In 1996, Volkswagen returned to its roots in the Golf lineup. While the GTI VR6 still grabbed the headlines and enthusiast’s dreams, they re-introduced the 4-cylinder GTI utilizing the 2.0 ABA shared with…well, every other A3 chassis car. Quickly nicknamed the “2.slow”, the 115 horsepower on tap wasn’t anywhere near the VR6 performance. 0-60 was 9.8 seconds versus 7.2, and the smaller engine never had the upper hand as soon as the key was turned unless you were measuring fuel burned. Consequently, the base GTI was really more of an appearance package, and in that regard it was pretty good looking.
The GTI set itself apart from the regular Golf and the Golf Sport it replaced with a new 2-bar grill with GTI badges, twin-chamber headlights and integrated bumper-mounted fog lights shared with the VR6. The signature roof-mounted Fuba antenna also appeared, along with smoked rear lights, 14″ “Flyer” alloy wheels and special interior items. At $16,000, it was hardly cheap at the time. For a few grand less, you could get yourself the class-leading Sentra SE-R which had better tech, better handling and more power. So the GTI made due by living on its reputation, and that meant it felt and looked water-down. Still, today it’s neat to see a clean example pop up, and they don’t come much more clean than this 1996 with only 19,000 miles. Of course, even though there’s no reserve on the auction, there’s still a price to pay.
I was thinking about how to relate my feelings about the first few generations of water-cooled small VWs, and I came up with the analogy of the BBC Doctor Who! reboot in the 2000s. The first generation was Christopher Eccleston; edgy, completely different from the prior generations with a fresh face, impossible not to view with a smile but also something you didn’t completely trust. The second generation? David Tennant took ‘The Doctor’ to new levels of popularity; more refined, more fun and with an infectious smile, he was quirky but somehow much easier to live with than Eccleston had been. He also developed a rabid fan base that consider him the best (this author included) even if he had some faults.
Then came Matt Smith. There’s certainly a fanbase who appreciates Smith’s rounder, softer and…well, weird portrayal of the Doctor. I’m not a fan personally, and often find myself pleading with other Who watchers to go back farther because the earlier variations were much, much better. Yet floppy and oddly proportioned, Smith was nonetheless very popular and took the show to a wider audience. See the Mk.3 VW.
Not really the best at anything aside from being pretty expensive relative to its contemporaries, the 2.0 inline-4 ABA-equipped VW’s nonetheless outsold the prior versions. The were poorly built and even more poorly owned; this was clearly a move towards disposable automobiles for the company, and it worked. I never really got the appeal of the third generation until I somewhat reluctantly owned one. And you know what? It wasn’t as good-looking as my ’86 Golf was to me, but in every aspect it was better. It was more reliable (amazingly), got better mileage, had a nicer interior, was faster and had both heated seats AND air con. And both worked! Plus it had fog lights and more stuff fit inside. In short, it was just better at being a car.
While I still don’t lust after Mk.3 VWs, I can appreciate them much more when I see them today. They’re affordable and fun transport that’s quite efficient. In 1993 they felt huge compared to their predecessors. But today? They’re downright tiny. And though this duo has high mileage, they don’t often come to market looking anything like these two anymore:
In roughly 1999, a local-to-me European car business turned up with something quite unusual. It was a pastel blue 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit. There was nothing particularly special about it; it was a base model with steel wheels. It wasn’t unusually optioned. It wasn’t a GTI. In fact, there was only one really remarkable thing about it – it had only 5,000 miles on the odometer from its single owner, and was in close-to-new shape.
The story went that the original owner had suffered a heart attack when the car was quite new. The widow had left the car in the garage, untouched by all but dust, until finally an estate sale liberated the single oil change bunny. The condition was certainly astounding, but to me the asking price at that time was, too. The seller was looking for $5,000.
It was pretty cool that the car was like a new fifteen year old car, but then cars had come a long way since 1984 in 1999, and the collector market on the Rabbit hadn’t really taken off. In 1999, $5,000 would have bought you a very nice 2.0 16V GTI, after all.
Fast forward to today.
It’s been an astounding nearly twenty years since today’s equivalent to my parable was new in the dealership. Like my memory, it’s a very basic Golf in very good condition with very low mileage. Similar to my story, cars have come a very long way in the past twenty years, and a quick jaunt in this buzzy, basic and slow Golf will quickly remind you of that. So has the market on a clean, low mileage automatic base Golf taken off yet, or is this doomed to a similar fate as my Rabbit – to sit and wait for jsut the right nostalgic buyer?
