The VW Golf GTi 5-speed

Black Magic! 

Volkswagen’s astonishing 110 b.h.p., 113 m.p.h. Golf GTi is already a cult car among Continental enthusiasts, to whom it has been generally available for something over three years. VW GB imported a steady trickle of left-hand drive GTis and the equivalent fuel-injection Sciroccos, enthusiastic impressions of which J.W., myself and W.B. published in Motor Sport for March 1977, December 1977 and March 1978 respectively. We waited almost with bated breath for VW to market right-hand-drive versions in the UK and were rewarded at the end of last July. From the number of V-registered Golf GTis already scurrying around the roads of the London area, the success has been instantaneous, a British cult in the making.

Volkswagen GB’s ever-helpful Tony Hill and Laura Warren were quick to follow up on my frequently conveyed enthusiasm for these captivating cars: a right-hand-drive Golf GTi arrived at Standard House on the day of the UK release, followed shortly afterwards by a Scirocco GLi. Both were tremendous fun, yet almost before the ink had dried in my notebook and before a word could be published, PR Manager Hill was eulogising to me at the BARC dinner dance about the new five-speed models. The four-speed version is no more, which is slightly unfortunate for those UK customers who bought them in those few months of availability.

Happily, this transmission change gave me another excuse to borrow a GTi, which whizzed me around Britain over the Christmas period. Rarely have I enjoyed a car so much. If the four-gear model was astonishing, this five-speeder is almost beyond belief. I’m not given to the attachment of sentimental pet names to cars, but this little black box attracted one instantly for the hue of its livery, the inspiring handling, performance, economy and the sheer magnetism of its character: Black Magic.

Why this excitement about an extra gear when most manufacturers, even the stubborn BMW at last, are adding overdrive fifth “cogs” and higher final drives to ease our energy consciences? The difference is that this new VW ‘box is an all-indirect, close-ratio affair allied to a lower final drive ratio. The effect is to add even more zest to an already potent package of driving pleasure. Yet this does not cock a snook at the energy crisis. Overall gearing in fifth is actually slightly higher than top in the four-speed car, while VW claim that the new gearbox “provides for more efficient use of the engine output, thus giving the opportunity for more economical driving without loss of performance”. Be that as it may, the fact is that the 1,588 c.c. (79.5 mm. x 80 mm.), SOHC, four-cylinder, water-cooled, transversely mounted engine is quite extraordinarily frugal for the punch it delivers and gives the lie to the idea that performance motoring must mean thirsty motoring. Its 9.5:1 compression ratio prefers four-star fuel. I don’t have the DOE fuel consumption figures for the five-speed car, but those for the four-speed model make the point: constant 56 m.p.h. 41.5 m.p.g.: constant 75 m.p.h. 32.5 m.p.g.; urban 23.0 m.p.g. Its DIN consumption is quoted as 35.2 m.p.g. In fact this most powerful VW ever put into production is claimed in the DOE figures to give exactly the same consumption at 56 m.p.h. as the 70 b.h.p. Golf LS/GLS and is 3.4 m.p.g. more economical than these lesser models at a constant 75 m.p.h. Most owners of the five-speed GTi could expect to average 30 m.p.g. or more. In motoring which included a mixture of heavy London traffic and, shall I say, “using the performance to the full” outside town, the worst I recorded was 25.4 m.p.g. The tank holds 9.9 gall. and I can’t remember when I last went so far so fast with so much fun and had to fill up so infrequently. And this in a little three-door hatchback saloon which will cruise happily down the autobahn, four-up, at three figure speeds and accelerate from rest to 60 m.p.h. in 8.8 sec. How the small front-wheel-drive car has grown up since Issigonis set the trend back in 1959! 

Splendid though the four-speed car was, it did show a little bit of a performance sag between upwards shifts. Now that so smooth and extraordinarily efficient engine simply sings through the gears in one of the happiest engine/gearbox combinations on the market. The table shows the changes in detail. There is a perfect gear for every occasion, selection encouraged just for she joy of it by a delightfully light and precise gearchange in a close-knit gate. The traditional Golf ball lever now has a gear pattern in its top, thus, reverse being selected by pushing the knob down and moving it over and up to the left. Some of the gearbox innards are shared with the 1980 model Porsche 924 5-speed transaxle.

