By on May 18, 2014

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In a couple of days I’ll have a review of the US-market seventh-generation GTI. Spoilers for that review can be easily obtained by checking out my drive of the Euro GTI from last fall. I’ll also have two articles on the new “TSI” 1.8-liter base Golf and the next-generation TDI, all from the same drive event.

VW’s eager to emphasize the history of the Golf in America, and part of their plan to do so involved having examples of all six previous GTIs available to drive for short loops. Naturally, I started at the beginning.

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The original round-headlight Golf GTI was the proverbial “class killer”, offering 110 fuel-injected horsepower to move just 1,800 pounds of Giugiaro-creased steel. We didn’t get that car in the United States, but the buzz on the car was so good over here, even in a pre-WWW era, that VW decided to add some luster to the rather dismal Westmoreland Rabbit by creating a GTI variant.

With ninety horsepower to push 2100 pounds, plus the unlovely square headights, dual-purpose corner markers, and wide taillights, the Rabbit GTI wasn’t exactly a perfect isomorphism. Still, to a nation starved for amusing automobiles, it was meat on the bone.
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This particular example was in robust and tight condition, with a noisy aftermarket exhaust but no other obvious alterations. I hadn’t driven a Mk1 in something like twenty years, so it was with considerable and cheerful surprise that I realized that I was immediately comfortable in the car. There’s no tumblehome, which means no wasted space, and it’s possible to put one’s arm on the windowsill without pulling a ribcage muscle or dislocating one’s shoulder. The shifter falls ready to — oh, sheesh. If we’re going to get all DED, Jr. about it, why not just let the man squick, er, speak:

[T]he Volkswagen GTI is probably the most entertaining car ever assembled by American workers. If the GTI were a woman, she’d have an IQ of about 130, play scratch golf, break 25 at skeet with a .410, know how to carve a leg of lamb, never miss a Jay Ward cartoon festival, and have an inexhaustible and playful curiosity about sex.

Alright then. One thing that Mr. Davis fails to mention — were the GTI a woman, she would have already been eight years old by the time she arrived on American shores. In car years, that’s far too ancient to rouse the interest of Roman Polanski, you know. The Rabbit was an old car by 1983 and the 1984 Honda Civic was about to make it look prehistoric. Still, freed from the very strict lens of contemporaneous competition, the Rabbit is impressive and handsome, with the red velvet interior somehow managing to avoid offending the sensibilities.

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On the move, this old car can easily hit the 50 mark in about nine seconds, which is what was promised back in those days when publishing a 0-60 statistic was both depressing and a not-so-tacit invitation to break the law. It sounds simply brilliant, spinning freely through the short gearing and conveying enthusiasm in a way that is difficult to describe without resorting to cliche. This isn’t a fast car, but it wants to go as fast as it can and better yet you can uncork it in pretty much all conditions outside an active school zone.

The no-brand tires on the fourteen-inch wheels barely have enough grip to make wide right-angle turns at 25mph, but the behavior of the car is outstanding at those very low levels. It doesn’t handle as well as my 1990 Fox did on thirteen-inch Pirelli P4s, but that has be due to the miserable rubber. Regardless, it’s not as “pushy” as most modern FWD cars. Both cornering attitude and actual lean angle can be adjusted with a quick lift of the throttle in midcorner.

Driving this old Rabbit simply makes you feel good. The reasons are easy to understand. After years spent in the dank black cave of the modern automobile, the 360-degree greenhouse, tremendous natural lighting, and bright red interior offer salvation for the enthusiast soul. Sit upright! Work a nonassisted steering wheel! Reach down and stir a shifter with just five gears! Even the three pedals work differently than you’d expect, being far more up-and-down than back-and-forth. It’s involving, and brilliant, and tremendous fun.

Problems? Sure, there are a few. It probably has the crash-test strength of a wet grocery bag. The engine, for all its in-your-face vigor, is too weak to make merging on the 80-mph modern freeway anything but a terror. It has a “RoadReady” tape deck by Craig but it can’t even think about keeping up with the tremendous noise from the wind, the road, and the Westmoreland-assembled interior. A long freeway trip in this car would rival a Harley-Davidson Sportster for discomfort. Still, I’d take one in a heartbeat despise its shortcomings.

