Remember That Time VW Almost Killed The Golf GTI?
Every family has THAT member - the one that no one talks about. But there's one generation of GTI that hasn't been invited to any weddings.
The Volkswagen Golf GTI is and likely always will be a staple in the automotive industry. Times come and go but the GTI has always remained relatively constant. Not the most dynamic to drive, not the prettiest, never the fastest nor has it ever been the most refined in it's class - but it will always be the daddy when it comes to hot hatches. The reason for this is simple - it'll swallow all your family and all your luggage, take you comfortably to the other end of the country and get you there in time for dinner. Not the best at any one thing - but always the best for doing everything. Now - the MK1 and MK2 did this brilliantly, however there is a dark page in this very important chapter in motoring history. Allow me to take you back 30 years or so. The year is 1991 and VW have just launched a new model...
Phase 1 - A Small Blemish
By 1991 the Mark 2 Golf was long overdue an update. VW were well aware of this and so the same year launched this - the Mark 3. Now, the first two generations of Golf had been sensational, so the third instalment had a lot to live up to. What arrived though, was a lazily restyled, slightly fatter, but marginally quicker version of the Mark 2. The interior was brought up to date and the engine and suspension refined, but it hadn't really been the success VW hoped for. Lacklustre steering feel made for sub par handling and the engine didn't feel as gutsy as its predecessors despite being more powerful. The car was still good, but it had begun to feel less like a GTI and more like a normal golf with a bigger engine. This small hiccup though was nothing, NOTHING when compared with what happened next.
Phase 2 - A Near Death Experience
It goes without saying that following the slight disappointment of the Mark 3, the next in line really needed to be something special. This is what we got. An overweight, under styled and under engineered pile of crap. Yes, the interior was leaps and bounds ahead previous models but beyond that, it didn't really offer anything else remotely desirable whatsoever. It wasn't very good looking and had very few styling cues over the basic car aside from upgraded alloys. Gone was the 2.0 litre from the Mark 3 and in it's place came a 1.8 litre turbo. This engine was down on power compared to it's rivals, meaning the whole car felt sluggish in a world of hot hatches such as the Mark 1 Focus ST and R53 Mini Cooper S. Not only that but it had gotten fat - really fat. It couldn't even match the Mark 1 in terms of power to weight ratio - this harms it rather drastically when the roads get twisty. It's difficult to tell really if the front wheels are connected to the steering wheel mechanically, by wire or using guesswork. One thing is for certain though, the masses of body roll, boatloads of understeer and almost complete lack of turn in take away all the fun from driving a Golf GTI. So it was slow, it was bad in the bends and it was ugly. Reviews when it was new badly harmed sales and those that did buy were often disappointed. This put VW in a dire situation. With two failed attempts at getting there own formula correct, if the next one wasn't a return to form - the GTI could be resigned to the history books.
Phase 3 - Redemption.
'Alexa, Play Bob Marley's Redemption Song'
Now it's 2003 and boy did they deliver. The engine was pumped back up to 2.0 litres and produced, as near as makes no difference, 200hp. The whole chassis was tweaked and the car lowered thus eliminating the dramatic understeer of it's older sibling. Subtle styling cues like the honeycomb grille and now iconic GTI alloys let passers by know that this was the real deal. The interior was again updated and a DSG gearbox offered - but c'mon, who needs that when the manual was so sweet. All in all, this was a true return to form and more importantly, it brought the GTI marque back from the brink. Many enthusiasts will tell you this the best generation of GTI and I don't think they're far wrong to say so. It gave the full family friendly package whilst remaining incredibly sharp, yet forgiving to drive. This was everything a modern GTI should be and fortunately for us, set the benchmark nice and high for future generations.
The Mark 4 R32 was epic, but that's a story for another day.