Like the Rabbit Pickup from a few days ago, today’s Scirocco won’t win you a trophy in preservation-class at your local Euro show. But will it draw attention? Absolutely. The Scirocco 2 may not have been the landmark design the original Giugiaro-designed first generation was, nor was it as pretty, arguably. It was interesting that Volkswagen chose to farm the design to Karmann rather than pay for Italdesign’s follow up, because that resulted in the Scirocco’s competition. The Isuzu Piazza (Impulse) took the Italian’s lines to a new level with cleaner execution, cool wheels that looked ready for a auto show, plus you got the automotive equivalent of Thor’s hammer to impress your friends with trim levels like the “Turbo RS” and “Handling by Lotus”. Show up at a party in a Impulse Turbo while one of your friends drove a Scirocco, and you’d go home with the girl and Simple Minds playing in the background.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t that easy. And honestly even if the Scirocco was a little underpowered and had clunky bumpers and poor headlight execution here, it still was a compelling choice. This car fixes some of the second generation’s problems, too – Euro bumpers and headlights slim it down, the removal of the rear spoiler tidies up the design a surprising amount, and under the hood lies more motivation in a trusty ABA 2.0:
Way before “i” stood for everything ‘intelligent’ from your phone to your (no joke) pet, adding the 9th letter of the alphabet to your German car meant something equally as forward thinking in the 1970s and 1980s – injection. Unless, of course, you were talking about ‘e’ in a few cases, where the German word for injection – Einspritzung – came into play (I’m looking at you, Mercedes-Benz. And, occasionally BMW, for no apparent reason).
But I digress.
Adding fuel injection to your motor in the 1970s was pretty close to rocket science, since in the 1960s only the most exotic and high performance cars available had it. So when Volkswagen dropped a fuel injected 1.6 liter inline-4 pumping out an astonishing for the period 110 horsepower in 1975, it’s no wonder it was a revolution. Consider, for a moment, that the 1975 Corvette – with its gargantuan, gas-guzzling 5.7 liter V8 – managed to produce only 165 horsepower. Today’s base Corvette produces about 455 horsepower, meaning that the same relation would make today’s GTI a 300 horsepower hot hatch. Which, ironically in R form, it pretty much is! Still, it was the formula of the original that made this the hottest commodity on the market. It would be eight long years until the GTI debuted in the U.S. market. When it did, it had been turned down slightly and injection was no longer solely the domain of the GTI. Still, it was a potent and popular package, with attractive Guigiaro-penned looks and plenty of practicality. Some 34 years on from launch, the looks still capture the imagination of many who owned (or longed to own) one of these transformative hatches:
In an attempt to challenge Mercedes-Benz’s R107 for chassis longevity, Volkswagen’s introduction of a more affordable German drop-top in the 1980 Rabbit Convertible stretched production until 1993. That meant that the A1 outlasted all of the A2 production cycle and was no squarely into the newly launched A3. Volkswagen introduced their replacement for the aging and renamed Cabriolet with the Mk.3 Cabrio in 1994. As with the A1, production again would extend beyond the A3 chassis life, because in 1999 VW introduced us to the fourth generation Golf. As with the 2nd generation, VW didn’t plan a convertible version for the Mk.4 – well, at least, not for the Golf, as convertible duties would be handed off to the New Beetle. But since the launch of the nostalgic Beetle Convertible waited until 2003, VW covered the gap with the “Mk3.5” refresh on the Cabrio. It received softened and rounded bumper covers, Mk.4 inspired lights, and a lightly revised interior. As with other VW models, there was a base GL model or the better equipped GLS, like today’s example:
The third generation Volkswagen GTI 2.0 might just go down in history as the least appealing of the brand name. Starting with the move to 16 valves in the second generation, the 8 valve models would play second fiddle as mostly an appearance package slapped onto an economy car. But while the second generation had the benefit of butch good looks, flared arches and the signature quad-round headlight arrangement to make you feel that you had gone upscale, when it came to the third generation’s base GTI it was a bit of a head-scatcher. It wasn’t that you didn’t get equipment; your $16,000 got you lots of standard items such as air conditioning, an upgraded stereo, power sunroof and door locks, and a few other premium-feel items (An alarm! Specially colored seat fabric!). The meat of the GTI was the appearance changes, though – from the 14″ alloy wheels to the dual-chamber headlights and projector fog lights, along with smoked tail lenses and a roof-mounted antenna, the special grill held the all-important letters “GTI”. But the performance of the ABA 2.0 inline-4 was standard Golf fair and the suspension wasn’t upgraded – this was, after all, just a Golf. That meant 0-60 in a lethargic 10 seconds unless you fried the front tires and knocked .2 seconds off – the result of all those “luxury” item additions. The 2.0 was a poser, then, and lived fully in the shadow of the high-output VR6 model which packed a full 50% more power in the same package but with upgraded brakes, suspension and wheels. The premium to jump to the VR6 was about $3,500 – a lot of money. But the leap in performance well paid off for your additional indebtedness, and consequently the 2.0 seemed to be popular only with college-bound Jersey girls who were convinced their compact economy hatch was actually a bumper-car ride at an amusement park. Few survive in the condition of this one today:
The internet has been abuzz in recent months about how horrible Mustang drivers are in aggregate. Citing the numerous video records of late model Mustang burnouts gone horribly (and sometimes hilariously) wrong, the conclusion seems to brand all pony drivers as PBR sipping, Larry the Cable Guy watching, Copenhagen chewing knuckle draggers who greet each other with “OH YEAH? WATCH THIS!” Outside of some really special models, I’m generally not a huge Mustang fan – but here’s the thing. I’m really not sure it’s fair to brand the entire ownership of a model like this based upon the video witness of a few yahoos. After all, the Mustang is a hugely successful model. They sold a half a million of them in the first model year alone, which wasn’t even a whole year. To put in in perspective, yellow is considered one of the least popular colors on the car, yet there is an online
support group enthusiast page devoted to them with over 10,000 members. Ten thousand – just yellow ones. Sufficed to say, there are a lot of Mustangs out there and odds are that most are probably pretty reasonable, non-crashing into crowds at Cars and Coffee event owners. I’ll come back to this in a minute.
I still very much remember the launch of the A3 chassis Volkswagens and being less than impressed at the time. At least in my mind, the second generation GTi with the 2.0 16V was a hard act to follow and the 3rd generation – unless equipped with the sonorous VR6 – seemed downright soft in comparison. They looked a bit chubby, they were equipped with only 14″ wheels when everyone else was sporting 16″ wheels, and the base GTi was equipped with a lowly 2.0 8 valve inline-4. It seemed like Volkswagen was badge engineering a standard Golf just to make money, and in many ways you could argue that’s exactly what had occured. It wouldn’t be until 2007 that I would finally understand the A3 package a bit more. My dismissal of the entire “2.slow” lineup turned out to be very misplaced, as my foray into A3 ownership proved. I picked up a very second-hand but relatively low mile K2 edition 1998 Golf. Effectively, this was a 4-door GTi, with fog lights, air conditioning, heated sport seats and white-faced gauges. Was it a really special car? No. But for basic transportation, it was fantastic fun to drive, easy to maintain, got in excess of 30 m.p.g. no matter what you did with the throttle pedal and started every time I stuck the key in the ignition. Granted, it had typical Mk.3 problems with some electric gremlins and rust had started creeping through. But there isn’t a moment that I regret any part of my Mk.3 ownership other than that for so long I overlooked the 2.0 as a form of entertaining car ownership:
I’m a pretty big VW nut, but when it comes to the A3 Jetta even I admit they’re just pretty darn boring. The Mk.2 Jetta had plenty of character for better or worse, but the third generation just seemed to be a bit lumpy and overweight in comparison. The crisp body lines were replaced by softer transitions that, well, just didn’t look special. And there was the engine; gone was the awesome twin-cam 16V 2.0 GLi, replaced by a single cam 2.0 8V in the normal Jettas that were snatched up by New Jersey college girls. Sure, there was the GLX VR6 model that continued the quick Jetta tradition, but it seemed that most of the time you heard a droning automatic 4-cylinder Jetta leaving the lights. And the build quality just wasn’t the best; memorably, a friend of mine purchased a brand new 1997 Jetta and I waxed it for him one day while he was at work. On my way to drop the car off, the sunroof broke in the open position. The car was two weeks old. So, it was ugly, slow and unreliable – and expensive. The normal Jetta bordered on $18,000 without many options in 1997, and the GLX model pushed you well into the 20s. Comparatively, the new Jetta stickers around $14,000 nearly two decades later. Towards the end of the A3’s run, though, Volkswagen upped the ante with some limited edition models. There was the Jetta GT, which featured 4-wheel disc brakes and fog lamps, along with a spoiler and unique alloys. But if you wanted to be the cool dude on campus, you got your parents to buy you the Jetta Trek or Jetta K2. As far as I could tell at the time, they were normal Jettas (and Golfs) with roof racks and a bike or skis/snowboard. “Meh”, I said, “just another poser Volkswagen”. But the limited edition A3s were a bit of a treat: