The Volkswagen GTI was improbable and audacious. Volkswagen had been suffering, hooked on the Beetle, trapped by an air-cooled rear-mounted engine concept that it had trumpeted as automotive perfection, but even radical updates like the VW Squareback were unsuccessful in turning the tide rolling in from Japan. In 1975, the Toyota Corolla pushed its maker ahead of Volkswagen as the number one import in the U.S.
Volkswagen responded with the Golf—dubbed the Volkswagen Rabbit for sales in the United States—and instantly created a hatchback format that set a new standard. Not that there hadn’t been cars with a rear hatch before, but the Golf/Rabbit would define it in a way that the Dodge Caravan would for the American minivan.
Then Volkswagen doubled down on its bet with the GTI. There was no particular need for it, other than perhaps in-house enthusiasm. With the Beetle, Volkswagen had only toyed with sporting appearances, leaving performance to its legion of air-cooled VW enthusiasts. And VW had its marketing hands full with a front-engined/front-drive/water-cooled/straight-edged car replacing one that was the exact opposite The Golf had only been on sale in Europe for about a year, and doing well, but nevertheless, Volkswagen debuted a performance-tweaked Golf at the 1975 Frankfurt Motor Show.
Performance in the min-Seventies meant meeting diminishing expectations. Volkswagen took what was considered a high-performance 110-horsepower 1.6-liter four from its corporate parts bin and dropped it under the hood of the Golf. And that was the Volkswagen GTI, a car that didn’t have to be built—but was.
It was a hit in Europe and the instant lust object for frustrated enthusiasts who in the ‘70s were accustomed to looking across the ocean at nifty cars that couldn’t be brought Stateside due to EPA regulations. More importantly, there had been small cars with, well, relatively big engines before, but the Volkswagen, while not cheap, put performance within reach over everyman.
The Volkswagen GTI didn’t arrive in the U.S. until the 1983 model year. “Arrived” is perhaps the wrong word. The Rabbit GTI, as it was known here, was built in Volkswagen’s ill-fated factory in Westmoreland, Pa., alongside the standard VW Rabbit. The American GTI had a 1.8-liter engine rated at 90 horsepower, and could clip off 0-60 mph in about nine seconds. If that sounds, well, pathetic by today’s standards, it was a hoot at the time. Car and Driver extolled its “eager engine and polished manners.” Looking back now, the Rabbit GTI had non-power steering. Cue unexpected effort and a slow steering ratio.
The second generation of Volkswagen’s GTI debuted in the U.S. for the 1985 model year. The overall shape of the Golf/Rabbit was the same as before, though the razor-edge styling softened, and it had three-inch longer wheelbase and was almost seven inches longer overall. For the first two years the GTI Mk II had the same 1.8-liter engine as its predecessor, though power steering was new. Starting with the 1987 model year, however, a 16-valve engine was optional. Because of stricter emissions rules, the American-market 16V GTI made only 123 horsepower, short of the 139 of the Euro version, much to the chagrin of American enthusiasts. The Westmoreland plant shut down in 1988, the remainder of the Mk II run was made in Germany or Mexico.
The GTI MK III is notable for having the VR6 engine under the hood, but the GTI was AWOL from the USA from 1993 until the Golf III arrived Stateside until 1995. The Mk III is often considered the “softest” of the GTI lineage, but the distinctive sound of the uneven-firing narrow-angle six is entertaining. With 172 horsepower, the Mk III is the quickest GTI yet, with zero to 60 taking 6.7 seconds. The GTI was also offered with a four-cylinder again, beginning in 1996, though why anyone would prefer a 115 horsepower 2.0-liter is a mystery to us.