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:
Pretty much everyone knows that Volkswagen enthusiasts are a special breed, but even within Volkswagen enthusiasts there are some really devoted fans of a particular sub-model. One such example of this is the Golf Harlequin, seemingly a joke by Volkswagen dealers to get rid of excess body panels. In truth, it’s one of the really neat exercises by a major that reinforces my belief that Volkswagen just does things differently than most other manufacturers. Seriously, could you imagine Mercedes-Benz shipping a bunch of S-Classes out to dealers in different colors and telling them to swap body panels around? The Harlequin Golf was and remains a neat page in Volkswagen history that generally brings a smile to VW fans. So, it’s no surprise that the Harlequins are very sought after, even if they appear all in one color because the dealer was lazy – no joke! But are they sought after enough to warrant a replica?
Recently we’ve had a wave of lightly modified, good condition A1 GTis. Always a popular platform for tuners and back yard mechanics, the GTi for a long time was cheap, modifications were plentiful, and they mostly lived a hard life. Today, finding clean examples will yield you a highly sought after prize; with so few left, the price has been driven up and nice examples are coming out of the woodwork to test the waters. Today we have two modified but clean GTis – will either be to your taste? Let’s look at the cleaner and more original of the two:
Fewer cars looked more wrong leaving the dealership than the Harlequin Golfs. Schemed up as a marketing attempt to make the rather plain-Jane Golf stand out a bit, they kicked it up a notch by shipping several different colored Golfs to dealers and then having them switch body panels. What they created – perhaps somewhat unintentionally – was a whole culture of VW fans who know way, way too much about the Harlequin. Ironically, I doubt many of them know that it’s named after a duck, but then the people that are into Harlequins are hugely ironic. In any event, let’s take a look at this rare duck:
Model: Golf Harlequin
Engine: 2.0 liter inline-4
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Mileage: 134,033 mi
Price: $6,300 Buy It Now
Here is a very rare 1996 Volkswagen Golf Harlequin. It has 134,033 miles on it and it is the Ginster Yellow base color. It is number 137 out of 200 out of 264 according to rossvw.com. The car is in great condition mechanically and aesthetically and was taken care of by an artist and engineer for 12 years. A lot of effort was put into keeping the paint in pristine condition with regular washing and waxing. Feel free to contact me with any specific questions you may have.
The Harlequin came with several different wheel options – most seemed to have Cabrio/GTi alloys or dealer-installed alloy options, but some had hubcaps. This car, however, has obviously lost it’s originals somewhere along the way. The best solution to wheels on a Harlequin I’ve seen yet was different color-matched BBS RSs on each corner, because why not? They’d certainly look better than the wheels that are currently on this model. A fair amount of Harlequins were automatics, so it’s nice to see a manual and the original “Joker” interior. This particular car was originally Ginster Yellow, meaning none of the other removable panels could be yellow. Properly, I believe that means that the front bumper should not be yellow, so perhaps it’s been redone along the way – not surprising given how easy it would be to repaint just one panel – no matching involved!
Speaking of paintwork, this car has some usual Golf III rust issues, so you’ll probably need to attend to more than just the wheels. Otherwise, the 2.0 ABA is a pretty solid motor and enjoyable to drive. These are light cars that get great mileage; I averaged around 33-34 mpg and put over 200,000 miles with the original motor never apart on mine. If you’d like a unique part of Volkswagen history, this is certainly one way, but it’d make a decent driver too. There were only around 260 of these imported to the U.S., so you’re not likely to see another pass you – ever. Is that exclusivity worth $6,000? That’s strong money for a A3, but the Harlequins do demand a premium. It will be interesting to see if this car gets close to that figure.