The majority of people rate the Volkswagen Golf GTi, dating from 1976, as one of the best, if not the top small car. Some 10,000 RHD Golf GTi’s have been sold in Britain since 1979, and over 330,000 have been produced. Now we have the Golf GTI 1800, which is indeed gilding refined gold. In the former bodyshell, the three-door hatchback, an engine of greater power has been installed, an increase of two b.h.p. but accomplished at 300 fewer r.p.m., and an improvement in maximum torque of 6 lb./ft., but at 1,500 lower r.p.m., over that of the 1600 Golf GTi’s engine. It is this better spread of power and torque that has truly put the latest 1.8-litre Golf GTI in a class of its own.
The power and torque increases have been achieved by using a 1½ mm. bigger cylinder bore, 6.4 mm. on the piston stroke, increasing the swept volume by 193 c.c. and incorporating bigger valves, lighter pistons, a new crankshaft with a torsional vibration damper, and other internal changes, and a higher (3.65 to 1, against 3.89 to 1) final drive. The result is a captivating little car, of very significant performance. It retains the former five-speed gearbox and otherwise is much the same as the Golf 1600 (or 1500, as VAG call it) — until you drive it!
At first, emerging into the dusk and the London snarl-ups, I felt the little VW to be a thought rorty — fierce clutch, fast sporty tick-over, sports-type bucket driving-seat. This impression soon evaporated, as I discovered how very smooth the transverse 81 x 86.4 mm. (1,781 c.c.) four-cylinder overhead-camshaft fuel-injection engine is, in spite of its 10 to 1 compression-ratio, 112 (DIN) b.h.p. output at 5,800 r.p.m., and its delivery of 109 lb./ft. torque at only 3,500 r.p.m. It really is a remarkably smooth power-unit and quiet with it, at fast cruising speeds, and can be revved safely to 6,300 r.p.m. What is more, the improved torque characteristic enables it to pull away in fifth gear from below the legal town speed-limit (1,500 r.p.m.), so that one normally uses only that, normal top and third gear most of the time, engaging the two remaining lower gears in the box only for motoring in earnest, after starting off. The clutch has a rather long travel, which I noticed even though I tend to drive at far less than the full arms-stretch position, but with care it engages smoothly and any “kangaroo take-off” is obviated. The gearbox was a trifle notchy unless the clutch was fully depressed but was otherwise a delight to use, as its ratios (3.48, 2.12, 1.44, 1.13 and 0.912 to 1) are so well related.
As for performance, so smoothly and eagerly delivered, what can I say? It was not possible to check for absolute top pace, but you can put it at some 115 m.p.h. On accleration, here was a very compact 1.8-litre car that would out-pace many far bigger ones, doing 0-60 m.p.h. in about eight seconds for example, topping the performance aspirations of such as the Renault 5 Gordini Turbo, the Alfasud TiX, the Colt 1400 Turbo, the Fiat Strada 105TC, the Volvo 360GTL, the BMW 316 and what have you, apart from being faster than these and just about as economical. Marvellous!
From a personal point of view, this made a day’s journey of over 330 miles from Wales to the English Midlands and back to look at some pre-war motor-racing photographs an easy accomplishment, and it was noticeable that with four adults in the VW the excellent handling was not one whit impaired — mark you, those in the back hadn’t much footroom. The return run embraced traffic running through fairly congested towns, a good deal of Motorway driving, two brief stops, one to refuel, and then fast stuff along deserted Welsh A-roads. That the VW Golf GTI was able to average in the region of 48 m.p.h. overall, at a fuel consumption of 33.7 m.p.g. is a measure of the abilities of this excellent little hatchback. The cornering is predictable, with very little lean, and in this context it is significant that Volkswagen contrive a good ride from their rear suspension, when Ford and to a lesser extent Vauxhall have (until the former’s Sierra) never been good at this. Only when accelerating hard did the Fulda 175/70HR13 Rasant Steel 411 radial ply tyres of the test car lose front-drive grip, while the understeer is very mild and does not embarrass the somewhat low-geared (3.3 turns, lock-to-lock) manual, rack-and-pinion steering, which is light with excellent castor-return.
