’s reluctant to start as I settle into the coal-black interior and twist the key in the traditionally flimsy ignition. Man, this brings back the memories, over a hundred thousand miles traveled in the Volkswagens of this generation. It’s all there: the upright seating position and the worryingly effort-free church-organ pedals, slightly less extreme than what you get in the Mk1 but startling in the modern context none the less, the shifter nearly on the floor in the narrow space between the seats, the flimsy turn signal, the doors that are thin enough to fit in the web of your hand, the syrupy smell of the HVAC.

The extra pounds and inches over the original Rabbit are well spent; this car feels just spacious enough. There’s useful extra space between the seat and the door, courtesy of that tumblehome, and the GTI feels significantly less vintage than its predecessor as a consequence. Until it comes on the cam, however, there’s simply no useful tug from the engine. It’s almost laughable how slow this 16v is. It’s at least “Prius slow” from a rolling stop, hampered further by gearing that feels much taller than what you’d find in the ’84 Rabbit. Eventually the cams arrive and the groaning underhood acquires a bit of an edge, accompanied by a mild pull from the front end. It’s easy to see how torque steer simply wasn’t a concern, even with the strut-front suspension geometry.

As with the other “heritage” cars at this event, this GTI is burdened with despicable rubber, slewing wide at a cornering speed that wouldn’t have taxed a Buick Enclave. Still, since they’re equally handicapped it’s easy to see why people liked the Mk1 better back in the day. There’s just too much weight over the front wheels. My old Fox, with its longitudinal engine, had balance that this chunky two-box hatch can’t shade.

It doesn’t help that this particular example might as well have come from a VWVortex for-sale ad: it has everything from peeling paint to a clutch that is certainly enjoying its last weekend on earth. And yet, in the course of just a few miles I’ve mostly forgotten the condition as I revel in the simple correctness of the Mk2 Golf. Sporty it’s not, at least not in any way we’d recognize in the modern era, but it’s honest. Volkswagen might have styled the thing with a rubber model of the original Golf and a bicycle air pump but they sweated the details that count. The radio: it’s at the top of the dash. How many lives have been saved by the simple expedient of putting the most distracting part of the car near the windshield? The instruments are clean and straightforward, white on black. Same for the hazard button. There’s a single blinking bulb for the turn signal indicator. Why have two? Surely you know which direction you pushed the stalk, right?

Control efforts are light but accurate. Visibility remains excellent, if a touch less outstanding than the Mk1. The seats are good. This was the era when Volkswagen strove for competence and usability rather than faux-BMW upscale appeal. Thirty minutes in this car will change the way you view your own; surely the Mk2 is about all the vehicle 95% of people need. Heresy time: the monstrous trunk of the Jetta is probably worth the extra weight and size, particularly since it wasn’t that much slower than this already lackadaisical hatch.

It’s easy to fall in love with the unvarnished virtues of the second-generation Golf. The only problem is this: in 1992, this was a mild update of an eight-year-old platform that was little changed in basic structure from the 1974 original. An eighteen-year-old car, without much power, selling for a premium price. If you only shopped Volkswagen, as many people did and still do, it was fine. But in 1992, it was possible to spend less and get a Sentra SE-R. The difference on any fast road between a Mk2 GTI and a Sentra SE-R is only marginally less humiliating for the VW driver than it would be were the competitive car a modern Nissan GT-R. Should we even mention the DiamondStar turbos, which were so quick as to be in a different world entirely? The Mazda 323GTX would show taillights to the GTI in all conditions. Hell, your local Ford dealer sold a 127-hp Escort GT that was a better handler and just as quick, for considerably less.

Volkswagen knew they were selling a pig in a poke, and they had plans to blow the competition into the weeds. But the best laid plans often go awry, as we’ll see. Today, the 1992 GTI 16v stands as the best expression of the original water-cooled VW ethos. Simple, tasteful, competent, desirable. The paint has faded on most of them, but their well-earned reputation retains its luster.

(VWoA provided transportation and accommodation for this event, including at least six shots of Ketel One that led to a rant on the part of your humble author about a purported similarity, if not kinship of a sorts, between himself and the fictional character “Avon Barksdale” from The Wire.)

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22 Comments on “Capsule Review: 1992 VW GTI 16v 2.0...”

  • avatar

    >>absolute junk for most of its production run yet is now considered by many to be the apex of Volkswagen’s water-cooled production.<<

    These two points do not contradict one another.

  • avatar

    Jack, I too had 110k+ of seat time in this era, in the 8V GLIs. It was my favorite automotive time.

    I was never interested in the 16V. In the low revs it clearly lacked the torque of the 8V engine, and the fuel economy was less to.

    With either engine, the power wasn’t overwhelming like today, but it was nicely balanced with the rest of the car. Maybe one could get more power from a different brand, but then one would give up the rest of the overall goodness too; there was clearly a ‘German car feel’ in this era that I loved. I recall zooming along I-96 toward Lansing on one occasion, for 30 minutes I was following a motorcycle and following me was a Z28. ; we were blasting-and-passing as traffic allowed. For all the drama and noise of the MC down-shifting in openings of traffic, he never really pulled away from me much as I just calmly matted the pedal, and off I would go. I had the GLI’s high gearing, 80mph = 4000 rpm, to thank for this. Even this driving aspect seemed well thought out by VW at the time, and If I held it constant to 80mph, I would get 28MPG. I wasn’t about to trade that for 20HP, or even 50. Um, I was sensible during my semi-dangerous youth.

