2002 VW GTI 1.8T
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by Haney Louka

For 2002, Volkswagen has increased the horsepower in the GTI 1.8T’s turbocharged 1.8 litre four cylinder engine from 150 to 180. The extra horsepower is attributable to a less-restrictive exhaust system, variable valve timing, and software re-programming to adjust the engine’s air intake, ignition timing, and fuel mixture. The 2002 GTI 1.8T’s base price is $25,895 and includes standard air conditioning, cruise control, power windows and locks, CD player, anti-lock brakes, traction control, and anti theft system.

Pocket rocket or luxury hatch?

Perhaps the greatest indicator of VW’s upmarket aspirations is the GTI 1.8T.

When the GTI was introduced almost 20 years ago, it was a nimble, lightweight, happy-handling version of the economical Rabbit hatchback. The main differences between it and its more mainstream sibling were performance related: more power and better handling.

That the latest GTI comes standard with A/C, cruise control, power windows and locks, CD player, anti-lock brakes, traction control, and anti theft system, speaks volumes about the market segment that VW is targeting. It’s almost as if the GTI has grown up with its customers.

2002 VW GTI 1.8T
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Granted, there’s nothing wrong with high feature content. It’s just that there’s probably a bunch of people that would love to get their hands on a GTI, but whose budgets fall a couple of g-notes short of the $25,895 base price.

My tester, courtesy of Volkswagen Canada, was equipped with Side Curtain Protection ($220), the Luxury Package (power sunroof and Monsoon sound system, $1,485), and the leather package (leather steering wheel and seats, heated seats and washer nozzles, $1,180), for a total as-tested price of $28,780.

A VR6-powered GTI is available for a base price of $27,530, but is less powerful and heavier than this latest iteration of the 1.8T. Besides, a 200-hp GTI VR6 with a six-speed manual is slated to arrive later this year, kind of making the current one obsolete. To the VR6’s credit, though, I should note that its base price is over $3,000 cheaper than last year’s GTI GLX.

Remarkable powerplant

2002 Volkswagen GTI 1.8 T
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Purring beneath the hood of the GTI is a more powerful version of VW’s renowned 1.8 litre turbocharged engine – it now puts out 180 horsepower, a 30 horsepower increase over last year’s 1.8T, and brings the motor’s specific output up to a remarkable 100 horsepower per litre. The folks at Ward’s Auto World seem to share my appreciation for this motor, as they’ve added it to their 10 Best Engines list for 2002.

The 1.8T utilizes five valves per cylinder (three intake and two exhaust), dual overhead camshafts, and an air-intercooled turbocharger. The increase in juice for 2002 is attributable to a less-restrictive exhaust system, variable valve timing, and software re-programming to adjust the engine’s air intake, ignition timing, and fuel mixture.

The peak power output occurs at 5,500 rpm, while 174 lb-ft of torque are accessible between 1,950 and 5,000 rpm. Those numbers are more appropriate for an engine with two more cylinders and about a litre more of displacement.

Power is sent to the front wheels through either a five-speed manual or five-speed automatic Tiptronic transmission. To keep that power under control, an electronic differential lock works at speeds below 40 km/h, while anti-slip regulation (ASR), a fancy name for traction control, works at all speeds.

Disc brakes are present at all corners (vented in front) with ABS providing the control during emergency stops or in slippery conditions.

Subtle styling, luxurious interior

2002 VW GTI 1.8T
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The GTI can be differentiated from its more humble Golf brethren by its smoked taillight lenses, fog lights, and 16-inch alloy wheels; all standard equipment on the GTI. Other than that, it’s just the badging that separates it from the Golf.

Styling changes for the Golf/GTI have been evolutionary ever since the Golf was introduced here in 1985, and this latest version is no exception. But VW has been successful in keeping the look fresh and successively more aggressive with each update. The short rear overhang and flared fenders in particular lend the GTI a muscular stance.

Inside, the GTI sports attractive cloth seats (leather is optional) and seat belts for five, although that centre position in the rear is wishful thinking on the part of VW. As with all two-doors, rear seat ingress and egress is an issue for those who regularly carry people and/or stuff back there. This GTI has, as far as I am concerned, the best front-seat-tilt design in the biz.

