Versus the competiton:
Want a blast from the past?
It’s hard to believe it has been 20 years since Volkswagen first pulled the Rabbit GTI out of its hat.
Back in 1983, there were no econo-hatchbacks that could burn up the road without burning too much unleaded. But what VW did was visionary, transforming its best-selling Rabbit into a hot hatchback, satisfying the needs of a nation in an oil crisis by creating a car that was meant to help you forget the problems at the pump.
And the GTI was a whole new way of viewing the world. It was a breath of fresh air compared to the wheezing Pintos and Chevettes.
Powered by a scrappy 90-horsepower, 1.8-liter fuel-injected inline four-cylinder engine, the GTI came with a five-speed manual, sport seats and nimble handling. It was light (1,850 pounds), and it was cheap – $7,995.
Motor Trend magazine said it was Superman with a savings account, and draped a cape over its back end. Car and Driver called it a “10 Best.”
It was the poor man’s Porsche. A wolf from Wolfsburg, Germany, in sheep’s clothing. VW sold it with ads that showed the car racing over a hill, suspended in air.
“Fly GTI,” the ad read.
Twenty years later, it downright soars.
For 2003, the GTI is a great tribute, an unassuming sports coupe for the real world. Fun to drive, reasonably priced, filled with lots of standard goodies – and still a hatchback. And, two decades later, credit VW for learning a little along the way.
As the popularity of the GTI increased, so did the price and the confusing extras. Pretty soon, Rabbits were multiplying everywhere. There was the Golf, not to be confused with the Golf GTI or the Golf GTI VR6 or even the Golf GTI GLS. Unlike the old Rabbit GTI, the newer versions were out of reach for enthusiasts who lacked big coin.
So what is it now? Much simpler and much better.
VW has restructured pricing and content and now markets the car as the GTI with a choice of either the 1.8-liter turbo or the VR6 six-cylinder, our tester. That means the GTI now starts in the low-20s and can stay there if you don’t care for leather seating or automatic climate control. In short, it’s become a more affordable “pocket rocket.”
Fast. Furious. And, thanks to that venerable GTI engine, it’s mostly fun.
Available as either the 180-horsepower four-cylinder or the 24-valve, 2.8-liter, 200-horse VR6, the GTI offers stoplight-to-stoplight action. It revs hard and runs even harder, providing the kind of machismo normally found in cars that cost 10 grand more.
Couple that with the advanced engineering and precise handling all GTIs have been known for, and this becomes a driver’s car. With its six-speed engine, the VR6 targets enthusiasts, and its those kind of buyers who will have a blast. The torque band is broad (as much as 195 pound-feet from 1,950 to 5,000 rpm). That means at any gear, at virtually any speed, you can ask the GTI to accelerate hard and it will gladly comply.
With a sport-tuned suspension – front and rear stabilizer bars – it gives you some good options. There’s everyday ride and comfort combined with the weekend racer’s soul. Step on the gas, attack a corner or soar on the open road. The GTI is capable of all of the above.
And it still gets 30 mpg on the highway.
Critics have said the exterior of the GTI is outdated and, while mostly true, no one can complain about what’s inside. Both versions of the GTI feel upscale and more expensive than the sticker. That means a premium feel that’s hard to find in comparable coupes. Materials are made with quality, and there’s beauty in the GTI’s simplicity. It’s a straight-forward cabin with nicely placed controls and thoughtful design. Not too small. Definitely not tacky.
There are height-adjustable front seats that are firm and sporty. The rear bench seat is supposed to fit three, but two is more realistic, with ample leg room for both. But getting to the bench is one of the easiest paths in the business with VW’s flip-and-fold “easy entry” front seats.
On safety, side and head curtain airbags are standard – a real plus in this price range – and stability control is optional on the 1.8T and standard on the VR6.
The warranty, especially the rust perforation, is the best in the business – 12 years/unlimited miles.
Price was our favorite part.
At $19,065 for the 1.8T, the GTI is set $3000 lower than the Subaru Impreza, its biggest rival. Of course, with the engine in the Impreza, the Subaru might be in a class by itself. But the GTI is still ahead of the others – the Hyundai Tiburon, Ford Focus or Chevy Cavalier when it comes to pure fun quotient.
Even in the topped-out VR6, you are still looking at a ride under $25,000. If that sounds like a lot for a two-door hatchback with a little meat under the hood, you haven’t shopped around lately.
Twenty years later, the GTI is still a hatchback with utility and versatility. Lots of standard stuff. A load to drive.
Fly GTI. Fly.
SPECS: 2003 Volkswagen GTI
High gear: Safe, fun to drive, loaded with standard features, equipped with a hot engine and lots of utility, VW offers a sports coupe alternative that you can actually use in the daily commute.
Low gear: Can we nitpick? A refreshed look at the exterior would be a plus in future models. Rear seating is more suited for two than three.
Vehicle type: Front-wheel drive, front-engine, two-door, five-passenger coupe.
Key standard equipment (VR6): Power rack and pinion steering; sport suspension; all-season tires; anti-lock braking system; electronic stabilization system; daytime running lights; front and side impact air bags; side curtain air bags; height-adjustable front seats; front and rear power disc brakes; air conditioning; cruise control; power windows, locks and heated mirrors; remote keyless entry; tilt steering; 17-inch alloy wheels; in-dash single CD/cassette player; anti-theft system.
Key competition: Hyundai Tiburon, Subaru Impreza, Mini Cooper, Ford Focus
Base engine (1.8T): 180 horsepower, turbocharged 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder
Torque (1.8T): 174 ft.-lbs. @ 1,950 rpm
Wheelbase: 98.9 inches
Length: 164.9 inches
MPG rating (VR6): 23 city/30 highway
Manufactured: Wolfsburg, Germany
Warranty: Basic warranty is four years/50,000 miles; drivetrain is five years/60,000 miles; roadside assistance is four years/50,000 miles; and rust is 12 years/unlimited miles.
Base price (1.8T): $19,065
Price as tested (including options, destination and delivery): $24,715