Four years with a Mk4 VW Golf GTI: It's not so bad after all
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't apprehensive when four years ago today on Christmas Eve 2015, I exchanged my hard-earned cash for the keys to this 2003 Volkswagen Golf GTI. Truth be told, it was not only an unplanned purchase but a forced one, too, as a couple of months prior, the car I had at the time, a 1998 Subaru Forester RX Limited that I was chuffed to bits with and planning on keeping for a while, was totalled by another driver who ran through a red light.
Given I was forced into finding a replacement – and as the majority of people reading this I imagine will know, being a car person means you're unlikely to simply buy the first car that comes along – it did, however, at least come at an opportune time as I'd just stepped up to my full license which, depending on which Australian state you're in, finally allows you to drive cars with forced induction or more than six cylinders.
Set on getting into something turbocharged, I intensely perused Carsales and had umpteen insurance quotes made up and, particularly when it came to insurance costs, one car clearly came out on top as the one that made the most financial sense – the Mk4 Golf GTI.
Hesitant though I was, given previously owning a money-pit E46 BMW 318i that slightly soured the taste of opting for something German, and knowing the Mk4's reputation for being 'the worst GTI ever made', having always wanted to get myself a Golf GTI I decided to risk it and pull the trigger on one. And that one is indeed the one you see pictured here, as it was the only one listed on Carsales in the entire state at the time, which was thankfully in just the spec I wanted – silver with a sunroof and the grey cloth interior.
After test-driving it through the Adelaide Hills, I was quickly sold on it – it drove okay, made whooshy turbo noises, and had a nice interior with its wood-trim and supportive Recaro bucket seats – even if it was in a bit of a state with stickers all over the rear windows stuck there by the previous owner's children, covered in a layer of filth on the outside, and sporting a few dings, dents, and scratches, not to mention the utterly ridiculous amount of gutter rash on those spiffy BBS Montreal II alloy wheels. I should point out that the bandaid on the quarter panel was an addition I made to a dent a prior owners' horse had left after deciding to kick it one day. Seriously.
Oh, and there was one other problem it had when it picked it up – it ran like an absolute pig. Low octane fuel was one big contributor, I suspect, as a full tank of 98RON did make an improvement, but as I later found out when reading through the full receipts provided with the car when I purchased it that far too thick an oil had been used at its last service, and with that quickly changed out in my driveway for some LiquiMoly 5W-40 it was finally running like a top.
The 1.8T engine under the bonnet of the was a big point of interest to me when buying this GTI, not just because of the BorgWarner turbo hanging off the back of it, but because of some of the unique features it had. Its twin-cam head with five valves per cylinder in particular is a notable quirk of it, especially given the additional intake valve doesn't really feel like its making this choked-up engine breathe any more easily.
Only the 150PS variant of this engine was available in Australian-delivered Mk4s – meaning a measly 110kW at 5700rpm and 210Nm across a thankfully broad 1750-4600rpm spectrum that only allowed for an 8.5 second 0-100km/h time – and not the more potent higher-compression 180PS model sold in Europe and Stateside. You can thank Volkswagen's categorisation of Australia as a hot-weather market for that decision, although at least the company's Australian arm didn't bother with bringing the sluggish automatic variant here, instead only selling it with an absolutely lovely five-speed manual 'box that has that classic 'rifle bolt' feel to the shifter, while the clutch is fairly heavy, not ideal for in traffic, but incredibly progressive and provides plenty of feedback.
Although this engine is not renowned for its performance – I wouldn't call it totally slow as its mid-range punch is perfectly adequate, plus it's taken until the current Mk7 for an entry-level Golf to match this GTI's performance figures – it certainly does have some pros going for it.
If you think of the 1.8T as being turbocharged not for performance but for efficiency, it starts to make far more sense – especially when you consider this engine is the greatest precursor to the way downsized turbo engines are tuned today. With a broad peak torque plateau that begins low down in the rev range and the turbo breathing upon the engine from the 3000rpm mark onwards to help it feel under-stressed compared to a naturally aspirated donk as it heads towards the top-end, it's all been set up just the way cars are today.
And that's despite it lacking much of the modern technology seemingly required to make this possible. Not only does it only have multi-point fuel injection, but it still has a cable-operated throttle, too. I can verify that its 8.0L/100km combined fuel consumption claims are perfectly achievable in the real-world as well, even when driven harder as its sitting in traffic that hurts its fuel consumption most drastically.
