Compressed Timeline Test Drive: Three Hours in Three Generations of the VW Golf GTI

Alex Sobran

It took Volkswagen less than two years to give the first Golf the GTI treatment. Working in quasi-skunkworks fashion, the GTI’s engineers added a 100-plus-horsepower, fuel-injected four-cylinder and a sportier suspension, thus turning an eminently sensible entry-level, front-wheel-drive hatchback into the kind of car that compels its drivers to commit moving violations.

If the Golf was an evolution of the Beetle’s ethos, the GTI took up the fun-to-drive FWD mantle from the Mini Cooper S. And like the factory hot-rodded Minis, VW’s pugilistic hatchback always punched upwards, landing blows to sports car drivers’ egos on backroads around the world. In doing so, the GTI all but created a new enthusiast segment. Other manufacturers were quick to nip at the Golf with compact FWDs of their own, and many of them built higher-performance versions to contest the GTI’s nascent ascendency.

But does the GTI deserve this de facto reputation as the hot hatch benchmark? Some of the variants were stinkers, while others were revolutionary. To experience a few major nodes from the GTI’s timeline
firsthand, we drove three distinctly different generations—Mk2, Mk4, and Mk7— to compress decades of iterative growth into a few hours of driving in Western Germany.

Mk2 Golf GTI 16V: The Follow-Up

The first Golf GTI was a success as soon as it launched in 1976. Its sequel would either accelerate or stymie the GTI’s rise in automotive culture. VW played it cautiously but sensibly, and just like with the base Mk2 Golf, they kept the second-gen GTI’s initial updates to a minimum. A few creases became curves as the body bulged a bit, some weight was gained, a few creature comforts made their way into the cockpit, but the second-gen GTI was still a light and simple two-box design best suited for tight roads and eager drivers.

Volkswagen Golf GTI triple test engine
Alex Sobran

The Mk2 GTI’s engine was a practically inherited 1.8-liter that made the same power as the later Mk1 GTI’s did (about 110 hp). However, after a few years of production and facing new and numerous GTI alternatives in the market, VW launched a quicker version of the Mk2 GTI with double the valves and camshafts, pushing the 1.8-liter to produce 127 hp (137 without the cats) and 124 lb-ft of torque. In a rare bucking of the trend of Europeans getting faster versions of European cars than their Stateside counterparts, U.S.-market GTI 16Vs got an even more powerful 2.0-liter mill.

These GTI 16V cars, or “valvers” as the community often calls them, also upped the ante over the first Mk2 GTIs with a lower and stiffer suspension setup, and larger front rotors for post-1990 cars. Our test subject was a German-market five-door 1991 Golf GTI 16V that looked and felt like it was brand new; with just over 6200 miles on the clock, it pretty much was.

Our little flotilla of GTIs left Frankfurt’s major airport in a series of short 1st- and 2nd-gear squirts between traffic lights and automated gates, through merges and pedestrian crossings, always obeying the proliferous rule-enforcing signage that is to be expected at a large logistics hub operated by Germans. It wasn’t thrilling, but it was a solid simulacrum of inner-city driving.

The car was adept at maneuvering this Teutonic tangle, partly because it’s a Golf after all, but also thanks to the GTI’s tractable powertrain. It produced enough torque to leave the car in third gear if you wanted to, right up until you had to stop and start again. That said, the gear ratios are of the shorter, pep-in-the-step variety, which makes the GTI fun to manipulate in low-speed environments should you get bored of the car’s ability to thrum around town in third. This dichotomous nature is reflective of the car being both a Golf and a GTI.

Because it is boring to drive a plucky car like a sleepy one, I found myself always making a show of rev-matching downshifts before every red light and tight bend. That wasn’t necessary, but it felt like missing the point to deny the GTI’s playful inclinations. Pokes to the gas pedal were answered eagerly as demonstrated by the tach needle moving almost in lockstep with the pedal. The accompanying sound from the quick-revving 16-valve is its own reward, a mixture of intake noise and the characteristic bassy snarl of a naturally aspirated, high-performance four-cylinder that made me upshift well beyond the peak-MPG range. Highway driving came with a somewhat droning soundtrack, but when you have the space to fully use a few gears in a row, the series of twin-cam crescendos can be addictive.

