As modern cars have become more and more competent and refined, they have tended also to become more and more devoid of character. While this may not bother most of the people who buy them – salesmen, executives, housewives, to whom a car is primarily a way of getting from A to B – it is a vital loss to anyone who considers himself or herself an enthusiastic driver. How refreshing, then, to find a thoroughly modern and well engineered car which feels as though it is meant to be enjoyed, not just used. In this respect, the high-performance VWs excel. Their engines and drivetrains positively encourage hard driving and, at the end of the day, they will come back for more when rivals are wilting under the strain. The build quality and durability of VW products is such that they can withstand hard driving – short of actual abuse – for very high mileages. Members of the press are not kind to cars when it comes to taking performance figures and’assessing hand-ling and grip at test tracks and it is notable that a VW that has covered the customary 12-15,000 miles before it is removed from the press fleet is still as taut and rattle-free as the day it left the factory. We have noticed various vehicles from rival manufacturers feeling distinctly loose and worn after 15,000 miles of such treatment.
The first time I drove a Golf GTI in the late 1970s, I knew I had found the car I was looking for. Up to that point, I had had various Italian sporting coupes that were fun to drive but had horrendous build quality, poor reliability and rust problems. The smoothness, tractability and will-ingness to rev of the GTI’ s 1.6-litre engine were almost unbelievable after the hiccups of car-burettored Italian machinery, and the doors closed with a bank-vault quality that promised a lasting relationship.
What was immediately apparent was that this little nugget of a car was exactly as big as it had to be and had the handling and grip to match its performance. It was the perfect size to negotiate London traffic and nip into parking spaces that were denied to small BMWs and, at the same time, its hatchback with folding rear seats made it an extremely useful car for carrying ‘tools of the trade’ or simply for an extended tour of the Continent. No wonder then, that the GTI, especially in black, soon became the pet of the Chelsea and Kensington set in London and ultimately the supreme ‘yuppie’ car across the globe. That type-casting was most unfortunate though, for the GTI, tame enough as it was to perform mundane urban duties, really came into its own on the open road where its sharp handling, small size and superb power-to-weight ratio made it an agile cross-country runner. It was equally at home on motorways and could run nearly flat-out for hours on end thanks to a strong engine and an oil cooler. It was unfortunate that the body structure and drivetrain conspired to create a boom in the rear of the cabin which was irritating to rear seat passengers. This happened at about 70mph, the British speed-limit on motorways, and meant that more serene progress was made above or below this speed.
The engine of the GTI 1600 felt almost unburstable. It would start first turn of the key even if the car had been lying idle for weeks and, once warmed through, would pull to the red-linelike a turbine, accompanied by a lovely rorty exhaust note. The gearchange quality was also excellent. The short stubby lever in the later five-speed cars was like a big flick-switch. With comparatively short movements across and up and down the box, it was a joy to blast this car along twisty A and B roads. The gear speeds were perfectly chosen: the five close ratios took up perfectly one after the other, producing one long blast of sustained acceleration if you did a standing-start to top speed run. Miss a gear, say if you went from third to fifth in normal driving to save on fuel, and you knew that the engine had dropped off the cam. In the more powerful l,800cc version, you could do this with impunity as the extra torque covered the ‘hole’ in the gear-box that resulted from skipping a gear.
The GTI had two obvious dynamic failings, one minor and the other only manifest in right-hand-drive cars. The minor flaw in its dynamic makeup was that the rack-and-pinion steering was slightly vague about the straight ahead. Once through this ‘loose’ area though, it was nicely weighted and communicative. Right-hand-drive GTIs had to have a cross-linkage to couple the brake pedal to the servo on the left-hand side of the bulkhead. This had rather too many pivot points, and the whole arrangement introduced so much flexing and lost motion that the pedal feel on RI ID cars gave great concern to fast drivers. Many aftermarket tuners attempted various combinations of discs and pads, but it was not until the problem was tackled at source, by improving the linkage and then fitting a bigger servo and discs, that a solution was found.
All cars based on the Mkl floorpan also tend to hit their bumpstops on hard bumps taken at speed. This seems to be a characteristic of the wheel travel and suspension design on the Mkl and is not cured even by fitting the progressively sprung Bilstein, Koni or Sachs spring and damper sport suspension.
If the opposition was getting as fast or faster in terms of raw power, as 1982 drew to a close, VWreplied with the l,781cc engine, offering just 2bhp more but with more torque in the low and mid engine-speed ranges. The bigger engine was not quite as sweet as the 1600, but it delivered the goods in a more relaxed manner and made for an easier car to drive swiftly. That extra torque was very telling when exiting corners. I remember testing a Toyota MR2 at Castle Combe circuit, w here my times were just 1.5sec a lap slower than Chris Hodgetts, the Toyota saloon car racing champion in a Corolla GTi : the little Toyota w as as fast as the GTI to 60mph and had a higher top speed but, coming out ofthe bends, a colleague in a Mkl 1800 GTI was pulling away quite notice-ably, showing just how much torque counts in fast driving.
The first Mk2 GTI I drove was a left-hand-drive car that had been personally imported to the UK. Coming out of a Mk 1, you were instantly struck by the more solid and substantial feel of the newer car. It was much quieter and more comfortable on the road, showing how standards changed during the nine-year lifespan of the first Golf. Although the early Mk2 GTI s had a similar engine to the late Mk l cars, small revisions to improve low-speed torque even further had left it a slightly lower-rewing unit. Extra size and weight also made the car feel less nimble.
On the race track, though, the new car showed its edge. With a longer wheelbase, it was less prone to oversteer on throttle lift-off even though it would still lift its inside rear wheel off the ground in very hard cornering. The car felt more stable and was very forgiving even if its driver was not quite up to scratch. I remember one incident at a GTI Drivers’ Club meet at Goodw ood w here one ham-fisted pilot got it totally wrong and went into a corner too fast (for him) and on the wrong line. Following behind, I saw him dangle a rear wheel in the air, lock up the other rear wheel in a puff of tyre smoke as he attempted to lose speed, and more or less manage to collect himself as the car barely deviated from its line. In many other cars, the driver would have left the corner backwards, but the GTI had enough in reserve to save its hapless driver from that ignominy.
Despite sporting spring and damper settings, the GTI Mkl had a comfortable ride and the occasional bottoming out at the front was more heard than felt. The ride quality ofthe Mk2 was even better. The longer wheelbase made its contribution to stability and ride, and longer wheel travel in the suspension, with re-rated springs and dampers, resulted in a chassis that took all road surfaces in its stride. The most important thing for British owners, though, was that the RHD version had been designed-in right from the start. ‘This meant that RI ID cars had a 182 different bulkhead with the brake servo moved accordingly, as well as a proper RHD wiper mounting too. With ventilated discs in front, and solid discs at the rear in place of the drums on the Mkl , the new GTI dramatically extended the braking confidence window for its drivers.