Alas, too soon the drive is over and it’s time to return the Rabbit to its lineup, where it will sit untouched for the rest of the day as dozens of journalists walk right by it to get an extra serving of coffee or post-lunch treats. They say you should never meet your heroes — but if this GTI occupies a place in your automotive Pantheon, feel free to try it for yourself.

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63 Comments on “Capsule Review: Rabbit GTI Mk1 (USA Model)...”

  • avatar
    Jeff Waingrow

    Maybe it’s just my taste, but I think this review shows just how splendid a writer Jack is. Others struggle for the right words and end up looking like they’re trying too hard. Jack’s got the full arsenal, and knows when to use what. And on top of that, he’s grown in the job. I’m now an unreserved fan.

    • 0 avatar

      Yep, he honed this one. Tight and punchy.

    • 0 avatar
      jim brewer

      Yeah Jeff….but I don’t think the writer actually got around to saying what year the car is. A 1860 to 1983 machine I surmise.

      • 0 avatar
        Jeff Waingrow

        You surmise correctly, Jim. The car discussed is definitely from the period 1860-1983. Quite observant of you.

      • 0 avatar
        Jack Baruth

        Because I wasn’t told and I didn’t think to check the VIN (or look for a rear ashtray) until after I’d left. It could have been a 1983 or 1984. There are no significant differences between the two years for the purpose of this article.

        • 0 avatar

          Looks like an ’84 to me. On the 1983 model the bumpers were set further away from the body by longer struts.

          Bought my ’84 in 1996 for USD500, put 100k miles on it over 7 years. Added up receipts for over USD 6k in tires and parts (I did all the labor) offset a bit by getting rear-ended and netting USD 1900 in salvage value. Never did fix the bumper (tho I did buy an ’83 bumper that I never got around to installing, tripped over it in my crawlspace last week).

          The Red Menace got 31 MPG @ 80 MPH, did HDPE laps at Rockingham, Road Atlanta and Roebling road, had A/C that was cold enough to make a polar bear complain while dripping ice-cold condensate on the passenger’s shoes. The front seats were fantastic. Despite teaching my self to shift clutchless in it and generally driving it with at least one pedal matted at all times as far as I could tell it went to the great rallycross pitch in the sky with orignal engine, trans and A/C system. Too many axles and struts to count. For all those reasons it was brillant, not so hot were disentgrating window cranks and NVH levels of an amored personnel carrier. I loved it, my wife and neigbors hated it.

          I miss that car.

  • avatar

    I’ve gotten to drive a couple of these early GTIs, and I totally agree with everything that Jack says about them. As long-distance cruisers they aren’t the best, but they’re a fun little device for bombing around town running Saturday errands.

  • avatar

    I adored these cars.

    My second new car was an ’81 Rabbit. Four-speed stick, no air. I was gaga at how much better it was in every way than my first new car, a ’79 Horizon that had manifestly been ripped off bolt-for-bolt from the VW and cheaped out in every way.

    Eventually I put a set of swaybars and decent Michelin tires on it, and I had a poor man’s GTI (minus the extra horsepower). Exactly as Jack says, that car could really handle. I think it would have shamed some sports cars.

    I offed it before I had to and got a Gen 2 GTI. (I wonder if the steering wheel in Jack’s example is OEM — it looks exactly like the wheel in my ’86). The second-generation car that debuted in 1985 felt much bigger, more substantial and more mature. It was a better car in every way (except reliability, which was still VW), but that original Rabbit/GTI was so tossable while still feeling more substantial than my imagination of a contemporary Civic.

  • avatar

    The description of the driving position reminds me of a different German from the time. One of my early drivers was my father’s late-’70s 530i, and you really sat UP in much the way Jack describes for the GTI: low beltline, tall greenhouse, clear sense of every edge of the car. Makes me think of the flying car-pod that George Jetson toodled around in.

  • avatar
    Johannes Dutch

    Nice write-up.