Volkswagen Golf GTI triple test rear three quarter
Alex Sobran

The lack of optional power steering in this example made low-speed roundabouts and turns-from-a-stop a minorly inconvenient forearm workout, but it was worth the extra feel and feedback at speed. The suspension was firmer than I expected from an early ‘90s compact, making bumps and perpendicular road ridges a buzzkill. It’s like the steering in that regard; excellent when you’re in the middle of a corner on a fast road, at the expense of being a little too taut for optimal errand-running. The car feels best when you leave the population hubs and see the first “sharp curves” road sign that invites you to uncork the potential that burbles below the surface of downtown driving.

Freed from civilian confinement, the Mk2 GTI can reach that potential quickly, but this is not a blisteringly fast modern car. You can drive it flat out on narrow roads that would make everyone but a maniac or moron dial it back in a modern sports car. There is torque steer coming out of sharper turns in second gear; there are some bucking weight shifts when you let off or get on the gas too abruptly; and it isn’t impossible to mess up a corner to the point where you’ll pay for it, but it’s easy to rip along at or above 75 percent of the car’s abilities without requiring superhuman ones of your own. Did the GTI hold onto this youthful verve as it grew up? Let’s see.

Mk4 Golf GTI: A New Millennium

The fourth-generation GTI was tasked with bringing VW’s funmobile into a new era, but it arrived on the scene as a clearly compromised effort that was more Golf than GTI. Why? In the lead-up to Y2K, Volkswagen was expanding, bringing more automakers into its fold, and reshuffling its model range to
make room for its ambitions and additions. In the Golf’s case, that culminated in a move upmarket. The GTI suffered for it.

It was still the classic two-box hatchback shape, but it had the most bubbly and rounded styling of anything in the GTI lineage, before or after. What looked nice and mature for a grocery-getting hatchback for an urbane 20-something ended up lacking the sporting identity of its predecessors. Performance-wise it was the same story for the fourth-gen GTI. At least initially.

Volkswagen Golf GTI triple test engine bay
Alex Sobran

The engines available at launch were anemic (there was even a naturally-aspirated option in some countries that made less power than the Mk2 GTI 16V we drove), the styling was too sedate, and the chassis acted like it just didn’t want to be there when pushed to perform. That’s a harsh and cursory
summary of the car, but it’s accurate when contrasted with the model that should have been the first Mk4 GTI: the 25th Anniversary edition.

Offered for the 2001 model year to celebrate the original GTI’s 1976 debut, this version of the Mk4 admirably remedied those initial faults with a more powerful 1.8-liter turbocharged, 20-valve inline-four producing 180 hp and 174 lb-ft of torque, transferred to the front axles through a six-speed manual with
shorter gear ratios. VW also sharpened the handling with a lowered, sportier suspension setup, stickier tires, and stiffer bushings. The styling was souped up to boot, with the overly subtle base GTI’s look transformed by a deeper front air dam, a color-keyed body kit, and some blinged-out BBS wheels with
18 inches of fender-filling presence.

During our road test, the GTI 25th was, in a word, sublime. It wasn’t shockingly fast or über raw or the king of feedback, but just an extremely pleasant performance car that’s hard to get out of and easy to make excuses to stay in. I’ll admit to being biased here, as German cars from the nineties and noughts defined my automotive enthusiasm growing up and remain some of my favorites to drive today. But this GTI doesn’t rely on sentimentality to deliver its charms.

On the distended sweeping corners through the forests near the Nürburgring, everything about the car felt calibrated. Every aspect gelled into a singularity. The interior ergonomics turn the cold physical world
into a more intuitive-feeling one, and the bouncy clutch pedal action feels directly connected to the feel of the changing gears with the dimpled golf ball-esque shifter knob. The steering weights up quickly when you send it into a tight turn and the front dives a little bit, but the overall feeling is an ability to rotate without crazy changes to its driver’s gyroscope. It is neutral, linear, and confidence inspiring to drive quickly, and when driven extra aggressively, it feels like a proper GTI instead of a Golf forced to reach beyond itself.

