UK CAR 
Used car review

 Volkswagen Golf GTi Turbo 
2001

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Interior  Exterior

I missed out on the GTi phase of life, I couldn't afford one then, I probably can't afford one now.

Which is a shame as there is nothing quite so much fun as a small car with big-ish power. Or at least enough power to raise a smile. Not that the Golf GTi was a totally new concept - Mini Coopers, Fiat Abarths, Escort Mexicos, RSs and the like had already proved there was a ready market for sporty versions of standard cooking models.

The GTi package was seen as unique when it arrived though - quick and sharp handling but as practical as any other Golf. The magic bit of sales pitch, though, was the "i". For a motoring populace more used to phrases like twin carbs and Webber twin chokes it spoke of a new magical level of performance and sophistication.

In reality there was probably nothing new, it just put together all the little bits people had been asking for - hatchback, injection, sharp handling, sharp pace, front spoiler and red paint into a package that was compact rather than cramped.

Looking back, the original GTi's technical spec is a bit of a larf now isn't it? Fuel injection may have been something reserved for exotica, but 8 valve straight four engines were hardly innovative. However, for all it's limited technical aspirations it produced a driving sensation diametrically opposed to the ever more bland boxes being churned out across Europe.

It would have been interesting to see where the GTi would have been now if crippling insurance costs had not, to all intents and purposes, killed off hot hatch development.

 

 

Not that the GTi ever really died, it just sort of stagnated as other cars developed. Witness the fact that a Turbo diesel Volkswagen engine can now stump up the same or more power than the original GTi and judge for yourself just how technology marches on.

Luckily for us the GTi lives on in the current Golf range. It's much different from the original no frills pocket rocket but it packs the thrills just the same.

 

The little boxy original is long gone now, replaced in its latest guise by a car much bigger and curvier than ever. I can't say the original was a favourite of mine in the looks department (and for me the new version still looks a little frumpy) but this is a family hatch and not a hairdresser's coupe. 

Still, Volkswagen seems to either know what the customer wants or builds cars so good that nobody cares what they look like. Do VW build or have they ever built a really good looking car?  Please do tell.

It's still a compact car but no longer the tight squeeze of yesteryear. Outwardly, like the original, there is little to give away its latent intent. Especially this one in its disguise of dark green, I'm not sure what the colour is called officially, let's call it British Racing or Rover Pensioner Green - the choice is yours. It looks to have a lovely thick shiny coat of paint though so it's okay in a rather understated way. The GTi badge sits a little apologetically on the rump but huge alloys and wide super low profile rubber band tyres shout loudly at you in a max power kind of way. An extra headrest gets squeezed into the rear, probably because there is nothing ever to see through the rear window so they might as well block its vision up completely.

 

 

Entering the cabin brings instant feelings of being in a race car.  

On first viewing it looks really sparse save the major points of thick rimmed wheel, stylish heavily shaped and polished gear knob and Recaro bucket seats with 5 stage heating.

It does not so much invite you in as say "Go on, I dare you".

 

Oh well, if you insist.

 

Sitting snugly in the Recaro, you are struck by the simplicity of the interior. If you like black then this is the place to be. There is a positive dearth of trendy designer materials about the interior. This misleads you into thinking it's sparsely equipped but this just seems to be a Volkswagen trait. They have the knack of distilling minor controls down to the bare minimum of multifunction switches. Witness a single cap-like protuberance which adjusts the electric mirrors - it looks just like their manual adjuster but does the job on both sides. 

All other controls appear to be sited around the central radio/air con segment. It looks simple until you turn the lights on and then you are overwhelmed in a purple neon glow offset by little red highlights just about everywhere. All switches light up to make you aware of their position in the dark (not all other cars do this, before you ask). I can't say I was enamoured by the Christmas tree effect of red and purple but at least the air con and radio give off the same glow to keep in with the scheme.

It's probably got most everything you need in terms of cup holders, central armrests and all that gubbins but it's not really what this car is about. If gadgets are your thing you can get a full spec diesel and have much more time to play with them.

 

Originally you had fuel injection (huh), 16valves (huh?), turbo (huh???), now how about 20 valve Fuel injected Turbo?  So that's Golf GTi 20v Turbo to be precise. That’s one hell of a motor to build and would probably add 1000 to the car's new price straight off.