    The “true” successor of the Golf GTI Mk1 was not the Mk2 but the Peugeot 205 1.6 and 1.9 GTI. As a matter a fact, to this day the French have always been better pocket-rocket/hot hatch builders than the Germans. They already started the fire in the sixties with the tiny Renault 8 Gordini and Simca 1000 Rallye.

  • avatar

    “[I]t’s possible to put one’s arm on the windowsill without pulling a ribcage muscle or dislocating one’s shoulder.”

    Little closer to home than Jack wishes at this point, I’m sure! (If those were Davis’ words!)

    Glad to see your recovery continues; hope your lady friend’s is going just as well!

  • avatar

    Great review, Jack.
    The second car I owned was a 1977 Rabbit, and it felt *great* to drive (when it was running).
    That Rabbit felt taut, and handled well – an Excellent Driving Machine (alas, also a reliability nightmare).
    A request to Jack: In the follow-up articles on succeeding and new GTIs/Golfs, would you please compare the handling feel of those models to contemporary competition (as your driving memory permits).

  • avatar

    My first experience of one of these was when as a passenger in a road race modified V6 Capri near Mt Tam we ended up following one and having too much fun watching it lift a tire in each turn. It wasn’t fast, but it was obviously fun. We ended up stopping and chatting and the GTI driver was a full on fan of his car. By the time I got to drive a GTI myself I’d already had my way with an 85 civic. I think I missed the time for it, because the GTI thing was forever lost on me.

  • avatar

    I dont folloe vw that much but i’ve always loved the gti sport mixed with practicality and most audi designs are top notch. So will the new tsi engine still have super charging and turbo charging? Also is that engine coming to the u.s.?

    Personally, I’m a roots/twin screw style supercharging fan and would much prefer that over a turbo, especially now that they are starting to clutch them and give you best of both worlds.

  • avatar

    I remember these well. Where I lived….North Jersey…..the kind of dudes….and they were all dudes…. who owned GTIs where, um, jerks. The were the kind of guys who would eventually move on to 3 Series BMWs.

  • avatar

    Brought a 1986 MK2 GTI new without power steering and manual. Loved that car only trouble that car gave me were the shocks. Driving into NYC everyday did not help either. Wonderful handling car. Car lasted for over 200,000 miles and i have owned VW’s ever since. Funny the mention of Peugeot 1.9 GTI. I was in Paris in 1988 on business and my agent and my self were out on a Saturday night and my agent picked a race with a Peugeot GTI driven by a pretty young thing and did he get his axx wiped. That Peugeot could move. Noticed a lot of them on the road around Paris.

    • 0 avatar
      Johannes Dutch

      The Peugeot 205 GTI is cult, a legend. It’s also quite a pitbull, let’s say it was the King of lift-off oversteer among the (hot) hatches. Numerous of them ended up as a treehugger, literally that is.

      There will never be such a “go-kart with a body” again in our current overprotective western world.

      • 0 avatar

        Try a Fiat Abarth with the nannies turned off. Just as tailhappy as the 205, and much faster.

        I had the GTI’s more mature German built sister, the ’84 GLI. Served me well through college grad school, and some years after. Fantastic car, even better balance, much better build quality. Mine was eventually upgraded to full 110hp no cat Euro spec and moved out quite nicely. Went over 350k before the tinworm got it. Motor and tranny are still in my shed.

        • 0 avatar

          And here I thought that you hated sedan-ized hatchbacks.

          I’d take the Jetta too though for the better balance, and the fact that sedan-ized hatches of those days generally looked decent rather than deformed.

          • 0 avatar

            Actually, I hate sedans. All else being equal, I would rather have had a GTI than a GLI.

            BUT, starving college student beggers can’t be choosers, I found a good GLI before I found a good GTI, and a lot of the reason that was true is because the GLI was a MUCH, MUCH better built car than the GTI. I bought it in ’91 (for $1850), with 150K on it, and it was nearly perfect. All the GTIs I looked at were trashed and rusty.

            The GLI replaced an ’85 Jetta 2dr that I had for 4 years and 120K miles. That was a great car too, but I had gotten tired of sweating to death in the summer, it did not have A/C. Only thing powered on it was the brakes, actually. Also a great car, stayed in my group of friends for more than 300K miles. I bought it with 17K on it.