Volkswagen Golf GTI triple test interior
Alex Sobran

The Golf character traits are still there, though. Even in this hotter spec, the fourth-gen is much quieter and comfier than the one that came before it, and especially so in comparison to the older Mk2 that I drove earlier in the day.

The Mk4 will mosey through a German hamlet with only its bright red paint and shot-peened 18s calling attention to it, and maybe a slight chirp and flutter from the turbo when lifting off after spooling up. Upon exiting these domestic patches for the well-paved and cambered countryside routes that
connect them, the GTI comes back to life.

The final stretch of my stint in the Mk4 was on the kind of road that I usually loathe: a perfectly-shaped snake of asphalt climbing upwards into the woods without any civilization to speak of, but completely ruined by swaths of sloppy pothole patches that seemed no better than the problems they’re supposed to solve. The perfection of everything else about the road only made its surface more infuriating.

But it was a bona fide blast in the GTI.

I expected every piece of interior trim to buzz and rattle and squeak in agony as I did my best to gingerly traverse the lumps and craters below, and while there was some fussiness from the plastics, the ride wasn’t nearly as nerve-jangling as I feared. It felt more like a tarmac rally stage than a trim-cracking
wince fest. The GTI demonstrated its agile chops as I whipped it back and forth to trace the smoothest line, which meant tons of aggressive mid-corner adjustments and a constant inertia-shifting zigzag even on the straights.

Despite my jarring inputs, the GTI always responded, “But of course I can!” Bouncing between the Recaro’s bolsters, driving with both feet incessantly pressing the pedals, scrabbling around the road like a crazed cat, I had an absolute ball. It felt like the car did too. I knew that successive GTIs were faster and grippier than this, but were they better for it?

Mk7 Golf GTI: The Record-Breaker

By the time that any product reaches its seventh version, development should be somewhat routine. Volkswagen had decades of experience building GTIs when it was time to make the seventh. They knew their customer base and what they responded to, and they certainly knew how to make a fun FWD. It
would be easy to engage in laurel-resting behavior and lightly churn the Mk6 GTI into a Mk7 GTI, for there is only so much that can be improved on a GTI until it becomes a Golf R.

Even with the Mk7 riding on a brand-new platform, almost all of the earlier generational updates to the GTI were more significant (the Mk5 to Mk6 being the exception). Automotive technology advanced in a more stepwise way back then than it does now. Improvements came in the form of adding instead of refining.

Volkswagen Golf GTI triple test side profile
Alex Sobran

The Mk7 GTI is not a whole lot better than the Mk6. Yes, it rides on a different VW platform and it outperforms in every metric, but both cars are modern machines, free of major faults. There is less room now for mistakes, and the cars are increasingly separated by subjective rather than objective measurements; the seventh Golf GTI is great, just like the one before it and the one after it.

But the Clubsport S stands apart. It is a true Goliath killer, and its 306-hp slingshot put it squarely in uncharted territory back in 2016. Why did VW bother building it when they already had the ultimate road-going Golf R on its roster? One, because they could sell it. Two, for bragging rights. That year, Volkswagen brought racer and VW test driver Benny Leuchter to the Nürburgring and put him in a Clubsport S to break the track record for FWD production cars.

Volkswagen Golf GTI triple test light
Alex Sobran

This is that Clubsport S. As in, the car pictured is the same one that Leuchter pedaled to a record-breaking 7-minute, 47.19-second lap of the Nürburgring Nordschleife. The livery on the car shows a different time, because Leuchter had already broken the record before he returned to beat it again a few months after the celebratory graphics were applied. Talk about iterating.

So, what’s it like on the road? It’s wicked, and after driving the Mk2 and Mk4 GTIs, it took some major personal recalibration to get used to the pace and grip. Whereas the other cars I’d driven that day were perfect for thrashing around on public roads, the Clubsport S was a little much. It resides on a performance plane that has catch fencing instead of curbing. Whereas older GTIs are often more fun on the street than the track, the Clubsport S runs out of room on the road.

