Hot Hatch: VW GTI marks 30 years

This year is a pivotal year in GTI history. The hot hatch benchmark made its American debut just over 30 years ago in 1982 as a 1983 model, and this year also marks the debut of the seventh generation GTI in Europe (on sale in the U.S. next year as a 2015 model). With that in mind, it seems a perfect time to take a look back at the klein (“little” in German) GTI.

As already mentioned, we didn’t get the Mk I GTI until a few years after its debut in Europe. The very first GTIs had been running around Europe since 1975. And in a sense, we technically didn’t get European GTIs, either. Volkswagen had opened a factory in Westmoreland, Penn., to produce the Golf, known here as the Rabbit, and as a result, our GTIs were built right here in the U.S. The country of origin wasn’t the only difference, either. To comply with U.S. safety regulations, GTIs here had larger bumpers compared with their European cousins, plus rectangular headlights. Output was different, as well. While the 1.8-liter four cylinder in the Euro model produced around 110hp, ours only produced around 90hp. However, none of that reduced the appeal of the GTI.

Across the board, and across the oceans, all GTIs weighed in at a diminutive 2,100 lbs, were reasonably priced ($7,995 in the U.S. for ’83), and featured technology and performance you wouldn’t expect from an economy hatchback. The GTI featured a five-speed manual transmission, front disc brakes and a fuel-injected engine (U.S. spec) that offered a 16hp and 10lb-ft of torque increase over the next most powerful Rabbit. The combination of low cost, practicality, economy and performance made the GTI an instant success.

Here in the States, the Mk I GTI took home two successive Car and Driver 10Best awards. They described the car as “the modern BMW 2002” and said that it was “the car we’ve all been waiting for.” And the Mk II GTI was also met with great enthusiasm, winning Motor Trend’s Car of the Year award for 1985. This was an interesting award considering that a car was only eligible if it was from the U.S., but the GTI qualified because of the Pennsylvania plant where it was built. The GTI also made fast, affordable hatchbacks, affectionately known as “hot hatches,” popular, and attracted all kinds of competition. In Europe, challengers came from Peugeot, Renault  and Ford, and despite less hatchback love in the States, we still saw the occasional contender like the Dodge Omni GLH and GLH-S.

And despite heavy competition from every corner of the car-producing world, the GTI is one of the few models to survive continuously through the years. It hasn’t been a perfect ride. The mid-to-late ’90s and early ’00s marked a time when the GTI was rather unfocused. You had options for the unique and potent VR6 engine (not quite a V-6, not quite an inline six) and the impressive all-wheel drive R32, but there were also uninspired base level models, with much slower 8-valve four-cylinder engines. And for the most part, the GTIs of this era didn’t look much different from a standard Golf.  However, the Mk V redesign in 2006 refocused the GTI. It featured more distinct styling, only came with a 200hp turbo four distinctive plaid upholstery. And if recent test drive reports are to be believed, the Mk VII redesign is better than ever.

The GTI was a pioneer in a great new auto segment that spawned ever more interesting and fun small cars. And if VW keeps things up, it shouldn’t be surprising if the GTI continues for another 30 years. 

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