    • 0 avatar

      I spent 3 years and about 90k mi. in an ’86 MK2 in the late 80s as well. I have the best memories of driving around Long Island with my girl (now wife) just being young. Had no real issues with it, I recall the doors leaking onto the rear floor and the plastic shift linkage was a weak spot. I loved it but haven’t owned a VW since. I toy with the idea of buying a new one now and then but it’s not really what I want to drive at 47.

      I would love to take a quick spin in one today just to recapture those days, even if only for a minute.

    • 0 avatar

      I had a Mk 2 as well, an ’87 with the 2 valve per cylinder engine. The 16 v engine was on the horizon, but after driving a Scirocco that was so equipped, I decided it wouldn’t be worth the money for the type of driving I was doing. I didn’t much care for the stock steering wheel. so I bought a Momo Mario Andretti signature wheel, which make parking harder due to the unassisted steering, but driving better.

      The achilles heel of those cars in an urban setting was the easy to steal DIN chassis stereo. While getting them out the thieves always broke the dash with was a big hit on your insurance. I lost two of them, but fared better than a friend whose entire ’86 Jetta was stolen.

      I only had it for about six years. The siren song of racing called me and I traded it for a Ford Aerostar that I used as a tow vehicle.

      When I was shopping for a new car a few months ago, the current GTI was one of the cars I looked at, and I was a bit put off at the plaid seats. I understand this is a tradition now, but I’m not sure when it stated, as my car had sort of a stripey fade thing going on with its seats.

    • 0 avatar

      Oh, yeah, the wheels were crap as well. I lost two of them to rather minor potholes, and they were expensive to replace. After the first one went, I probably should have gotten an aftermarket set, they would have cost about as much as the one VW wheel did.

  • avatar

    I had a ’77 Rabbit. The American assembled cars were a big step down in quality and looks.

  • avatar

    The sad reason it was on crappy tires is because you just can’t GET good rubber in 14″ anymore. Not much left in 15″, either.

    • 0 avatar

      Ain’t that the truth.

      I think Hankook is as good as it gets in the factory size on my Electra. I’m thinking about throwing on some 16-inch wheels off a later Park Avenue or Lesabre.

    • 0 avatar

      Understatement. I run cars with 13’s 14’s and 15’s. Rubber selection is poor at best. To get a decent summer tire it almost seems you have to go 16 inches or larger. Sorry dubs just do not look good on a 94 Legacy SS. And that is before we get to fun things like unsprung weight and so on. Please for the love of all that s holey make performance tires for 14’s again. YEESH.

      • 0 avatar

        “Please for the love of all that’s holey[sic] make performance tires for 14′s again.”

        I see what you did there. (I’m not a fan of big rim + tiny sidewall on bumpy roads.)

    • 0 avatar

      The Miata track crowd runs almost exclusively 15″ and seems to have no trouble finding good rubber, from streetable UHP to Hoosiers. I myself am quite pleased with my BF Goodrich Comp2.

      14″ is getting scarcer, but I think Dunlop still makes the Star Spec in Mk2-friendly sizes. I used to run Dunlop Sport A2, on my ’92 Jetta (185/60-14), and they gripped well enough to tripod the car around corners and exit ramps. H-rated, too, which was considerably more than the car’s engine could take it to.

      Part of the charm of that car was that it would continue to hold the line long after you started to worry about scraping the door handles on the road. Even that base model would oversteer when you lifted. I don’t know whether it’s just that I had less fear in my early 20s than I do now in my early 30s, but I drove that car faster everywhere than I dare now in my moderately-upgraded-suspension Miata.

  • avatar

    When I see Steve Sutcliffe slag the new M3’s throttle response, or read how BMW pipes in artificial engine noises at low revs, I wince at the thought of reading the rest of this GTI series. What exactly is it that we are driving these days? Am I really enthusiastic about relentless progress?

    Is it time for me to get a life?

  • avatar
    Brian P

    That none of the other journalists took the opportunity to drive this car … says something, I’m just not sure what.

