1983 VW Rabbit GTI Was Worth the Wait
From the November 1982 issue of Car and Driver.
The automotive business may be topsy-turvy these days, but there’s still no question about where the world’s best drivers’ cars come from. For sheer quantity, you can’t beat the Fatherland: Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and VW turn out more great rides than the rest of the world’s carmakers combined. Even the Japanese still think German cars are magic—and they’re working furiously to close the gap.
So without further ado, allow us to introduce the latest autobahn panzer to grace our roads, the Volkswagen Rabbit GTI, from—wait a minute—Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania? That’s right. Volkswagen of America is now producing a home-grown version of the little hatchback we’ve been waiting for, the GTI—the perennial benchmark of high-performance European econoboxes. Better still, it works so well, you’d swear it came from Wolfsburg.
If you find this leap of faith a little hard to accomplish, we understand. For one thing, the German-made GTI is one killer shoe box. The intense VW engineers take the three letters on the grille very seriously, and the result of all their tuning is a poor man’s hot rod capable of running with BMWs on the autobahn and on twisty Bavarian back roads.
Nor was there any reason to anticipate such a car from VW of America. The cars rolling out of Pennsylvania farm country have been the farthest things from Teutonic boy racers. Since opening its U.S. plant in 1978, VW has soft-pedaled its German heritage in favor of an Americanized image. Suspensions turned flaccid, seats became bench-flat, and the flash and filigree levels rose alarmingly. If you wanted a German-style driver’s car, you had to choose from one of the imported models on the dealer’s floor, like the Jetta and the Scirocco.
That era, we’re happy to report, seems over. With sales off 45 percent from a year ago, VW of America is trying a whole new approach. Jim Fuller, then vice-president of Porsche and Audi, was shipped in last spring to get the lights turned back on, and a new corporate campaign—internally called “Roots”—has been established to foster a more vital image for the company.
This game plan, as you might guess from the name, is for VW to “Germanize” its Americanized, U.S.-built cars. Aside from the image-making GTI—which is intended to cast a glow on the whole line—the program calls for firmer suspensions, better seats, and more understated trim across the board.
Judging by the GTI, VW seems serious enough to do it. Everything about this car is calculated to make an enthusiast salivate in anticipation. From suspension to seats, all the important parts have been uprated to full autobahn-class standards—quite an accomplishment, considering the long arm of the cost accountants.
From ten paces, the transformation is quite subtle, though still visible enough that no keen enthusiast will miss it. A small air dam pokes out beneath the front bumper. Molding and bumpers are blacked out. A thin red molding encircles the grille, and simple red badges are stuck on the grille and the rear deck—just like on the German model. The only other giveaway to this car’s identity lurk in the wheel wells: meaty, P185/60HR-14 Pirelli P6 tires on 14.0-by-6.0-inch alloy wheels.
Clue number two that this is no ordinary economy car comes the second you pull open the door and slide behind the soft, molded, four-spoke Scirocco wheel. The driving environment is aggressively businesslike, but also pleasantly luxurious—more like what you’d expect in an Audi. The highlight of the interior is a pair of deeply sculptured sport seats like those found in the Scirocco, upholstered in heavy-weight corduroy—deep blue with red stripes in the case of our jet-black test car. A somewhat misshapen center console contains a clock, an oil-temperature gauge, and a voltmeter, which supplement the tach, the speedo, the fuel gauge, and the coolant-temp gauge in the instrument cluster. The final touches are a golf-ball shift knob and the substitution of pseudo brushed aluminum for pseudo wood on the dash and console faces.
What you key to life on the other side of the firewall is also something you won’t find in any normal Rabbit: a 1.8-liter four-cylinder that packs more power than any other U.S.- spec Rabbit ever has—90 horsepower at 5500 rpm, to be exact. This 16-hp improvement over the stock powerplant is the result of a variety of revisions. The engine has been bored out from 1715cc to 1781, and compression has been bumped from 8.2:1 to 8.5. The breathing has been improved by opening up valve sizes and adding a low-restriction exhaust system with a 3mm-larger-diameter pipe.
The 1.8-liter’s 22-percent power improvement is still 16 horses shy of the 1.6-liter German GTI’s power peak—something the engine engineers claim is intentional. The cam from the stock 1.7-liter four was retained, they say, to fatten up the midrange for better around-town response, which is sadly lacking in the high-winding German edition.
Before you roll your eyes at what sounds like an excuse, you should know that this powerplant is a delight to live with. It’s spunky down low and pulls hard for the redline. The new motor muscles the 2100-pound GTI to 60 mph in a brisk 9.7 seconds, nearly two seconds faster than the standard Rabbit five-speed—and nearly a second faster than a 5.0-liter Trans Am four-speed. There’s even enough power to push the VW’s boxy body through the atmosphere at 104 mph.
The new engine is more than just stronger, it’s more refined as well. VW’s engine team used this opportunity to reduce piston weight by twenty percent and to lengthen the connecting rods by ten percent—two key changes that combine to make this engine one of the world’s most velvety fours. A portion of the GTl’s improved noise-and-vibration control can be traced to a most unlikely source—a new slip-joint connection between the exhaust header and the tailpipe. The upgraded system eliminates the tinny exhaust note of Rabbits past, replacing it with a mellow, expensive-sounding hum.