    The handling was outstanding, the steering had real feel, so the setup allowed confidence to use 100% of the car’s limits. The Corvettes/Camaros/Firebirds were laughable at the limits, set up for racetracks not the real world. Road imperfections didn’t upset the VW chassis much; it felt like the car was punishing the bumps, and not the opposite.

    Reliability was spotty. I had a unreliable one, and a very reliable one. I personally preferred the MK-II over the first in styling. The huge trunk was awesome. Finally, if all this goodness I experienced in this car was a result of refining an old platform, then I’m all for that. Thanks for the article.

    • 0 avatar

      I also had a very good experience with my 16V GLI. Essential a 4 door sedan of the GTI. The recaro seats were very supportive yet very comfortable for long trips. Unlike the newer recaros in the Focus and Fiesta.

  • avatar

    I owned a 1988 jetta gli 16v. Put over 360,000 miles on it. Took one extra quart of oil per 4000miles. But it also had the original clutch. It was simply the best car I ever owned, very reliable, solid bullet proof car. It might have helped my neighbor was a certified vw mechanic and did all the maintenance. But it was just maintenance, no major issues.

    • 0 avatar

      A friend of mine had an ’88 8V GLI. It was sold to her for $3k with 110k miles. Cheap. At purchase it had $3,000 of receipts of recent dealer work (I think the other owner “had enough” of repairs at that time). She drove it well past 300k miles, and I don’t recall any costly repairs. She sold it to a kid in town, and she still occasionally sees it on the road.

      Her car would mysteriously burn a quart of oil every 1000 miles or so. We and the dealer never could figure out where it was going. Early on, we stopped changing the oil; we just changed the filter every 5k miles!!!

      I still look for ads to buy one of these cars, but… maybe it’s better to have the golden memories.

      • 0 avatar

        Yeah I sold mine to a local kid in town. I would also see it for about two years after the sale. Then a friend saw it in a bad wreck. Looked like it was hit from the side. It was almost like losing a family member. But I do recall selling it for around $5500 in 1996.

    • 0 avatar

      One of my coworkers where I worked in 2000 had an Mk2 Jetta. I can’t recall the year exactly, but it sticks in my mind that it was an early-mid 80s model. To me at that age, it was a very old car but not of classic status. I think it had some ludicrous number of miles on it, like 280+k, and he always claimed it was practically bulletproof. It was a manual, I believe he bought it new, he drove it in the salted snow country in all weather conditions, and he never seemed to have a problem with it.

      For contrast, he was a boomer, so his wife got him to buy a GM SUV, which was, in his opinion, the most unreliable piece of crap he’d ever owned.

      Not sure if his was just a gem or if they just had some lucky magic combination with this model.

  • avatar

    By last count, I’ve owned no less than four of these Mk2s over the years, including the one I had someone weld a cage into to go rallying… then IT racing… no, rallying with… before running out of money and selling it. I’d have another one in a second if I could find one in halfway decent condition that hasn’t been modded. In that dark red metallic color. I drove a metallic blue ’85 Jetta through college and the car never let me down. My favorite Volkswagens.

  • avatar

    Avon could never overcome his Corner Boy roots, despite Stringer Bell’s attempts to go upscale and legitimate. Michael Corleone tried the same and failed. It’s encouraging to see you embrace your VW roots, Jack, despite the considerable anti-VW commentary here. Poot, Bodie, Bird, Weebay, Little Man, and yes even poor Wallace would approve.

    • 0 avatar

      But not Snoop. When she went to buy the nail gun, the seller told her “this is the cadillac of them.” she laughed him off, telling the people who were waiting for her in the car “he meant the Lexus of them all.”

  • avatar

    Those early Mk2 GTIs had loads of “features.” My father’s had special US factory-misaligned engine or subframe mounts which made it eat gearboxes every 600 miles. After gearbox number three was installed, it was traded straight up for a Jetta GLI. That car was as close to flawless as any VW gets, but the dealer service department hit everything but the lottery with it, so it got traded before the half of the car they had repainted no longer matched the factory spray.

  • avatar

    “… but they sweated the details that count. The radio: it’s at the top of the dash. How many lives have been saved by the simple expedient of putting the most distracting part of the car near the windshield?”

    Yes, simple competence. Compare that to the radio location in the Citroen GS /GSA … wait for it … between the front seats, behind the gear shift.

    They found the perfect place for the cassette opening to eat potato chips, escaped pieces of sandwich, french fry, and to maximize distraction from the road. I count one low speed fender bender to my record from that.

  • avatar

    The American built cars, starting in 1979, we’re very similar to the Chevy Citation in quality. The German built cars preceding them may not have been very reliable, but they were very well built. Fun to drive too.

    • 0 avatar

      These ones were built in Mexico, not US. I bought one of the first GTI 16V 2.0s from the Mexican production, in early 1990.