    I do know that if I had an opportunity to take a test spin in an original Rabbit/Golf GTI in good condition (hard to find nowadays), I’d be all over it. Back in the day, it was either that, or a Civic SI, and it was pretty much a toss-up between the two. The Civic was likely the more reliable choice back then … but I betcha there is a greater percentage of Rabbits that survived to this day. Still not a great percentage … but I betcha more Rabbits survived than 1st or 2nd generation Civics.

    Back then, I had a Civic, but several friends had Rabbits – none were GTI. Probably half diesels, the other half regular gas engine models.

    • 0 avatar

      “That none of the other journalists took the opportunity to drive this car … says something, I’m just not sure what.”

      That they care nothing of “background.” Does the current GTI occupy the same slot the old one does? If you were to mentally provide the MK1 with 30 odd years of engineering and development, is the current car where you would expect things to end up?

      Some makers ignore their history and others embrace it while not staying stuck in the past.

      • 0 avatar

        Interesting perspective. The original US GTI was a bit of a plush toy. The interior was positively brothelesque compared to what everyone else was trying to sell to young drivers. The red or blue interiors were a tribute to your bad taste, while the exterior had all the right ginger-bread pasted on a dated body scarred by VW treating regulatory challenges in a punitive manner, as if they were angry at their US buyers for tolerating the DOT. It seems like one is required to say that they drove well, but the reality might be summed up by saying they shipped with excellent Pirelli P6 tires when everyone else was offering white walls as an upgrade. The exhaust was sporty sounding too, something Mopar had figured out a couple years earlier for the Charger 2.2. The seats were as good as it got in the four figure price range, which suited the cars’ precious nature. I remember my first encounter with a MKI GTI. It rattled, smelled funny in the VW manner of the time, and had the worst shifter this side of a Saab. The MKII family of cars was a huge advance, particularly the Jettas built in Germany. I suppose the current GTI does follow in the tracks of the 1st ones sold in the US, but it would be nicer if they followed in the tracks of the 1st ones sold in Germany instead. They were light and fast, sold on efficiency and the ability to run with the rich guys on the Autobahn. That (West) Germany is gone, and there are alternatives now that weren’t around over 30 years ago.

    • 0 avatar

      I’d probably be one of the few guys that would walk past the NEW ones to drive the MkI! I owned a 77 Rabbit that I tried to pretend was a GTi (alas, never happened…even with better rubber and a fresh repaint…lol). Maybe I’m a sucker for simple, but something about the upright glass, functional controls and lack of “stuff-itis” just pushes the right buttons. Sure, just about any and every car on the road today could wipe the pavement with the GTi, but I still wouldn’t sneeze at having a decent one parked in my garage for weekend play dates.

      Jack, thanks for doing the ol’ girl justice! Sad that so many turned their noses up to drive it…they truly are missing an experience.

  • avatar

    Nice review! The round headlights looked so much better, especially with twin lights (two each side). To say the red interior is not offensive is kind.
    I have never owned a MK1 Golf / Rabbit but have driven / driven in and worked on plenty. On working on them, in typical German car fashion, if you know how it needs to be done it’s not hard, easy even. It’s the bit where you have to figure out how it’s done, that is the tricky part ;-)

  • avatar

    In 1983, as a young engineer with more money than sense, I bought one of these from a dealership not too far from the car’s New Stanton birthplace. Seven years later, with two children to haul about, I traded it in for a 1990 Jetta. Much more recently I spent eight years driving a 2000 Civic Si. While the B16 screamer obviously had way more oomph than the GTI, I still feel that MkI was the best suburban shuffle car I’ve ever driven. It would no doubt still be fun around town, but I shudder to think about the result of any collision with the road leviathans that dominate our current landscape.

    Still love the snowflakes! I had two sets of them stolen off my GTI after I moved to Michigan.

  • avatar

    Even in it’s ‘mother-land\'(Germany) it’s really hard to find oryginal(‘molested or unmolested’) MkI GTI on the road(or ebay) ( There’s much more handsome GTI Karmann-cabrio-versions[with the same engine] ).