Volkswagen Golf GTI triple test
Alex Sobran

It’s still enjoyable on the street, though. It’s not a high-strung supercar that truly sucks to wheel around town, but driving this augmented GTI on speed-limited streets that must be shared with slower traffic was a major tease. On one exceptional road (you can always tell you’re in for a tarmac treat when you start seeing groups of sport bike riders), I got stuck behind a plodding Mercedes-Benz diesel being driven under the speed limit by a geriatric German who probably hadn’t hurried up in decades. Tease turned to torture, and I dealt with it by crawling along at single-digit speeds to build a gap between me and the meandering Merc.

Creating that distance took what felt like forever. Closing it happened in a blur of gear shifts, heel-and-toes, turbo whooshes, and the constant tinkle of pebbles thrown into the fender wells and floor pans by the grippy Michelins.

The front-end grip was a riot, and the trick differential did away with the usual FWD limitations and allowed the Clubsport S to enter and exit an apex with undetectable understeer. Look where you want to go, and this car simply sends you there.

But that’s the problem with cars this competent: If you dare to look for their limits, you’re forced to get on the brakes as soon as you find them. It’s just too fast for most places, and for me this meant it was more frustrating than rewarding. That’s not an indictment of the car—it’s only frustrating because you’re forced to reign it in—but it makes the slower models more enjoyable to drive in everyday life.

If I had to pick one of these three GTIs for a track day, it’s the Clubsport S with no question. For a day on some winding public roads, I’d probably go with the Mk2 GTI. It’s just more fun to go quickly in something engaging than it is to constantly be backing off in something that’s literally broken a Nürburgring lap record.

Volkswagen Golf GTI triple test fronts
Alex Sobran

Today the GTI is halfway through its eighth generation, and it has enjoyed its status in the well-populated hot hatch market for nearly half a century and counting. There is a new Clubsport model that will surely prove itself even quicker than the last one, and in a few years there will be a Mk9 Golf that should spawn another brood of GTIs that every other hot hatch maker will put in their crosshairs.

Maybe those will be all-electric. For some, that will mark the end of the “real GTIs,” but the GTI isn’t a static thing, it changes with the times that it simultaneously defines.

Still, we all have our favorites, don’t we?


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    The MkII is my favorite, and exactly for the reasons in the conclusion of the article. It’s a blast to toss around on the street without being so fast you constantly have to rein it in. My 16V had gearing that perfectly matched the powertrain. Unlike modern cars, which are designed to be as good as possible on the EPA test (with dictated shift points, etc) this car has a very close-ratio set of gears, at least through 4th.

    A nice, tall, overdrive gear on top of 4 (or 5) close ratio cogs is a recipe for fun and practicality that is sorely missing from modern manual cars. They all feel torquey, efficient, and… less than what they could and should be.

    Mk 2 GLI. Loved it for Sunday morning blasts through hill and dale. Close ratio gear set was the best part of that car. Which had many good parts.

    That looks like a great time getting to drive 3 generations and instantly compare. Good thing there was no MK8 to mess up the experience.

    I had a ’92 GTI and reading this piece makes wish I still had it. Bought it new and had lots of fun driving to work and back among other trips. I retired in Dec ’95 and took it to Florida with me. Sold it a few months later and now rue the day I did. It was a fun car. I still have pictures of it.

    I believe that I have the best of all worlds of GTIs. My ’84 Mk 1 has had its drivetrain updated to the 2 liter 16V and an aftermarket conversion gave it an overdrive 6th gear. My 2017 Mk 7 Sport has the Audi platform, the manual 6-speed, and 220 turbo horsepower. It is refined and amazingly comfortable-riding whereas the Mk 1 (Rabbit GTI) is raw and harsh-riding and feels a lot faster than it is. Both are a blast to drive, just two different flavors.

    FNJ is correct in that we didn’t get a 4-door GTI at all until much later, and yes, there was a 2-door Mk7. I think it was only out about 2 years when they pulled it. They figured everyone who wanted a 2-door would buy a 4-door, and if a few didn’t they’d save enough money on production and inventory to justify the loss. It’s a sound business decision, but like so many business decisions it sucks for enthusiasts. 🙁

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