The beauty and the trouble with turbo engines is you can tweak them up (and down) to give just about any level of power. This one stumps up 150bhp good but is not terribly exciting. I am fairly sure this is the same basic lump found in Audis such as the TT and that gives either 180 or 220bhp. Volkswagen marketing gurus will probably tell you this one is tuned for mid range delivery. I reckon it's tuned for a market sector that will not compete with their other products because the last thing they want is all you TT buyers choosing a cheaper Golf instead, never mind choosing this Golf rather than the larger engined over-the-top variants.

Still, 150bhp is enough to light up most people's lives and this car's tyres so let's not complain too loudly. I'm sure the tuning shops will be more than happy to restore your missing power if you ask them nicely.

What you can't argue with is the way the car produces whopping mid range power; I constantly found myself changing gear and slowing down just to feel the surge as the rev counter smacked past 3000.

For the record, it pulls sweetly down low, pulling harder from about 2000 rpm and revs happily way past 6000. But why bother?  Why not just ride the mid range tidal wave?

The five speed gear box retains Volkswagen's solid feeling no matter how old they get. They never seem to degenerate into the floppy, flaccid, vague gated feeling that many others get with wear. At least with this one you are absolutely positive when a gear is engaged. With all that mid range power there is little need to franticly stir the box anyway as power is always available. Hard charging up the box gives the feeling like a slight pause before each wild, rhino-like charge around the rev counter.

The quoted 0-60 is 7.9 seconds, half a second no doubt accompanied by a flurry of spinning wheels and burning rubber. Still quick though. A top speed of 130mph is expected but probably rarely realised except in its Fatherland.

 

The engine noise is well damped and I could not perceive any waste-gate activity, maybe I was just not trying hard enough. 

This is German engineering at it's best - a very small turbo charger impeller combined with three intake valves.  It is unlike any of the inferior predecessors.

 

Despite the large wheels, low profile tyres and relatively short wheel-base it rides really well, cushioning the bumps much better than it really has any right to. But if it's ride you want, most other Golfs will ride a little better with their softer springs and thicker rubber. Nope, it's handling that attracted you in the GTi direction in the first place.

And handle it does. Or should I say grip it does.  It's sometimes hard to discern the difference. What I can say is that Volkswagen have done a fantastic job of harnessing 150bhp through a small front wheel drive car without scaring the driver to death. Some of this credit must go to a very tricky front differential which I'm told is some kind of torque- sensing limited slip device. Whatever it is, it does a great job of subduing wheel-spin without sending adverse messages through the steering. 

The steering itself has a nice weight to it and responds well enough, though Volkswagen may have engineered out a small degree of feedback and incisiveness in an effort to calm any torque steer effects. Charge hard towards a decent tight bend in low gear and it's only when the Turbo breaks hard through 3000rpm on heavy throttle do you feel a light kick through the wheel.

Of course you can get the wheels spinning in a superfluous display of rubber wasting but you have to try much harder than one would imagine.

A little body roll is expected from a tall body and harsh steering wheel treatment but it's mostly kept in good check; the Recaros do a good job too of keeping your butt planted and body stable so that you can concentrate on steering and not propping yourself up.

 

The Golf is a well proven solid platform and the basis of many other cars in the VAG range. Strength has been a selling point since the little Japanese man and the freefalling cars of the 70s. Add your air bags, crumple zones, impact bars and the like and you have a pretty safe place to be. So long as you don't run face first into Shogun or such like.

Very early models were criticised for their brakes but that was long since solved and big brakes backed up by modern ABS means that, like most modern cars, stopping power at least matches up to the going power.

Central locking, deadlocks and the usual modern anti-theft gear mean that the GTi should stay in your possession much longer than many of the originals managed to. Not that the insurance companies have noticed (or care).

 

For a compact car it feels larger inside than out. On the road it feels solid and planted like a much bigger car than it really is. Even the boot is surprisingly spacious as it should be for a purportedly family car. Tools and multi-play CD system are stored in compartments leaving the boot area clean and clinical.

The only disappointment is that it feels a little too well developed and in rubbing off all the rough edges VW have maybe sanitized it just a touch too much.  It's pretty hard as it is but, to be honest, I was expecting a slightly more raw experience. Whether that's good or bad depends on you. 

Main dealer VW servicing can be a little pricey but VWs rarely break so it's swings and roundabouts.

As an aside, my friend with a SEAT was surprised, nay shocked, by his servicing bill. Audis are renowned as expensive too and it would be a real shame if all you Skoda buyers get stung in the same way as well. It would be interesting to compare prices for a basic service to a common power plant for the VW owned brands.

In summation, it is a Golf so it is totally practical and boringly reliable and it goes like the wind.  So, apart from the sinister insurance implications of the badge, what more could you really want?

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