    Yes, french are the best ‘hot-hatches’ makers..
    ‘Pininfarina designed’ Peugeot 205GTI is more elegant and generally more mature than Golf GTI ..
    After GTI Peugeots , best hot-hatches were built by Renault : Clio RS and Megane RS ..
    Today the best ones are probably :
    B-segment: Fiesta ST
    C-segment: Megane RS

    BTW: Let’s hope these 3-D-printers will help to preserve(or maybe even re-create) some cool-cult-classics from the past, because producers(‘money-making corporation$’) seems to ‘give no sh..’ about their heritage ..

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    You can rest your arms on the windowsill, not a black interior and there are no plastic headlights to get all messed up and cloudy, I like it!!

  • avatar

    Be still my heart! My 1983 Rabbit GTI, the very first new car I ever bought ($8400 with a 17.98% four year loan — hey, it was the 80s!), is still the all-time favorite car that I’ve ever owned. Mine was silver like the one in the photos above, but had the midnight blue interior with the red striping down the center of the cushions. It was my introduction to automotive enthusiasm, and being an “foreign car” guy as opposed to the Mustang/Camaro/Corvette crowd who just didn’t get the allure, insured that us few GTI owners formed a bond that involved word-of-mouth discussions (there was no Internet) that went long into the night. “Hey, are the black door handles on your car peeling too?”. We waved to each other on the road, and looked eagerly for the latest issues of the VW specialty magazines at the bookstore.

    Pirelli P6 tires, Recaro seats, a 90 HP engine that screamed at high revs that made the car seem fast (the 10.8 second 0-60 time said otherwise but hey, it was the 80s), and a light clutch made for a friskiness that other performance cars simply didn’t have. Sure they were faster, but I never felt they conveyed he same amount of fun.

    I drove it for ten years, only experienced one issue (a dead alternator that threw me to the side of I-40 on a cold and rainy November night), helped me move into two different houses (the utility of hatchbacks), and gave me tons of wonderful memories. Other than an Evo VIII, I was never prouder to own a car than that wonderful little GTI.

    Thirty years later, I am currently driving a Mk VI GTI. Bigger, safer, more powerful, faster, an interior that rivals Audis and BMWs, awesome sound system, DSG, navigation — better in every way. Yet it simply can’t hold a candle to the that feeling of “Let’s Go!!!” that the Mk I did every time I fired it up.

    Thanks for the article, Jack. Sometimes we can get so cynical about this industry that we forget what brought us here in the first place. For me it was the 1983 Rabbit GTI, and I feel my life was enriched ecause of it.

    • 0 avatar

      I had the ’85 Civic S Hatch and feel the same way.

      My brother currently drives a Golf R and while is a long way away from this original Rabbit GTI the “soul” of the car is still there. Its small, (very) sporty, but totally usable – carrying a full set of extra rubber to the track for HPDE events then running circles around “faster” cars (like my 350Z!) due to light turbo tunning (plus AWD). This is one of things VW has been doing right since the ’80s. I hope they never screw it up because we NEED cars like this.

  • avatar

    A silver ’84 GTI was my also first new car. It provided mostly trouble-free fun for a couple of years until it was totaled playing the role of the lead victim in a four-car pile-up. (The speculation in the review about the crashworthiness of the body, or lack thereof, is quite accurate.)

    A guy in Oregon bought the GTI at a salvage auction. Using a donor Rabbit pickup, he transformed my car into an amazing red GTI truck. He tracked me down because in the back seat, he discovered an uncashed check from my insurance company lowering my rates for turning 25.

  • avatar

    Gotta agree with the first comments, this is a tight well, written article. It’s a style I would do well to emulate.

    On another note, does anyone else think that the driver’s side door and front fender is a different shade than the drivers side quarter? It looks that way to me in several shots, so I don’t think its just the light in one particlar photo. Mismatched paint has always bothered me…

    • 0 avatar

      Good eye, Thomas – I saw that, too.

      On another note, I had an ’87 8-valve GTI, and while I loved it, my 2011 is five times the car that one was.

      I think the car’s mission has changed over the years, but it’s still the best at carrying out that mission of all cars of that class.

    • 0 avatar

      Silver paint + the 80’s… probably rust repair. Although, the MK 1 was not especially prone to rust, less so than most of it’s competitors at the time that is.