No two ways about it, the 15¾ cwt. GTi is a very rapid machine indeed if that central lever is stirred, but one of the beauties of this VW’s extraordinarily efficient engine is the low-speed and mid-range performance available without resorting to down-changing. Although the torque curve peaks on 101 ft. lbs. at a high 5,000 r.p.m., the curve is almost flat (93 ft. lbs. to 96 ft. lbs.) between 3,000 and 4,200 r.p.m., which ensures tremendous punch in mid-speed range fourth and fifth gear overtaking manoeuvres. In fact the little dynamo under the bonnet pulls lustily from 1,500 r.p.m. to the 6,900 r.p.m. rev.-limiter. Peak power of 110 b.h.p. is produced at 6,100 r.p.m. In terms of crispness, smoothness, responsiveness and sheer mechanical enthusiasm at the touch of the throttle, there is no other small engine in the world in the same ball park. It has the closest characteristics in miniature to the flat-six, air-cooled, Porsche 911 engine of any small engine I lmow. The character-full 1.5 Alfasud engine comes close, but lacks the power of this exhilarating VW engine. On the subject of that classic Porsche engine, it occurs to me that my current choice of an Ideal Pair, recalling the series we ran in Motor Sport a few years ago, would be a Golf GTi and a 911 SC Sport Targa.

Part of the GTi’s considerable charm is its smooth, unruffled behaviour at the bottom end of the performance scale. It is extremely tractable and flexible, happily pulling down to 1,500 r.p.m. in the higher gears and totally at home in heavy city traffic. It is one of the few performance cars I have had in recent times which has not coughed on a plug or two when first extended at the bottom end of the M1 after a day in London traffic jams. The instant responsiveness in first, second and third gears combined with the compact size and excellent handling must make the GTi just about the fastest town car on the market. Yet it is so smooth, quiet and well-mannered in these conditions that it virtually adopts the guise of a mini limousine, as the Rallies Editor and I found when Motoring News‘ new Editor Mike Greasley chauffeured us back to the office in the back seat of the road test GTi from Ford’s annual Motorsport Press Conference. Neither of us had travelled in the back seat of a Golf before and we were pleasantly surprised at the amount of head and knee room available.

The Bosch K-Jetronic fuel-injection automatically compensates for starting temperature, so the engine always kicks into life instantly, even after a freezing night in the open. Even in such Ice Age conditions the road test car could be driven off without protestation, the engine contentedly crisp, revs. contained only out of regard for the treacle gradually thinning in the sump. The Bosch system looks after tick-over too, so the engine idles reliably without recourse to manual enrichment when cold and eventually settles down to a burbling 850 r.p.m. A little bit of shake can be felt from the engine as this high-output engine is blipped at low revs. The eager throttle response and well-sprung clutch — fairly heavy by most small car standards, but not exceptionally so — need good co-ordination to avoid too violent a take-off, but this is easily mastered.

Superlatives cannot be restricted to the engine. There is a feeling of tautness to the whole car, from the suspension and bodywork to the Porsche-type steering column switchgear, an impression of engineering integrity and “built to last”. Which indeed it is, for since March last year all new VWs and Audis have been sold with a six-year anti-rust warranty covering all body panels, not just the floor pan as with Porsche’s six year warranty. The Golf’s doors shut with a clunk, if you can overcome the air pressure in the well-sealed interior without opening a window, a legendary feature of the old Beetle which has survived VW’s radical change in design.

A good engine is worth nothing without compatible chassis behaviour and in that region the Golf is again superb — if you like front-wheel-drive, and if you don’t, the GTi might soon convince you otherwise. Compared with the standard Golf the GTi boasts lower and stiffer suspension, front and rear anti-roll bars and a wider track with 5½” wide wheels and fatter, 175/70 HR 13 tyres, Uniroyal Rallye on the test car. The latter are shrouded by matt-black wheel-spats — not too boy-racerish — and the car looks squatter and more potent. Early four-speed right-hand drive GTis had steel wheels as standard issue. The familiar, spoked alloy wheels are now standard equipment.