2002 Volkswagen 1.8 GTI
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While the seatback tilts forward (like any other system), the bottom also lifts up and forward so that the front seat is as far away as possible from the rear without actually being in front of the car. And the whole works moves back to the same position as before – anyone who drives a two door will know how annoying it is to constantly have to readjust the front seats after someone has made their way into the back. That’s genius in the details, folks.

The dash layout is classic VW, with the basic gauges laid out in an easily readable manner. At night, the instrument panel is backlit in blue with red needles, while red is the colour of choice for the centre stack and various other controls throughout the interior. Overall, it’s a cool look that never fails to attract the attention of anyone giving the car a once-over at night.

Dash, headliner, and seating materials in the GTI, as in all VWs, look and feel as if they belong in a car costing thousands more. Combine that with the substantial feel of the switches and silicone-damped moving parts (such as the grab handles, glove box, and cup holders), and it becomes evident that VW is trying quite earnestly to become known as a producer of luxury cars, rather than the budget-oriented German automaker.

Driving impressions

2002 VW GTI 1.8T
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While I was impressed with the original 1.8 litre turbo introduced in the 2000 Golf and Jetta models, this more powerful motor further raises the bar in terms of what is possible with a small-displacement four-cylinder motor. Turbo lag didn’t even come to mind until I mashed the go pedal when the engine was spinning slower than 2,500 rpm. Over that threshold, power delivery is smooth and fluid, and the engine revs quietly and eagerly toward its redline, pegged at 6,500 rpm.

The brakes feel powerful and are easy to modulate thanks to a firm pedal (relative to the Golf/Jetta) and the linear delivery of stopping power. Steering response feels quick, thanks no doubt in part to the low-profile 45-series tires that my tester was shod with.

Though turbo lag is next to non-existent in the GTI, body roll (in turns), dive (during braking) and squat (on acceleration) are all too much for a car with sporting intentions. I don’t know if the car’s high-ish centre of gravity is to blame, or the almost 3,000 lb being carried around, or even just that VW thinks North American drivers want a cushier suspension. Whatever the reason, I’d like to see a firmer suspension setup somewhere on the options list.

The clutch/shifter combination works well in the GTI; they’re both easy to get used to and shift action is smooth. In a perfect world, the clutch would have a shorter travel and the shifting between gears would be a little shorter and crisper. But in a car as well rounded as this one, I think that qualifies as nit picking.

Summing it up

When I’m behind the wheel of a GTI, I feel like I’m driving a much more expensive car. The atmosphere is somewhat muted, the stereo sounds superb, and there’s a solid, buttoned-down feel that only costly cars seem to know how to deliver. If I were to choose a sub-$30K vehicle for a cross-country jaunt, the GTI would be near the top of my list.

The Competition

The GTI offers a unique blend of performance and luxury in a hatchback that precludes naming direct competitors. There are the Asian coupes that provide a sportier ride-handling balance, a domestic that’s often overlooked, and there’s also a German wearing a three-pointed star that offers much the same in terms of performance and refinement for a few more bucks.

  • Acura RSX ($27,000)

  • Ford Cougar V6 ($27,095)
  • Hyundai Tiburon GT ($25,795)
  • Mercedes C230 Sport Coupe ($33,950)
  • Toyota Celica GTS ($30,860)

See also:
First Drive: 2002 Volkswagen 1.8 T GTI and Jetta GLS, by Grant Yoxon
Test Drive: VW Jetta 1.8T GLS by Greg Wilson

Technical Data:

2002 VW GTI 1.8T
Base price $25,895
Price as tested $28,780
Type 3-door, 5-passenger hatchback
Layout front engine, front wheel drive
Engine 1.8L turbocharged inline-4, DOHC, 5 valves per cylinder
Horsepower 180 @ 5500 rpm
Torque 174 lb-ft. between 1950 and 5000 rpm
Fuel Premium recommended
Transmission 5-speed manual
Curb weight 1330 kg (2932 lb.)
Wheelbase 2511 mm (98.9 in.)
Length 4189 mm (164.9 in.)
Height 1439 mm (56.7 in.)
Cargo volume 18 cu. ft. (41.8 cu. ft. with rear seat folded)
Fuel consumption City: 9.8 L/100 km (29 mpg)
  Hwy: 6.9 L/100 km (41 mpg)
Warranty 4 yrs/80,000 km
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/100,000 km
Acceleration time 0-60 mph (97 km/h)7.5 seconds (Manufacturer’s estimate)

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