1991 Volkswagen GTI

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By 

Los Angeles Times

The yang of driving is much less aroused by the din of high horsepower as it is by the zing of little wheels.

For there's definitely something intimidating about grumpy cars that quiver and thunder and could bring sweat to the upper lip of Bobby Rahal.

In truth, suburban mortals are happier with smaller carriages from cars r us; the hot bug-eyes, the mighty minis, the pocket rockets with attainable performance (and price) limits.

It was for this hungry majority that Sir Alec Issigonis motorized a British breadbox that became a 1960 firecracker called the Mini-Cooper. From Palmers Green to Palm Springs, on country lanes and racetrack chicanes, Mini-Coopers enlivened a generation that learned to grin and sing while slaughtering Corvettes in the corners.

The Mini-Cooper knew what it was all about. So did the Bugeye Sprite and Renault Turbo 5. More recently, engineers at Mazda actually set about calculating, bottling and then re-creating all the rude sounds, exhilaration and mechanical viscera of pint pot cars that can. That's how the Miata sports car was born with instant soul.

And very quietly, for 15 years now, first in Europe and then the United States, there has been the Volkswagen GTI.

Squat of form, flat of face, short of wheelbase, stuffed with power but low on frills and cost, the GTI fulfills all the criteria of cars that allow us to Think Small, Enjoy Huge.

It is not a pretty car. It has thick ankles and the aerodynamics of a square baseball. Yet the GTI has always been quick enough to outrun and out-handle just about anything in its class--even most of the modern sport coupes that have been forced into turbocharging for performance improvement.

The basic and firstborn 8-valve GTI, with its tuning tweaks and stiffer suspension, was always more hare than Rabbit.

The pace of the postgraduate version, the 16-valve GTI introduced here in 1987, was nothing short of a blur.

Europeans first saw and loved the GTI in 1975. Like the Minis, it was a mongoose in guinea pig's clothing. That sat perfectly with the competitive (call it offensive driving) mien of European motorists.

In the United States, however, sports cars in those unenlightened days came with two seats and drafts. Family sedans were for carrying crowds to the Adirondacks. And never the twains should merge.

Volkswagen saw no point in challenging that attitude and even less purpose in spending millions of deutsche marks on bringing the GTI up to safety and emissions standards for sale in the United States.

But America's motoring media wouldn't be denied. They found the GTI in Europe, road-tested it, adored it and created a permanent chant for its importation. Journalists like John Rettie (now editorial director of the California Report, a monthly automotive newsletter published by J.D. Power & Associates of Agoura Hills) bought GTIs in Germany and had them shi pped here for personal use.

And in 1982--after Rettie's open letter to Volkswagen on the pages of Motor Trend--Volkswagen did decide to ship the GTI Stateside where it promptly became Germany's most spirited export since Liebfraumilch.

Currently, there are more than 120,000 GTIs buzzing about the United States. It has become a young professional's darling, an instant classic and a teen-ager's second major purchase after Clearasil.

In terms of warm ardor, personal passions and domestic pleasures, the 1991 GTI 16V sets an even higher standard.

Although its body styling is flat and old-fashioned, bordering on the collectible, advancing maturity has improved the looks some. For 1991, the GTI 16V comes with handsome BBS alloy-lattice wheels as standard equipment. Fenders have been flared and now flow into both fascias and underskirts, although that does lose a little of the car's implied passivity.

Internally, the car swings from absolutely perfe t to perfectly ludicrous.

The good news: The gun-metal gray interior of our Tornado Red test car was contrasted by a single line of scarlet piping slicing horizontally through the dash and around the inside of the car. A nice designer touch. Rather like being in one of those red and black commercials for Drakkar Noir after shave.

The GTI 16V bucket seats are standard and by Recaro, which, from back bracing to hip grip, builds a world standard. The rear bench seat shave a 60-40 split allowing cabin access to the trunk. The whole can be folded flat to provide enormous amounts of cargo room.