Another measure of driving pleasure comes through from the gearbox: a GTI unit imported from Germany. The ratios are the closest you’ll find this side of a race car, and they make it easy to keep the free-revving engine in the choice section of the power band.
Of course, an equal portion of the European GTI’s prowess is derived from the poise its chassis shows under pressure. Here, too, VW of America has come through. Since the U.S. car is about 140 pounds heavier than its German counterpart, U.S. spring rates and shock valving had to be revised. They were chosen specifically to match the European car’s handling characteristics, however. To maintain the best possible quality control, the front struts come from VW’s European supplier, and the rear shocks are Sachs units. The U.S. car does benefit from the same front and rear anti-roll bars used on the German GTI, as well as the foreign car’s ventilated front disc brake rotors.
The first thing you notice when you put all these gourmet pieces into motion is what they don’t do to our old friend the Rabbit. The new GTI is not a hard-edged street racer. The engine isn’t shrill or peaky; the suspension doesn’t jiggle or crash over the bumps. The GTI is far more sophisticated and refined than that. It will stick like glue—0.78 g is available for cornering work—but excellent roadholding is only half the story. It’s almost as composed and supple as the high-dollar brands are over bad pavement, always on its toes through mountain switchbacks, and quick to answer your right foot at any speed. It never seems to breathe hard.
Despite short gearing—4300 rpm shows on the tach at 80 mph—the GTI is a quiet and comfortable long-distance cruiser. For long hauls or short, the front seats work wonders—this despite being handicapped by having only fore-and-aft and backrest-angle adjustments. Even the new, optional four-speaker AM/FM-stereo/cassette radio sounds plenty good.
Next to all-around performance like this, a Scirocco pales. This once-humble Rabbit, in fact, now qualifies as a full-fledged GTI hatchback. What ultimately makes the GTI truly significant, however, is that it’s the first car sold in the U.S. to marry this level of driving satisfaction with the utility, compact dimensions, and fuel efficiency of an economy car. Our test GTI returned an impressive 26 mpg during five days of leadfooted road testing—including a morning of instrumented track tests. That happens to be exactly the same real-world mileage we netted with a stock five-speed Rabbit three-door we tested recently. What’s more, if driving enjoyment in a small car is your paramount concern, you’d be hard pressed to beat the cost-benefit ratio inherent in the GTI’s eight-grand admission price.
For that sum you will not be overwhelmed by clever features, a component sound system, or infinitely adjustable seats. In true German fashion, VW equips the GTI only with what’s needed to get the job done, thank you. When it comes to sheer driving enjoyment, though, the new GTI currently stands in a class of one. True to its pedigree, it can make you feel great—and that’s the best thing any car can do for its driver.
Listen, we ought to give this car a medal or something. Partly because it’ll put the hurt on so many so-called sports cars in the stand-on-it-and-steer-it mode. But mostly because the GTI isn’t another one of those dumb boy racers that ride like produce wagons and make power like blenders stuck on purée.
I mean, even a fast car should live up to certain minimum standards. So I don’t mind that the GTI rides like a Jaguar. I can live with first-class furnishings in the passenger cabin. I can stand a smooth, powerful engine that squeezes a bunch of miles out of every gallon of gas. If this is the sacrifice I have to make for a car that does business as good as the C/D performance specs say the GTI does, I’m ready to bite the bullet.
Like everybody else, I expected a kind of Porsche Speedster—an uncivilized, fast little car. Imagine how lucky we are that this Eighties-style Speedster is civilized as well as fast. It’s a fast little car without the nonsense. —Michael Jordan
As a self-proclaimed forward thinker, I’m sent into a quasi funk every time I think of what the GTI could have been. With Euro horsepower (110 DIN) and fewer black-speed decorations, this box could have left for dead every other performance car in the country.
But I am sheered back up again by thinking of what it is. This car just down-the-road drives better than any other box I’ve tried in the past year. The suspension has the right resilience, and the steering has the right feel. There’s a wonderful sense of balance. Balance is the hardest quality to engineer in—harder by far than horsepower—and VW has done it right. You can really make some moves in this car.
Seats are nearly as difficult. For my anatomy, the GTI’s buckets fit better than the best that can be done with all the knobs and squeeze bulbs in Camaros and Supras. For around $8000, I don’t know of a friendlier place to sit and drive. —Patrick Bedard
Universal esteem for anything—automobiles, moving pictures, jelly doughnuts—is unheard-of in this office. Yet everybody loves the Rabbit GTI, including me. But let me enter a short list of this car’s deficiencies into the record for the sake of objectivity. The clutch pedal vibrates underfoot at times. It’s difficult to heel-and-toe. The steering is too slow for my tastes. Lastly, the Rabbit is by now an old car, a condition I’ll mention in passing without actually holding it against the GTI in any way. Let us instead say the car is mature.
The most interesting thing to me about the GTI is that it’s a true original even though the idea of a sport box has been bandied about for years. The Japanese have nothing of the sort. Chevrolet can only dream of such a car. The Ford Motor Company is working hard on the Escort GT, but the fruit of its labor is not yet ripe. Now that VW has done the definitive econoracer, copying it should be easy. This is one case where cribbing is encouraged, at least by me. —Don Sherman
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