      I will argue that in the context of 1990, not far beyond the malaise era, 134 hp wasn’t all that bad. I greatly enjoyed driving it for five years, and those (real!) Recaros were fantastic. I had the original 2-piece BBS alloys stolen off the car on my driveway, but otherwise I recall the car was reasonably reliable, no significant repairs (or overnight stays at the dealer) come to mind.

      My next car had a V6 and a lot more grunt, but, oh, how I missed having great seats. That one only lasted 2 1/2 years until I bought another car with proper sport seats …

  • avatar

    In those days, what I read about the GLI vs the GTi was that the trunk gave the body a bit more rigidity and so a better ride and slightly better handling but the hatch, nose heavy, or tail light, was more chuck able due to not having the added pendulum weight of the trunk hanging off the back. In today’s world a hatch is every bit as ridged as the sedan version but with the rear wheels right at the back of the car.
    I also remember reading the 16 valve was prone to blowing the head gasket under certain conditions. It had to do with the placement of the thermostat and the huge amount of heat generated by the 16 valve head.
    Also from this time VW lost out to the Opal Kadette GSi (the boss) which had a far better 2.0 16 valve motor.

  • avatar

    It’s beyond my memory but I thought the press loved these things? I remember the 2.0 GLI getting great reviews. One of my paper route customers had the 1.8 16v and I always thought it was cool with those leather seats with “RECARO” on the seat backs.

    We had Audis in my family, it was a similar story though, 89 80 Quattro, awesome build and great driving position and stellar seats. AWD was a bit of a novelty and great in the winter. But 130hp and really soft suspension meant the Maxima SE would eat it for lunch, and that Audi cost 28k the Maxima I thinks was under 20k. huge discounts for existing Audi owners and out of the old lease a year early though, so my Mom bought the Audi over the 325ix I told her to buy ;-)

  • avatar

    My brother had one of these, purchased used, around the time I got my ’95 GTI VR6. While I liked his styling a lot more than mine, he certainly got a bad one. It seemed as if humidity fluctuations rendered it unable to start and he used to bring it to an Adirondack VW witch doctor for regular exorcisms. The incantations only helped for a while before it started acting up again. Looked great, but a real POS.

  • avatar

    Had one, bought used. The only problem was that the 16v only parts were obscene. Normal VW parts weren’t….but if VW had an exclusive, then, well, it was rough.

    I liked mine, but at the end of the line, needed something more reliable (began driving for work) and had two buyers. One was a local musician who liked the car, had seen it around. The other was a VW geek who showed up in a G-Lader powered car. A short discussion showed G-Lader guy knew the deal-he’d replaced the g-lader himself in the car he took to see mine….he got the car, even though musician literally cried when I told him the car was gone.

    I’m an ex motocross guy, so I wring out every engine I get ahold of. I doubt my TDI will have DPF issues, as it gets full RPM and full temps up hill…and I think my current TDI may be faster :)

  • avatar

    I had an early 16V… 86 or 87 can’t even remember which one, but this explains why it was not really any better than my previous Scirocco. I thought it was so cool back then, until it started breaking in wonderous and expensive ways to a part-time college student without any real automotive knowledge. For example, I couldn’t even tell you how many miles it had on it when I got it or when I sold it, I just didn’t think in those terms back then. Don’t know what I was thinking really, I am shocked now at how much of a dumba$$ I was back in the day!

  • avatar

    An overly harsh review of the MK II…Although the exterior was not near as crisp and clean as the MK i, the interiors were infinitely better…Gone was the “malibuzation” of the Golf.
    Car & Driver named the GTI to its 10 best list in both 85 and 86, and most road tests showed even the 8V to be just as fast as the Mk I.
    I owned an 86 with the 102 hp 8V and an 88 with the 123 16V…Loved them both but especially the 16V…It had a nice exhaust growl aqnd looked great especially in white with the black rockers and fender flares and the red trim on the moldings and bumpers…Inside the seats were awesome, the A/C ice cold and a roomy hatch.
    Lighten up, for the time, these were great cars

  • avatar

    “Simple, Tasteful, Competent, Desirable”.

    Why does the author rag so hard on the car with those closing words? Doesn’t make sense.

    I have a 92 GTI 16v. It is the coolest car. The seats never leave my back achy. It sounds wonderful. The doors are actually quite durable sounding (?) and wiry the added KW Coilover, Neuspeed sway bars and front Stress Bar.. You simply cannot upset this car. It handles perfect.

    The styling is no non sense, aggressive, but tasteful. It’s timeless. Unlike a same era Escort GT or Sentra SE-R. I drive both of those, as well as an Acura Integra LS, and Mazda MX3 V6. The GTI was by far my favorite.
    It had feel. Character. Those seats! The motor had more torque. I knew that this was a car I would enjoy for the long haul.
    I cannot imagine I would feel the same had I chosen an Escort GT.

    I purposely snatched one of these rare last of the breed MK2’s before the MK3 was released. The styling became boring, and they added too much power crap inside. It became heavy.

    The MK2 GTI 16v was the best hot hatch in the USA. Ever.

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