The other feather in the 1.8T's cap is its reliability – surprising for an old turbocharged engine. Despite how many check engine light memes my friends have tagged me in over the years, I'm still yet to have one come up on the dashboard of my Golf – knock on wood – and in fact only two warning lights have ever come up on it. One is the low washer fluid level light, which comes up every two squirts of the jets given its pathetically tiny fluid reservoir, and one for brake failure which was not because the brakes failed, but because I'm a moron and forgot to plug the brake pad wear sensor back in when changing my brakes.
Two years into my ownership of this GTI it had all been pretty run of the mill so far. All that had needed to be done to it was general maintenance including a new set of on-sale Michelin tyres to replace the mismatched rubber on the car, replacing some broken trim pieces and a knackered gear knob and shift boot, and fixing some boost leaks with some new vacuum hoses; fixing a couple of minor electrical issues including a blown fuse in a hidden fuse box behind the dash, replacing the reverse light switch on the gearbox after it somehow exploded, and changing the glovebox light which required the removal of half the darned dashboard; and the fitment of some Rhino Rack roof racks to accomodate my kayak and bikes which almost seem compulsory to put on a Golf. Overall, I was pretty happy with the car, but at this point, my so-called daily driver began to spend a lot of time sitting around as my forays into the world of motoring journalism were starting to get serious as I spent an increasing amount of time in press cars, leaving the Golf to sit on a trickle charger.
Through driving so many other cars, however, I realised there were a lot of things that I thought could be improved about the Golf every time I took it out for a spin. How many of these things have I addressed? Basically none. Why? Well, I haven't been bothered, quite frankly, given I don't drive it as much as I'd like to nowadays – although it still comes in very handy every time I do need it for something – but I have, at least changed the one thing that I realised needed upgrading most.
Surprisingly, it's not the performance, as I'm not perturbed by its lack of top-end grunt as the mid-range torque makes up for it enough to have some fun through the Hills. What hampered that fun for me was the handling, which I think is the real reason for why the Mk4's reputation has been so substantially marred over the years.
Not wanting to go too crazy so as to not draw too much attention to myself, make the car unusably low, or to blow the budget out of the water, I opted not for coilovers but for a set of 30mm progressive-rate lowering springs from Australian manufacturer King Springs, which were paired with a set of Japanese-made KYB shock absorbers and some Powerflex polyurethane sway bar bushes ordered from the UK.
While not a drastic change on paper, the new suspension made an absolute world of difference. Through the corners, it remains superbly balanced with all of the body roll is previously exhibited now being eliminated, while the steering clearly feels more responsive and direct, not that it didn't before. The ride quality wasn't hampered much, either, with it only a slight bit firmer than before, and while not sitting a whole lot lower than it did from the factory, it is just the right amount to help it look to be at the height it always should have been.
With just a simple set of suspension, I feel like the Mk4 starts to feel more like a proper GTI, and while I'll agree with people that in stock form it does lack some of the panache many other generations in this famed family exhibit, this notably modification-friendly platform benefits greatly from a few minor tweaks.
Although I've considered upping the power, along with making some other changes such as the fitment of an Apple CarPlay-equipped head unit so that I don't have to carry CDs around with me and a reverse camera for my awkward driveway, only time will tell if I actually will, and given I'm currently in the final stages of a project car build with my other set of wheels, it probably will be a bit of time before anything more than general maintenance is done to the little GTI.
It may still have some minor issues – common Mk4 issues such as the starter motor squeal and the dodgy driver's door lock that works perfectly fine as a lock, but fails to tell the car's computer when it has unlocked, often triggering the alarm if you don't start the car before its quiet door locks click back down given it hasn't detected a door being opened, and the faux wood trim on the doors is significantly cracked – but none of that really bothers me given I bought the car for a little over AU$5000, so far from a massive initial outlay, and examples in similar condition are still going for around that mark four years on.
The low purchase price and affordable insurance for something turbocharged means I've not been too bothered by spending money on maintaining and lightly modifying it over the years. In the 33,000km and four years I've spent with it, my bills for maintenance and modifications add up to $9354.89 which is... actually a lot more than I thought it was going to be. Perhaps not so reliable after all then, although items like a timing belt and new air conditioning do certainly blow that figure out significantly, although the previous five years-worth of receipts totalling to over $10k do indicate that its not an issue only I have faced due to the car's old age.
Given it's never left me stranded and never had anything go wrong that's particularly out of the ordinary – all the issues I've faced are ones practically all cars encounter when approaching the 250,000km mark. So it might actually have been expensive all-in-all, but I do feel I've got most of my money's worth out of this little Golf. Far from perfect but perfectly fine, I think the Mk4 is a better car than people give it credit for, even if it isn't the finest example of the breed.