    • 0 avatar

      I noticed! Then thought, no surely not on a VW provided car.

  • avatar
    bill h.

    Yup, I had a silver ’84 as my first new car, the main difference being that mine had the dark blue interior with the red accent striping. It was one of the last out of the VW PA factory before they shut the line down to start retooling for the Mk II Golfs/GTis. The ’84s, IIRC had an oil/water intercooler added to the filter housing to aid keeping the oil temps down, which in those days before synthetics were so common could run up to an indicated 120 deg Celsius without much effort. I also seem to remember that the bumpers were downgraded in crash resistance for ’84.

    Others are right that this was a better/more fun commuter car than a highway cruiser (3000 rpms at 55 mph in top gear) but I drove mine all over the country–the short gearing meant that the gas mileage wasn’t as great as other cars, but so what. And the nostalgia blurs some of the problems these cars had, such as a recurring exhaust manifold gasket failure every few years, and of course the dreaded self-machining transmissions whose pinion bearing shafts eventually drilled holes in the cases and let the gear lube leak out. But the years I had it gave me a benchmark for fun that I’m not certain has been surpassed in all the more capable cars that have crossed my path since.

    One fond memory of the GTi was not when I drove it, but when I was riding as a passenger when one of my best friends from college days (and someone I’d loved ever since) gave it a whirl. She had a brother who modified and raced Corvettes, she had driven them and knew what a powerful performance car could do. She was rightly skeptical about a “Wabbit”, but her first run around highway cloverleafs and back roads made her a believer. Over the decades we’ve been through quite a bit with our separate lives and families, but we are still close friends and enjoy the fun cars in our lives.

  • avatar

    I definitely agree with those who view this as a fun car. It may be hard to get it up to 85 mph, but at lower speeds it is a blast to drive. Open the hatchback, fold-down the rear seat, and it can carry a lot, too.

    When I bought my GTI in 1983, I was worried about the reliability of the American-built VW. My previous car, a 1979 German Rabbit, was a reliability nightmare, having to be towed out of my driveway twice, among other problems. Well, the GTI was one of the most reliable cars I’ve owned. I drove it hard for nine years, put well over 100,000 miles on it, and never had a single problem. In 1992, I traded it in for an Integra GS-R, which was ultimately a disappointment. I really wish I had kept the GTI.

  • avatar
    punkybrewstershubby aka Troy D.

    Excellent review, Jack.

    My heart always skips a beat when I see one of these. Growing up in San Diego, I can accurately state that these were extremely popular on the streets of SoCal in the mid to late 80’s.

    I always wanted one until I test drove a then new 88 Golf and then I had to swallow my pride and admit that it simply didn’t have ANY power.

    Love that body style. Just always will.

  • avatar

    This was my first car (used) for my college years. It was a hoot. Jack is right, you really can rest your arm on the window will and hold the wheel at the same time; it was bloody comfortable. That also meant that there wasn’t as much space between the sheet metal and you in the event of a crash. By comparison, you feel like you are swimming in air when you step out of a Mk1 GTi into a modern car. Still, I managed to fit four other carpoolers into the thing during my college years, and we all got along.

    Nevermind the 0-60; it was the 0-30 that made the car such a hoot. Lots of torque for the small amount of mass meant being able to take some corners one gear higher than a comparable Civic. Cruise at 35mph in fourth and mash the gas pedal: something. Do the same in an early 90’s Civic and you get barely anything. However, after 60mph the GTi starts running out of breathing room and it doesn’t feel quite so special anymore.

    The best part about that car? The seats. So comfortable and yet so supportive. The steering was awesome for hooligan runs, but the lack of powersteering made parallel parking the thing a chore. The gearbox was only so-so; shifts never did feel that precise. The cable clutch was divine; tremendous amount if feel, but there was a lot of wind-up in the gearbox that made slow gentle starts trickier than they should have been.

    Would I get another? Heck no, that thing meant visiting the mechanic every six months. But yes, everything that they say about the Mk1 is true.

  • avatar

    Lovely car, and still my fave. Bought a 1984 GTI, white exterior (only 10% were white) and blue interior. The seats were unique to the GTI and still the most comfortable I’ve ever had. Missing in the comments for the most part is that it had a close-ratio 5-speed tranny that was matched perfectly to the engine. It also added infinite utility because I could tow my 27 foot long, ~1500 lb sailplane trailer with it. Since the hitch was so close to the rear wheels, it made a *great* tow vehicle.

    27 mpg on the highway compared to 30 for the standard Rabbit, but well worth the little extra cost. The steering was perfect in a way that no one who’s never experienced a full-manual system can understand.

    Plus, it had front and rear wing windows!!

  • avatar

    My buddy in high school Imran had one of these. He had diplomatic plates and no regard for the law of any nation. Thus, we spent most of the time on the road at the redline, often on the wrong side of the centerline. He swore that his plates were cop-resistant. But I’m sure there was a file on his family at State, ever swelling with traffic citations, labeled persona-non-grata. Every trip to McDonalds or Two Chefs Pizza was a delightful terror. Also, his floorboards were literally awash with cassettes of then-obscure English music in broken cases. These I “borrowed,” indefinitely, being quite broke and suddenly desperately enamored of Manchester Beat.

  • avatar

    I grew up in love with the GTI. I didn’t even know that much about cars back then, heck in ’83 I didn’t even know there was a Euro version that was better. A older friend of mine got one, and I wanted one too, but it was way out of my first car price range. So my very first car that was truly mine, not borrowed from my parents, was a ’78 Scirocco. To my high school self it was nearly identical to a GTI, and I loved it. Of course as I learned, the GTI was still better, and I still wanted one. Then the MkII came out, and I wanted that one even more, I didn’t understand that it was just heavier and softer. That same buddy of mine got the very first GTI 16V our local dealer had. And of course, we thought it was better than the MkI, so now I wanted one of those instead. My Scirocco eventually broke down and I stupidly sold it to the mechanic because I couldn’t afford to fix it. Later on, I bought a used GTI 16V that turned out to be a pile of crap, probably why I could afford it. I got into Honda’s after that, then went through a truck and SUV phase, then the GTI bug bit again and I got the then brand new ’99 MkIV “New” GTI, which very few people know was released with a non-turbo 1.8 the first year. So I had all of the typical MkIV crappiness with none of the speed of the 1.8T! But it was still a very sweet to drive car, it never felt slow because of the sublime handling. Luckily it was a lease, so I was able to painlessly dump it at lease end, and I swore off VW after that. After a decade of family haulers the kids had grown up enough for me to get a fun sporty car again, and I found myself once again drawn to the GTI. I wanted to like the Civic Si my wife preferred, I wanted to like the Mazdaspeed3, but the VW spoke to me. Now I have had my MkV GTI for 5 yrs and its a really great car. But I think I would rather have an MkI GTI or another Scirocco for a fun car.

  • avatar

    “After years spent in the dank black cave of the modern automobile, the 360-degree greenhouse, tremendous natural lighting, and bright red interior offer salvation for the enthusiast soul. Sit upright! Work a nonassisted steering wheel! Reach down and stir a shifter with just five gears! Even the three pedals work differently than you’d expect, being far more up-and-down than back-and-forth. It’s involving, and brilliant, and tremendous fun.”

    I get the same feels from my ’82 Alfa GTV6, but with twice the horsepower! And, well, twice the headaches. But Busso V6 conquers all rationality.

  • avatar

    The only car I’ve ever owned that had better steering(if not handling)than my ’84 GTI was my first, a ’66 Saab 96 Monte Carlo.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    In ’84 when these came out I was so enamored I drove on down to the VW dealer with my ’81 Toyota and had my heart ripped out of my chest with the beating I’d take on trade in.

    Still lovingly look at GTIs, even these days.

  • avatar

    My first new car was a red on red 84 GTi. I took a bit of a chance because I knew the Mk2 was coming, but I was very happy when I saw the 85 that I had bought the 84. I kept that car for 4 years and had a ton of fun and no problems. Jack captured the wonderfulness of driving it very well. It was much more than the sum of its parts. I wouldn’t want to own one today, but I would certainly like to drive it. I can’t imagine a better reminder of younger/more carefree times….

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