When the second generation Cabriolet finally launched for 1995, Volkswagen had waited so long to replace the A1 chassis that it completely bypassed the A2. What appeared then was a A3 chassis, and compared to the outgoing model it was bigger, rounder, softer and not appreciably sportier. Motivation was from the same ABA 2.0 inline-4 found in the standard Golf rated at 115 horsepower, so to make it ‘hipper’ Volkswagen dropped the “let” from the name.
It was, however, instantly recognizable as the new go-to affordable 4-seater drop-top, but sales were slow in the mid-90s. Volkswagen sold just over 5,800 1996s, for example. They were pretty expensive for a Golf at nearly $20,000 MSRP and over with some options, but then this was the cheapest German convertible you could buy. The big problem was that for less money you could get the much more entertaining (and reliable) Miata. The combination of low production numbers, the classic styling of the original and lack of enthusiast appeal mean we just about never feature them. I last wrote up a Cabriolet in July 2017, and the last Cabrio was a year earlier. So there’s nothing to see here? Not with this turned up and built one, that’s for sure!
What is the price for rarity? As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, enthusiasts will sometimes go to extremes to have something just a bit different than the norm. Take today’s Golf. Like the 1989 Volkswagen GTI I looked at a few weeks ago, something odd will stick out to the brand faithful that will probably go unnoticed by nearly everyone else. First off, for the U.S. market, the VR6 was limited to the GTI range. This looks like a GTI with the dual chamber headlights and foglights, VR6 badges and BBS wheels. But another minor detail then rears its head – or, in this case, rears its doors. That’s right, this is a 5-door Golf VR6 from Europe. Look closer and you’ll notice items such as the textured flares, deeper chin spoiler and fender mounted directionals that differentiate ROW A3s. So what will getting into this rare-to-see VW cost you today?
The Golf Harlequin is the model that answers the question no one asked. It’s the model that proves Germans have a sense of humor. It’s also a model which defies logic. If you told your automotive-inclined friend you bought a 22 year old 2.0 automatic 4-door Golf with mis-matched body panel colors, he’d probably offer you the couch in his living room to sleep on for the next month. Things must be that hard for you, after all.
Now, tell him you paid a premium for that car. “How much?”, he’d most certain quip.
The stunned silence which would undoubtedly be followed by the most boisterous of laughter would be punctuated only by the whipping out of a phone and a call to the local insane asylum for an admit, or at the very least a consult. But who’s the joke on here?
Update 2/6/2018: After selling in November for $2,250, the new owner of the Candy White GTI is selling it with an uninstalled turbo kit asking $2,900 now.
Tired of seeing high prices for Corrado SLC VR6s? Today is your day, because nearly all of the fun offered in the 6-cylinder Corrado was also slotted into the GTI. For a hair under $20,000, you got the same thrilling 2.8 liter VR6 mated solely to a 5-speed manual. Did you want an automatic? Well, then buy the Jetta. Sure, that motor and the bigger body of the Mk.3 meant it was quite a bit heavier than the previous GTIs had been – by 1995, the ‘hot hatch’ had bulked up with 700 additional lbs of super-weight gain Mk.3000 versus the A1. But faster? Without a doubt. With nearly double the horsepower of the original U.S. market model, 0-60 was sub 7-seconds and you could hit 130 flat out. Coupled too with VW’s ‘we don’t care if you think it’s broke we’re not going to fix it’ styling attitude, the Mk.3 might have not looked as slinky as the Corrado, but underneath it was still a Golf and as such, practical.
So while the Corrado pretended to be a Porsche, the GTI remained the answer to the ‘what if’; you wanted a Porsche, but you a) didn’t want to (or couldn’t) pay for a Porsche, and 2) you occasionally needed a car that you could actually use to transport things other than your smile. This was the recipe that made the first two generations successful.
It was no surprise then that the third generation GTI remained a niche hit for Volkswagen even in relatively dire times for European imports. While finding a nice GTI VR6 can be quite difficult, it was a bit of a Thanksgiving treat to see two pop up in my feed. So which is the winner?
