Volkswagens, particularly the Beetle, and MOTOR SPORT used to be synonymous whilst VW was awaiting post-war recognition. Today, we struggled to gain recognition from Milton Keynes to drive the Mk3 Golf in Britain, although it must be said that when we did get our hands on the cars it was for a generous test period. That (mainly) pleasant task accomplished, here is what we thought of the £13,981 two-litre GTI and the £17,971 VR6.
Both came in three-door hatchback guise and are built to the European formula: transverse front engine and transaxle, MacPherson front struts. They break the formula in being exceptionally solidly built and in the use of a 2792cc (81×90.3mm) V6 for the VR6.
This is the first time a mass-produced European hatchback has featured the luxury of six cylinders, and it promises to establish a new category above the GTI clones. Our Volkswagen duo seemed capably representative of their maker’s claims in attaining a maximum of 123 and 140 mph respectively, the 2.8-litre VR6 a reasonable all-round performance match for the latest BMW 3251, especially in respect of its 0-60 mph abilities (at under 7.5s).
The two-litre GTI is notably slower than before. It features an in-line, four-cylinder (ex-Passat) of 115 bhp, which are resonantly delivered in comparison with the suave flexibility of the 174 bhp narrow-angle V6. Weighing 2282 lb brings the benefits of the best crash performance in the class, but saps the sprinting capability of the once fabled GTI to the point where 0-60 mph occupies an unfashionable 10s. Perhaps the imminent 16-valve version will combine shorter sprint times with equal fuel consumption? That would mean closing on its eight-valve colleague’s near 30 mpg overall consumption (rather better than the VR6, which managed around 23.6-24.9 mpg).
The GTI and VR6 both feature catalytic converters and run on 95 RON unleaded, although the VR6’s torque output is raised (from 173 to 177 lb ft/4200 rpm) if you offer it a 98 octane lead-free diet.
The GTI offers 122 lb ft at 3200 revs, whatever it is asked to burn.
The chassis details, based upon ‘Sports Plus’ reduced ride height suspension and power assisted steering geared at 17.5: 1, sound very similar. Yet the presence of a V6 in the nose of the VR6, combined with clever electronic traction control and broader section wheels and tyres, does make a perceptible difference.
The GTI is ahead here in the purity of its cornering performance. It flows through mixed radius curves with an assurance and fluency that shows just how much nonsense we all talked when we said that powerful front-drive cars “would never handle properly.”
As a balance between safety and enjoyment, the Golf GTI sets world class standards. The VR6 is not quite the miracle that we expected, but it works far better than we would ever have expected of a torquey, front-drive, 2.8litre hatchback. Our only real dislike was steering that rattled under power a capital offence against VW law and a lack of feedback to the driver. Doubtless this was occasioned by the need to insulate the driver from the wriggles and twitches as a result of 205/50 rubber in place of the GTI’s comparatively modest 195/50. Both Golfs utilise 15 in wheel diameters, but with 6 and 6.5J as standard issue, respectively.
In wet conditions, the VR6 traction control takes the inevitable wheelspin in its stride and controls it admirably. It is not as efficient as 4×4 (though it is not much less effective than the most primitive 4x4s offered), or as much fun as the latest in refined rear-drive from Mercedes and BMW. Yet, like the gearchange and the generally supple ride (again spoilt by occasional rattles), the VR6 front-drive works well in everyday life. Above all, it allows you to make unstressed progress in this compact (158.3 in long, 67.4 in wide) package.
Both machines share 280/260mm all discbraked layouts, but only on the VR6 is ABS a standard feature. In either case retardation is sustained and prompt. However, when the VR6 was rather unfairly, and additionally, sampled on a small handling circuit, a professional racing driver proved that there was a fade limit to its repeated braking abilities.
Take in a VW cabin that reeks of well organised defences and logical controls, plus fine ventilation and a plethora of warranties (perhaps the VW badge is the best bet of redress, should quality not reach expectations) and the Golf GTI makes solid sense. Add in the sparkle of a VR6 and you have an original redefinition of the compact performance hatchback, plus seductive creature comforts. How long before the aftermarket tuners make the 190 bhp/2.9litre Corrado version of the Golf VR6 available? That could be too much of a good thing! J W