Article and photos by Laurance Yap
Originally published January 20, 2004
There’s nobody in this world that’s better at playing the platform-proliferation game than Volkswagen. If you don’t believe me, consider that the underpinnings of this $34,150 Golf GTI Anniversary edition also form the basis for the VW Jetta (Bora in Europe) sedan and wagon, five-door Golf, and New Beetle coupe and cabriolet; Seat Leon and Cordoba; Skoda Octavia (hatchback and wagon); as well as the Audi A3 (three- and five-door) and TT. That’s thirteen different body styles even before you start to count different engines, transmissions, and drive systems. It’s remarkable not only because of how widely the VW group has disseminated the platform, but also because each of those cars manages to have its own identity, defined by unique styling, interiors, and driving characteristics.
Indeed, within the GTI family the models offered vary from smooth, composed luxury liner (think a VR6 model with leather, automatic, and soft-riding 16-inch all-season tires) through pretty sporty (170 horsepower 1.8T with a manual, grippy cloth buckets, and the bargain sports suspension option) right through to this anniversary edition, which with its 180 horsepower four cylinder, 18-inch tires, extra-low, extra-stiff suspension and full body kit, is the most extreme option of them all.
On visual evidence alone, it would be easy to think that most extreme also means most desirable. Aside from a different front airdam (two pieces with six air intakes instead of one plastic chunk punched three times) and one rear pipe instead of two, the 20th anniversary GTI is a dead ringer for the ultimate Golf, the Europe-only V6-powered, all-wheel-drive R32. It has the same gorgeous multi-spoke 18-inch alloys and the same extended side sills and chunky rear bumper. It has brake calipers painted bright red, suspension that’s been lowered so much the wheels rub when they’re on full lock, and a cheeky set of retro red badges featuring a rabbit motif, an homage to the Rabbit which originally launched the GTI name in North America. Sport compact drivers – especially those of them behind the wheels of other VWs – swivel their heads and take notice (and they marvel that you can get Pirelli snow tires in an 18-inch size).
The story’s much the same inside. The standard GTI’s excellent buckets have been binned in favour of extra-aggressive cloth Recaros with red piping and a ribbed texture – they’re so wide there’s no more room for a centre armrest. Real aluminum trim drapes over the dash and door trim panels. A full complement of power options comes standard, as should be the case at this price: the windows both have an auto up/down function and the sunroof has an intuitive knob to set the size of its opening. The steering wheel, a special three-spoke design in perforated leather, tilts and telescopes, giving a perfect view of the aluminum-accented gauge cluster; the shifter is a classic metal golf-ball shape, and it stirs a six-speed gearbox with light, accurate throws. The crowning touch is a single-CD Monsoon sound system loud enough to blow the car’s doors off but with enough accuracy that you can hear the smallest instruments at moderate volumes.
As we have come to expect from VW these days, the interior quality is stunning. At 34 grand, this Golf may be darn expensive, but to its credit it still feels more expensive than that, with beautifully-matched finishes and tight panel gaps everywhere – except the new, narrower rear centre console which is rendered in hard, shiny plastic that doesn’t match the rest of the interior. However, at 6000 km, my tester had a couple of noticeable squeaks and rattles, and the right edge of the driver’s seat seemed noticeably lower than the left edge, making it feel like I was always leaning toward my passengers. Odd, but something I have noticed in other cars fitted with aftermarket-style seats.
Were I in the market for a car tomorrow, this GTI would definitely be on my shopping list. I’m smitten by its chunky good looks and its attractive interior, and while the driving experience has a couple of faults, so do all of its competitors. It’s also a practical car, with decent space for two if not three in the back and, under the hatch, a massive cargo area that can be expanded by flipping and folding the seats. Whether I’d be willing to shell out $34,150 is another matter entirely, especially as turbo Golfs can be had for several thousands of dollars less, some of them with the practicality of four side doors. Maybe the answer is to pick up one of those and build my perfect GTI piecemeal – some tasty alloys here, some Recaro buckets there, a turbo upgrade in a couple of months when the standard engine starts to seem slow…and, of course, some cheeky little rabbit logos to top it all off.