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:
After its unceremonious and unexplained exit from the U.S. market with the introduction of the third generation Golf in 1993, the GTI came roaring back in a big way for the 1995 model year. Sure, it was bigger, bulkier and well…roundier, but it came with a bunch more gusto thanks to the addition of the VR6 motor as seen in the Corrado and Passat models. The single-overhead cam, twelve valve head lacked the race-bred feel of the Mk.II 16V, the new motor more than made up for it with the addition of two more cylinders. Good for 172 horsepower and 173 lb.ft of torque, it swept the hot hatch from 0-60 in 7.1 seconds and produced a 15.5 second quarter mile at over 90 mph. But much like the original, the GTI was more than the sum of its numbers, with drivers enjoying the great 6-cylinder soundtrack which accompanied the waves of usable torque.
Of course, like all VWs from the period, it was expensive. Really quite expensive. A base GTI VR6 rolled out the door in 1995 at $18,875, and with a few options it wasn’t difficult to breech $20 grand. Yet that was still only a little more than half the money it would take you to grab a same-year M3, which offered only a bit more motivation and cornering prowess. Catch the pesky BMW driver off-guard, and they’d be unlikely to easily out-drag you. So you could either look at this model as a really expensive Golf or a really cheap BMW. That was what the legendary GTI had always been about, and this was a resounding return to form and continuation of the brilliance that was the GTI 16V, even if they felt (and, looked) completely different:
Do you want to maximize your budget and fun? Need an affordable ride that will reward you nearly every time you turn the key, but is also practical enough to daily drive?
Look no further. We may all want a car collection of virtually new, unused and perfect condition examples of our favorite car designs, but frankly that’s just not a reality most who’s names don’t start with “Sultan” and end with a small southeast Asian country’s name can contemplate. And even he needs to liquidate his massive Ferrari collection from time to time when small rebellions pop up.
Jumping in to a third generation Volkswagen Golf won’t get you much respect outside of dedicated brand enthusiasts. But what it will do is reward your decision. Like the E36 M3, adding two cylinders to the model may not have sounded as sexy on paper as the high-revving double cam inline-4, but the result was better performance, better reliability, and cheaper prices for that speed. With 172 horsepower and 173 lb.ft of torque on tap, the VR6 took the Mk.3 into a new performance territory. It brought with it a more grown up feel, too – leather, a quiet(er) cabin, power windows and sunroof – these were unthinkable a decade earlier in the budget hatch. In fact there was only one option – a trunk mounted CD changer. Everything else? Standard. The increase in performance dictated upgrades throughout; sport suspension with sway bars, larger brakes with 5×100 mm hubs and accompanying 15″ wheels. 0-60 was firmly sub-7 second range, and the boxy hatch could brush 130 mph flat out. In a flat-out drag race, this economy car was on par with the Audi S6.
At nearly $20,000, the price tag didn’t seem cheap at first. Indeed, in a little over a decade the base price of the GTI had increased 100%. But the Golf was still about cheap speed, and so you need to view this package in relative performance. It wasn’t much slower than the U.S. specification M3, for example, but was about half the price. More appropriate, though, was that it was some $6,000 cheaper than the Corrado with nearly the same setup. Today, that cost savings carries over – Corrados are easily twice to many times the asking price of this example:
For fans of the GTI, the 4th generation offered a few “greatest hits” editions for the model. The first to launch was the 2001 “25th Anniversary Edition”, built to commemorate a quarter century of hot Volkswagen hatches – in Europe, at least. Since the GTI wasn’t launched in the U.S. until 1983, a “18th” anniversary wouldn’t have made much sense here. However, what was basically the 25th Anniversary Edition was brought here in 2002. The “337” Edition ran in 2002 with Votex bodywork and great BBS RC wheels, along with a cozy set of Recaro seats. Only 1,250 were sold out fairly quickly, so in 2003 Volkswagen continued the greatest hits parade with the release of the nearly identical 20th Anniversary Edition. Each was numbered and a total of 4,200 were made, each now available in three colors and with OZ-made Aristo wheels in place of the BBSs as well as different interior fabric over the same Recaro seats. They were popular new and have remained the Mk.4 to get outside of the R for the past 15 years:
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?
7/3/1017 Edit: This car has reappeared with a few more miles and a new seller at $9,500 HERE!
I think I’ve made my gripes with the used Volkswagen market abundantly clear in prior posts. Fuzzy photos, “feelers”, lack of information, failure to wash the car, only posting photos of the car in a carwash covered in foam, junk-strewn interiors, massive miles and broken odometers, poorly executed swaps, maintenance skipped in favor of dubious modifications. We’ve seen it all on these pages; well, a “no thank you” helping sample of “it all”. But once in a while a Volkswagen comes along that really debunks the stereotype of typical VW owners. Today’s GTI VR6 is one of those myth busters: