For more than three decades the Volkswagen Golf GTI has been the performance car of choice for enthusiasts throughout the world who appreciate its unique combination of lively driving dynamics, surprising practicality and unexpected economy. It’s a rare vehicle, one that defies social classification — appealing to young and mature alike, wealthy or otherwise.
Now in its sixth generation, the newest GTI follows a fairly established formula; but over the years it has sometimes strayed from its roots, especially in the North American market, where it has often been treated as more of a marketing endeavor than an engineering statement. With the 2010 model ready to hit our shores in the coming weeks, let’s look at how the GTI got here and why it continues to be such a hit with driving enthusiasts.
First Generation, Mk I (1983-84)
The GTI story started well before 1983, but only in other parts of the world. Volkswagen displayed the first “Sport Golf” concept in 1975 at the Frankfurt Motor Show with modest intentions of homologating 5000 units for production-class racing. The concept vehicle featured a 110-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine with mechanical fuel injection that was borrowed from the Audi 80 GTE. To avoid sharing nomenclature with its corporate sibling, it was decided that the Golf would carry the abbreviation for the Italian “Gran Turismo Iniezione” or Grand Touring Injection. In 1976, the GTI was born.
The first GTI was a focused performance car with features like sport seats, front disc brakes and little details like an omitted glovebox door to keep weight to a minimum. Yet it still accommodated four full-size passengers and gave up nothing in convenience compared to base-model Golf. With fuel shortages on the rise, the timing was apparently right for a small, economical and practical performance car. Orders immediately came in for the GTI, and the initial goal of selling 5000 copies was quickly surpassed.
For years Volkswagen of America debated the merit of selling the GTI in this market. The standard Golf was selling well enough here, as the Rabbit, but no one was certain the American public was ready to accept a performance version of an economy car. The cries of enthusiasts were eventually answered — kind of. For 1981 VWoA dipped its feet in the water with the Rabbit S, a pseudo-GTI with alloy wheels, blacked-out bumpers and a red-striped grille powered by the North America-only 1.7-liter engine that made a measly 74 horsepower. It continued on for 1982, a placeholder for the real GTI.
For 1983 the company got serious and delivered a proper GTI to American buyers. It featured a 1.8-liter fuel-injected engine that made 90 horses and 100 lb-ft of torque; slightly off the European-spec unit that by then was making 112 hp. Nevertheless, when mated to a close-ratio five-speed gearbox, the Rabbit GTI delivered performance that was unheard of for a compact hatch of the time. Zero to sixty mph came in a relatively quick 9.7 seconds (an ’83 Camaro took about 9.5 seconds) for the 1918-pound hot hatch.
Visually, the GTI had a more serious look and feel than standard Rabbits, with 14-inch alloy wheels, 60-series Pirelli tires, blacked-out body trim and the signature red stripes. Still, it had a veneer of “American-ness” to it, especially the interior with its sport seats trimmed in either deep red or blue velour and corduroy. At least it featured a black dashboard facade (instead of faux-wood) with red accents, a tachometer and the whimsical golf-ball shift knob (even if most Americans at the time didn’t get the double entendre).
Buff books lauded the Rabbit GTI and it quickly found favor with driving enthusiasts who had felt strangled by a decade of performance-sapping emissions controls. The GTI was proving popular with drivers, as roughly 30,000 were sold between 1983 and 1984. It wasn’t long before imitators popped up in the form of Dodge Omni GLHs and Ford Escort GTs, a sure sign that VW was onto something.
The absence of a real GTI for so many years had spawned a lively aftermarket for owners of standard US-spec Rabbits. Companies like Neuspeed popped up to satisfy the wishes of those seeking better handling, more power and sportier looks from their little econo-boxes. The introduction of a proper GTI only strengthened the market as new firms arose throughout the Eighties offering everything from Recaro seats and BBS wheels to race suspensions and Euro-spec lighting. Just like that, the GTI effectively started the compact performance movement in America.
Second Generation, Mk II (1985-92)
For 1985, Volkswagen introduced the second-generation of its popular hatchback, and in the process dropped the Rabbit name in favor its worldwide Golf badge. For the GTI, Volkswagen felt it was strong enough to stand on its own in this market, and so rather than being labeled “Golf GTI” as it was everywhere else, it was simply called GTI, a tradition that continues to this day.
The second-generation car was bigger and more aerodynamic, but still featured the 1.8-liter, 8-valve engine. Power was up to 102 horses now, and rear disc brakes were added. The new GTI, and indeed the entire Golf range, ditched the Caprice-like plushness of the Rabbit’s interior in favor of very Teutonic black and grey twills. All in all, the American-spec 1985 GTI looked, felt and performed more like the Golf GTI that the rest of the world was already driving, except for its rectangular aero headlights, a la ’85 Jetta. Zero to 60 mph times had dropped to 9.0 seconds, and the top speed had increased to 118, thanks in large part to the slicker shape. Critics were impressed, and the GTI was awarded Motor Trend’s 1985 Car of the Year.
The GTI continued into 1986 for the most part unchanged, but in 1987 VW introduced its 16-valve engine, first seen in the Scirocco the year before. Power increased to 123 hp and 0-to60 times dropped to 8.3 seconds. For the first time, the GTI was a genuine hot hatch, but the market was already spitting out lighter, more powerful competitors for less money.
The 8-valve GTI continued on as the Golf GT, beginning a streak of two-tiered sport Golf offerings. The Golf GT, for instance, reverted to rear drum brakes and eliminated such amenities as the split rear seat and the 16-valve’s now-signature roof antenna. It was even offered as a four-door model, even though VW never saw fit to sell four-door GTIs in this market as it did elsewhere.
For 1988 the GTI/Golf GT range continued mostly unchanged, and in 1989 the GTI dropped off the market as VW moved its North American production from Pennsylvania to Mexico. The GTI returned in 1990 in 8-valve form as a rebadged version of the last Golf GT, sporting a new velour interior and drum brakes once again. VW had apparently lost focus with the GTI, and by now its performance reputation was falling apart.
Then, for 1991, it suddenly found its mojo again. A minor facelift meant entirely new bumpers with integrated foglights and front spoilers, and an entirely new grille that featured, for the first time ever, four round headlights instead of the rectangular composite lamps of the standard Golf. The two-model strategy returned, but the 8-valve version was no longer a Golf GT; even though it still sported drum brakes in back, at least the output was now up to 105 hp. The velour was once again ousted in favor of a more German black weave.
The big news was the 16-valve model, which now sported a 2.0-liter engine that produced a respectable 134 horsepower. The interior featured genuine Recaro seats, and it rode on real-deal BBS basketweave alloys in 15-inch diameter. The 1991 GTI 16V was finally on par with its European counterpart, and the package was exactly what enthusiasts had been asking for all those years. Problem was, most of those enthusiasts had already moved on to other vehicles in the process.
For 1992, the GTI range moved forward essentially unchanged. More than 71,000 second-gen GTIs were sold, the vast majority of those in the first four years of the cycle. By 1992, only 4059 GTIs were delivered. Despite such dismal showroom performance, this final rendition of the second-gen GTI is, for many VW aficionados, the very pinnacle of the entire GTI model — the purest expression of the GTI spirit. But VW was already moving on.
Third Generation, Mk III (1995-99)
The third generation Golf was supposed to arrive as 1993 model, but a strike at its plant in Mexico delayed introduction until the ’94 model year, except for a handful of California cars. The GTI’s future however was not so certain. The new base Golf engine was a 2.0-liter 8-valver that made 115 hp, the 16-valve motor had been phased out for this market and VW was installing its new 2.8-liter VR6 engines into European Golfs as a top-shelf model above the GTI.
When the Golf III rolled into showrooms in 1994, there was still no commitment from VWoA on a GTI. Late in the year they rolled out the two-door Golf Sport, which looked a fair bit like the Euro-market GTI — plaid cloth sport seats, foglights, dual-lamp headlights, smoked taillights and black rocker mouldings — but still packed the mild two-liter eight-valver. Interestingly, this model was marketed in Canada as the GTI from 1993 and eventually emerged as a base-model GTI in America; but we’ll get to that shortly.
The big news for the GTI nameplate came in 1995 when VW reintroduced the model with the VR6 engine under the hood. The thump of 172 horsepower was a welcome change from the less powerful engines of GTIs past, but it came at the expense of chassis dynamics, something the GTI had always been known for. The additional weight of the 2.8-liter lump combined with a tall, softly-sprung suspension made the GTI VR6 understeer through corners, killing the nimbleness that made the GTI a force to contend with at autocrosses and on twisty roads for so many years.
The intoxicating rush of acceleration afforded by the big-displacement motor made for a lot of new VW converts, however, and the VR6 GTI quickly became known as a bit of a front-drive muscle car. The sprint to sixty mph came up in just 6.9 seconds, making it easily the fastest GTI to that point.
To many enthusiasts, however, the VR6 GTI wasn’t really a GTI, other than in name. Throughout the rest of the world GTIs still sported the two-liter 16-valve engine as the top engine and they remained centered on a balanced package of power, handling and economy; the Golf VR6, conversely, was marketed outside America as a premium sport/luxury sedan, competing with mid-level BMW 3-series sedans.
The Golf Sport evolved into the 8-valve GTI in 1995. It lacked not only the power of the VR6 version, but also power windows and the availability of a leather interior. It continued to be sold alongside its more powerful sibling through 1998.
With the VR6, the focus was now on big power and less on balance, nimbleness and frugality, and the GTI was redefining itself to the American market. The expectation had now been set for the GTI to deliver big power, and the aftermarket performance industry (that had until then relied largely on chassis and cosmetic upgrades) suddenly blossomed into a battleground to extract ever more power from the big VR6.
With the addition of the VR6 to the range, the GTI was once again selling more than 5000 units a year in the US. Still this was a far cry from 1986 when more than 20,000 were sold.
Fourth Generation, Mk IV (2000-2005)
The next iteration Golf and GTI was met with considerable skepticism by traditional VW performance enthusiasts. The two-box shape was undoubtedly a Golf, but the overall dimensions had grown considerably. Weight had grown to 2930 pounds for the VR6. To make matters worse, VW introduced the new GTIs with the same engine options as the outgoing models — the 115-horse 2.0-liter four-cylinder and the 2.8-liter VR6 (though power was up to 174). Visually the GTI was impossible to tell from a base Golf; there were no deep spoilers, no special mouldings, not even an aggressive stance. Even the roof antenna was now standard across the Golf range.
The base GTI was still fairly modestly equipped, but the VR6 version had lost touch altogether, arriving with standard wood dash trim, automatic climate control, rain-sensing wipers and leather seating. Driving dynamics were consistent with the luxury theme, with a soft suspension and plenty of understeer at the limits. Zero-to-60 times were 7.0 seconds for the VR6 GTI, and a laughable 9.7 for the two-liter model.
What the fourth generation lacked (initially) in driving excitement, it made up for in interior refinement. The Mk IV quite simply blew away anything else even remotely close in price (and many much more expensive cars) with its classy design and superb materials. Its unique blue-and-red instruments were quickly copied by other carmakers. Suffice it to say many fourth-generation GTIs (as wells as standard Golfs and Jettas) were sold on the strength of their interiors, forever raising the bar for small cars across the industry.
The eight-valve Mk IV GTI lived on for just one year before a revolution rendered it obsolete. In 2000, VW introduced the 1.8T, a turbocharged twenty-valve four-cylinder engine that put out 150 horsepower. Though less powerful than the VR6, the GTI 1.8T was lighter and more balanced, and soon found throngs of fans who were eager to tap into the tuning potential of its boosted powerplant. The 1.8T was even offered as an option in the four-door Golf for a while; since the Golf and GTI were so similar in most other ways, many enthusiasts made their own four-door GTIs out of 1.8T Golfs.
A year later, the 2.8-liter 12-valve VR6 was retired in favor of a 24-valve version making 200-horsepower. The new 24-valve GTI still leaned heavily toward the luxury market, but finally featured a 6-speed manual gearbox. Nevertheless, performance enthusiasts were scrambling to scoop up the highly tunable turbocharged GTIs instead. VW of America was starting to remember what made the GTI such a hit in the first place.
In 2002, VW gave GTI enthusiasts the first “real”GTI in a decade, the special-edition “337.”Similar in features to the 25th-anniversary edition that Europe received in 2001, the GTI 337 was powered by an uprated 180-horse 1.8T engine and mated to the six-speed gearbox. The interior featured Recaro seats with the red GTI logo embroidered on them, as well as a half-leather/half-aluminum golf ball shift knob and aluminum pedals. Outside, the silver-only bodywork was dressed with a full body kit and wore eighteen-inch polished BBS wheels. Red brake calipers peeked out from behind them, and the chassis was also lowered, rounding out the package in such a way that GTI owners had been dreaming of for so long.
The 337 model helped VW sell 10,749 GTI 1.8Ts in 2002, and for 2003 VW continued the theme with the Anniversary Edition, honoring two decades of American GTIs. All of the 337’s kit was retained, but silver was replaced with three unique colors. The halo effect of these special models was rubbing off on standard issue GTIs, which were selling well as blank slates on which to build fast performance projects. The GTI was boosting the aftermarket, which in itself was spurring sales of the cars,
The GTI VR6 was phased out in 2003, leaving only the turbocharged model to bear the name. But the VR6 engine would live on in another special Golf model the 3.2-liter R32. The all-wheel-drive R32 was never intended as a GTI, even though many of the GTI’s earliest owners found the combination of 240 horsepower and all-wheel-drive agreeable to their current needs.
A total of 60,127 fourth-generation GTIs were sold to US buyers from 1999 to 2005. The vast majority — 44,711 of them to be exact — were fitted with the venerable 1.8T engine.
Fifth Generation, Mk V (2005-09)
VW had rediscovered the GTI’s magic formula by the time the fourth generation came to a close, and the launch of the fifth-generation car focused heavily getting back to early roots. The new 2005 GTI featured leaner-looking styling than its predecessor, which despite strong sales had earned a reputation as a porker. Strong GTI visual elements were abundant, but the newsmaker was the cloth interior, which sported plaid inserts reminiscent of the first-generation Euro-market cars. A new engine also debuted — the 200-horsepower, 16-valve, turbocharged 2.0T, which was paired with either a six-speed manual or the new dual-clutch six-speed DSG gearbox.
The new engine not only added power and torque, it was considerably more refined than the 1.8T it replaced. The new transmission was likewise sophisticated, offering the convenience of an automatic with the lightning-quick shifts of a Formula 1 gearbox. These two technologies were fitted in an all-new chassis that for the first time ever in a GTI abandoned the old torsion-beam rear axle. The Mk V GTI’s rear axle was now fully independent, vastly improving both ride quality and handling dynamics, especially on modified cars with lower, stiffer suspensions.
VW further impressed GTI enthusiasts, many of whom by now were moving onto family life, by finally offering a four-door version of the hot hatch. Sold in parallel with the two-door model, the more family-friendly version was in every way identical to the other. Volkswagen was finally giving American GTI fans just about everything they wanted, save for the Recaro race seats offered in Europe. Unfortunately, the high standard set by the fourth-gen model for interior quality didn’t carry through for this model. Mk IV owners in particular felt the quality of the plastics in the new model represented a small step backwards.
The aftermarket that had grown up around GTIs continued to flourish with the fifth-generation model, with performance engine software leading the charge. Wheel and suspension upgrades remain popular for these cars still, despite ever-better equipment straight out of the factory. In more than a quarter-century on the US market, the GTI remain one of the most mod-friendly cars to buy.
Sixth Generation, Mk VI (from 2010)
Now the sixth-generation GTI has just made its market introduction, and it’s as popular as ever with performance junkies of all ages. The new model is essentially a highly reworked version of the outgoing model, partially explaining the short life cycle of the last car. VW, however, feels the changes are significant enough to warrant a new model designation.
Every body panel of the Mk VI GTI (except for the roof) is entirely new. The body now features a more sculpted shape than before, getting back to the clean-cut lines of the Giugiaro-designed first generation. The front has been seriously revised, eliminating the waterfall-style grille of the recent past in favor of a more traditional Golf look, framed with red stripes at the top and bottom edges. In back, the windowlines and taillights have been given a more linear treatment, again paying homage to the less rounded nature of the earliest models.
The interior of the new model features a new dashboard design and a return to higher-quality materials. The layout is less fussy, almost mimicking the simplicity of the earliest first-generation Rabbits, with tasteful details like the twin instrument surrounds. The popular plaid cloth of the fifth-generation car has been revised for its return in the sixth generation.
The 2.0T engine is back, now making 200 horsepower. A choice of six-speed manual or DSG gearbox is still offered to manage gearchanges, but channeling the 207 lb-ft of torque through the front wheels is now the duty of an integrated limited-slip differential.
With the first new GTIs quickly rolling through dealers’ hands already, the sixth generation promises to carry on the tradition of affordable performance for Volkswagen for years to come.