What replaced the Karmann Ghia? VW’s other hot hatch, the Scirocco

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The Scirocco was theoretically the most powerful VW ever built in its time. This 1987 version features a European-style rear bumper and aftermarket wheels for the ultimate in sprightly style. Andrew Yeadon

Based on Volkswagen’s first-generation Golf (badged as the Rabbit in America) and named after a warm Mediterranean wind, the Scirocco debuted in North America in 1975 as an economical sport coupe with smart styling by Giorgetto Giugiaro. Essentially, it was to the new front-engine, liquid-cooled Golf as the previous Karmann Ghia was to the Beetle. Propelled by a transverse 1.5-liter SOHC inline-four, the Scirocco was a satisfying ride. And it was a substantial success, with a global production run exceeding 500,000 units through 1981.

Following the end of first-gen Scirocco production, VW immediately replaced it with the Mk II Scirocco for 1982. Longer and wider but based on the same chassis, its eight-valve inline-four SOHC engine grew from 1.5 liters and 74 horsepower at launch to 1.8 liters and 90 horsepower by 1984.

A pivotal moment for the Mk II Scirocco came in mid-1986, when Volkswagen dropped in its first-ever 16-valve inline-four. I attended the Mk II Scirocco’s press launch for Automobile, and compared with Volkswagen’s previous eight-valve Golf and Scirocco offerings, the 16-valve upgrade ignited the drive experience. Accompanying the new engine were a full aero body kit, a larger spoiler fitted midway up the backlight, and teardrop-shaped slotted wheels. New four-wheel disc brakes were standard; a power package, a sunroof, leather seating, and air conditioning were optional.

It’s hard to believe now, but four-valve combustion chambers in an alloy DOHC head were exciting technology at the time, and in the Scirocco 16V’s case, this resulted in 123 horsepower (37 percent more than its predecessor). Those ponies pulling 2287 pounds gave a power-to-weight ratio of 18.6 pounds per horsepower, theoretically netting the fastest, most powerful VW ever built. Despite the factory’s 124-mph top-speed claim, I saw just 110 mph in fourth while thrashing the Scirocco 16V on Phoenix International Raceway’s longest straightaway.

Shifting was improved, too, owing to a revised five-speed transaxle. On street duty, the 16V proved nearly as fun to row as a Toyota MR2.

Thanks to its performance-calibrated suspension and firm chassis, the Scirocco 16V made the most of its 185/60R14 Pirelli P6 tires. Today, adding a passenger and luggage will only further improve the ride. It helps that the power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering makes the 16V feel light, with only mild understeer at the limit. Aggressive driving still brings a trait familiar to certain FWD pilots—lifting the inside rear wheel while cornering.

VW Scirocco front three-quarter
Andrew Yeadon

A Mk II Scirocco of any year is a truly mechanical experience. Sure, the Bosch KE-Jetronic fuel injection and ignition contain electronics, but the rest of the car is all you. The steering offers good feedback, and the independent front and torsion-beam rear suspension will help you hustle the Scirocco through any twisties you encounter. Plus, the beam axle allows a low cargo-area floor, which expands the car’s utility.

Mk II Scirocco sales continued through 1988, with 291,497 units produced globally before the model was replaced in the U.S. by the upscale Corrado. Then a Scirocco Mk III arrived for 2008, lasting seven years and adding 280,000 more units. For a vintage experience on a budget, the 1986–88 Scirocco 16V remains as hot as its namesake wind. “Maserati? Ferrari? Lamborghini?” challenged a period Volkswagen ad. “Scirocco!”

This article first appeared in Hagerty Drivers Club magazine. Click here to subscribe and join the club.

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