Overall, the interior might seem a little stark and angular. The sunroof is manual. Windows must be cranked down. But when you consider the purpose of this vehicle, its functional interior is simply reflective of the GTI's workmanlike passage through traffic.

The bad news: Whoever designed the seat belt arrangement probably wears Mickey Mouse shoelaces. In some arcane compromise with federal passive restraint regulations (there is no provision for air bags on the GTI), Volkswagen has voted against motorized seat belts in favor of two manual belts, a standard lap strap and a shoulder strap.

The shoulder strap is not attached to the center post but to the door frame. When entering the car with the shoulder strap in place (although it can be unattached for easier entrance and exit), a driver must slide and wriggle underneath and then around the belt.

Of course, it's much easier with the shoulder strap detached and reeled-in between the front seats. But unhooking the belt from the door also neutralizes the ignition. So the car won't start until the shoulder strap has been re-attached. When all this rigamarole of wrestling with shoulder straps and ignition canceling has been completed, front seat occupants are then expected to remember to fasten their lap straps. Which, of course, they won't.

There's another psychological glitch attached to exiting the GTI. The easiest procedure, of course, is to unhook that infernal shoulder strap. Yet that automatically disengages any human brain accustomed to the one-catch-does-all system in other cars.

So you forget to unhook the lap strap as well. Net result is a lurching, tilting attempt to climb out of the car with the lap belt snug and immovable. It does wonders for digestion and the set of your underwear.

There's another problem with the positioning of the gearshift. It is too close to the corner of the passenger seat. Moving into fourth gear--or from fourth to fifth--keeps the right hand and its knuckles in regular contact with the seat cushion.

The engine of the new GTI 16V remains a fun, four-cylinder buzz bomb that has grown from 1.8 to 2 liters. That is good for an increase to 134 horsepower from 123 horsepower. Acceleration times are improved and so is the top speed.

Yet speed isn't the entire charm of the GTI. There is a subtle edge to the car, a half-buried essence that sets it apart from the Suzuki Swift GT, Honda CRX Si, Geo Storm GSi and other contemporary albeit callow hustlers.

You find it in the GTI's cable-controlled gearbox that demands a certain deftness to get shifts just right. Notchiness is a nuisance in Volkswagen's Corrado and Passat. In the GTI it becomes an acceptable imperfection, something in keeping with the past of motoring.

It's also a front-wheel drive car and a there's a little too much power for such a lightweight. Add the short wheelbase and the GTI is skittery when cornering on tiptoe. Especially on less than optimum road surfaces.

Again, such idiosyncrasies are allowed because controlling and then overcoming them is what ownership of an enthusiast's car is all about. If you doubt that philosophy, imagine the demand to drive a Bugatti Royale if it rode as easily as a Lincoln Town Car.

So the steering on a GTI is made sn ppy but precise and gives the car the maneuvering potential of a pinball. A GTI doesn't accelerate; it scrams. It also prefers to be s lung around corners. The exhaust note is a marvelous buzz fading to a contented snore at freeway speeds.

In total, that personality is as European as a bratwurst croissant. Now add its succession of little handling challenges in search of someone who enjoys the joust, and you have the pure distinction that separates the GTI from all others in its class.

And it's a frisky, sporting, cheeky vehicle that will excite anyone into being happier and better at the wheel.

Or in an appropriate but overexposed word: Fahrvergnugen.

1991 Volkswagen GTI 16V

The Good Designed for fast, spirited running. Genuine passenger/cargo carrier. Superb wheels and better seats. Classic act.

The Bad Seat belts by Harry Houdini. Gearshift position.

The Ugly All those flat surfaces.

Cost Base $13,070. As tested $14,420 (including air conditioning, manual sunroof and California compliance).

Engine Four cylinders, 16 valves,2 liters, developing 134 horsepower.

Type Front-wheel drive, two-door, four-place performance hatchback.

Performance 0-60 (as tested) 8 seconds. Top speed (manufacturer tested) 125 m.p.h. Fuel economy, EPA city-highway, 22-28 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 2,445 pounds.

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