The driver is held securely by the rally-type seat, and all the former good and less-good Golf aspects are unchanged, including the ugly steering-wheel with its four horn-pushes. The fascia contains the Motormeter speedometer and tachometer, the latter with fuel and heat gauges. The 1800 cruises at 3,526 r.p.m. at 70 m.p.h. in fifth gear. After switching-on the ignition little lights flash for a time and then go out, to indicate services in order, and there is a neat computer panel which will apparently tell you what your journey time, journey distance, average speed, m.p.g., oil and outside temperatures are, by pressing a button on the end of the r.h. control stalk. It also incorporates a memory-bank, for recording up to 6,200 miles, etc., I never got this right, perhaps because of inadvertently depressing the button when using the screen-wipers, and as another tester found the computer’s fuel-consumption readings optimistic, I preferred to ignore it, but its easily-read, non-dazzle digital clock was appreciated. Less so was a tiny light that came on if it thought you were being unsparing of petrol — I did tend to drive to its ministrations, with a little coasting as well, but it can curb the delights of extending to the full this very lively 1800 Golf, which can improve on the acceleration of the 1600 GTi model by as much as 1.8 sec. from 50 to 70 m.p.h. and by 2.7 sec. from 60 to 80 m.p.h., in fifth-speed, for instance. In normal fast driving, however, the “econ” warning is not particularly inhibiting, but the needle that swept back and forth across the dial calibrated from 25 to 55 m.p.g. when you were in fifth gear, I also ignored. As an aside, I note that the golf-ball gear-lever knob, rather rough to handle, is retained, a nice touch of Teutonic humour. Nor did I like the screen-washers which did not clean the base-area in the driver’s line of vision. On the other hand, what could be more convenient than a wash-wipe response to a flick of the r.h. stalk (turn-indicators and flick dipper from the I.h. stalk) and rear window wash-wipe by pressing on the same stalk? This underlines the fact that this latest Golf GTI is a very convenient fast car to drive. It has the expected Golf amenities of easily-read instruments, a well-sealed body asking for a window to be opened for easy-closing of its doors, nicely contrived door handles, effective door “keeps”, plenty of stowages including a lockable lid to the cubbyhole, useful rigid door pockets, a notably steady-reading fuel gauge accurate even down to the gallon or as of petrol left at the red warning mark, a lockable fuel filler-cap, and Hella headlamps good on main beam, less good when dipped. There was too much wind-roar in the region of the near-side door, however. The ride, as I have said, is very good indeed for a small car, comfortable in spite of obviously stiffish suspension, which did not quell a modicum of float once or twice over undulations, although this is of no consequence at all. Indeed, this is a beautifully balanced little car in which to put up good average speeds. For its type the heater (with three-speed fan) works well, and the services beneath the prop-up rear-hinged bonnet are all accessible, as is the VW 12-volt, 54-amp. / hr. battery.
Overall consumption of 4-star was 33.5 m.p.g., a very commendable figure considering the performance available, the nine gallon tank giving a practical range of some 300 miles. The vacuum-servo disc/drum brakes have a rather long pedal travel, but are otherwise perfectly satisfactory. It is this splendid, effortless performance that makes this THE outstanding small-car, for it goes like a little racer yet has little of the punchy, detuned rally-car aspects that might have gone with it. The Bosch fuel-injection ensured a prompt hot or cold start, and there is almost nothing to fault. At a whisker under £6,500 and that without some of the equipment most users will want as extras, the big-engined Golf GTI costs more than some cars in this class, but you get excellent value if you enjoy driving, and alloy-wheels, rear seat-belts, front air darn and two external mirrors, both adjustable from within, are provided. Servicing intervals are now at 10,000 miles. VW have, with this newest Golf, showed, once again, how best to play the small-car game. — W.B.