This little flyer can be thrown around with astonishing abandon, the steering so smooth and positive that most of the time there is no feel of traction avant. It can be cornered at amazing speeds with very little understeer and in slippery conditions there can even be the occasional demand for a touch of opposite lock if the car is thrown into a corner. With so much power there can inevitably be some darting and scrabbling if full power is applied out of a tighter corner, but playing with the wheel as the little car shoots off at enormous velocity into the next straight becomes all part of the fun. Roll stiffness is good and what roll is transmitted to the occupants is contained by the so-comfortable and supportive Recaro-type bucket seats. One of the most impressive virtues is incredible stability at high speed in heavy rain. Ventilated front discs and rear drum brakes are ideally tuned to this high speed mode of travel, those on the test car being much better in feel and pedal travel than those of the earlier GTis I had tried; I suspect the master-cylinder, wheel cylinder or caliper piston sizes may have been changed. The happy combination of balanced braking, handling, roadholding and acceleration provokes supreme confidence in the driver. I don’t think I’ve felt quite so at one with a road-going saloon car since my modified Mini-Cooper S of years ago. The main difference is that the GTi is so smooth, comfortable and sophisticated, the ride taut but good, the suspension and tyres quiet in operation, the engine also subdued until revved towards the top of the scale. There is a fair bit of road noise at high speed, but the GTi remains very livable with as a high speed motorway cruiser. At the legal limit it is quieter than many much bigger and more expensive cars.

There is nothing special about the interior, apart from those clinging front seats. Indeed the fascia layout is a bit spartan, though the seats are cloth trimmed (this picks up fluff and fur too easily) and the carpet of decent quality. Tartan inserts in the seats brighten up an otherwise all black interior. The tachometer contains a water temperature gauge, with red warning light, and a fuel gauge and an oil temperature gauge and VDo quartz clock are lost somewhere down in the centre console. The Hella halogen headlights could do with more candlepower and the blue headlamp main beam light with less. The thick-rimmed rubber-covered steering wheel, with a Wolfsburg insignia buried in its welled horn-push, needs some effort for parking, but the steering is otherwise modestly light. Clever design of the right-hand steering column stalk allows it to double for both front and rear wipers and washers; those at the rear can be operated whatever mode the front wipers are in, but I found it annoying that the rear wiper cannot be switched on permanently, as it needs to be at high speed in wet conditions. This fuel injection car shares the ordinary Golf hatchback versatility — and those protruding bolt heads in the boot which contrived to damage my briefcase yet again. 

Most of the foregoing comments apply equally to the Seirocco GLi, a sort of suaver version. The Golf is more fun, the Scirocco more stylish and marginally faster thanks to slightly lower weight and better air penetration, but more restricted in head and rear seat room. The Golf GTi costs £5,444, the Scirocco GLi £6,680, or £7,160 in its more luxurious Storm version. 

Readers will have gathered that I am an ardent fan of the little flying Golf ball. Indeed, J.W. and I consider the GTi to be one of the best cars in the World in its own way and everyone in the office who drove the test car was enraptured. However, a discordant note was to arise when I arranged for D.S.J. to try another GTi, thinking that at last I could change his outspoken views on modern saloons, all summarily dismissed as “Euro s. . . boxes”. It was not to be. “It’s just another Euro s. . . box. Aren’t they all like that?” said our Continental Correspondent after a few days. Yes, it was efficient, but it needed a bigger engine so that it didn’t need so many gears, the gear positions were too close together, the brakes weren’t all that confidence-inspiring and the Golf darted about too much out of corners. But he did like the multi-action windscreen wiper switch. Which just goes to prove that you can’t please all of the people all of the time! At least he had the decency to admit that a real motor car wouldn’t keep up with the GTi! — C.R.