Story and photos by Russell Purcell
After two decades of continuous production, the Volkswagen GTI is somewhat of an automotive icon. Evolution has taken it from its humble roots as an accessory-laden Rabbit, to a very competent, not to mention luxurious, 2+2 road car. However, with hot new entries to the hatchback category from the likes of the Mini Cooper ‘S’ and Honda’s SiR, VW, the originator of the species, took notice.
The GTI, now available in two potent forms – one equipped with the 1.8-litre turbo-charged four, the other the smooth VR6 – has reached a level of refinement far beyond that of many cars in its class. Both build quality and the choice of materials appear to be top-notch. Squeaks and rattles are virtually non-existent except when traipsing over larger speed bumps or rural railway crossings. VW is obviously doing something right.
The GTI is essentially a high-performance version of the two-door Golf, loaded with a little extra horsepower, a plethora of luxury and power goodies, and aggressive wheels and tires. Four-cylinder models come with a either a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed slush box, while the VR6 sports a very slick 6-speed manual.
The VW VR6 power plant is a charmer and now boasts a healthy 200 horsepower and 195 lb.-ft. of torque. A quick flick through the GTI’s short-shift 6-speed while exercising on a curvy sheet of asphalt will leave you in disbelief – not about the car’s combination of boy-racer looks and sporty attitude mind you, but about it’s within-reach price-tag. A GTI offers big bang for the buck, especially when you consider that it is available in two guises (the 1.8T variant is available for about $3,000 less than a VR6), making the car very accessible.
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Safety is always concern number one when designing an automobile, but even more so when the car is of the performance vein. VW has addressed this area well. Airbags abound, as the dual front units are supplemented by both front side and curtain airbags. Oversized disc brakes with ABS effectively keep this four-wheeled dynamo in check, especially when backed up by VW’s advanced traction control.
Recent improvements to the production line include the increased use of laser welding, space-age bonding agents and self-piercing rivets, giving the GTI chassis outstanding torsional rigidity. Rigid cars provide excellent feedback through road feel, making the 2003 GTI a very dynamic machine.
Comfort and Style
The GTI features a pair of very supportive sport buckets up front, designed to hold a sure-to-be-grinning driver and a passenger tightly during enthusiastic maneuvers. The seats lift up and forward to allow easy ingress and egress for rear occupants, but as space can be a little tight in such designs, the rear compartment is best reserved for diminutive adults or children.
My tester was a Reflex Silver VR6 model and I must say the colour choice gave this hot hatchback an air of authority. Silver is the traditional racing colour for German vehicles in international competition after all, but I also think it makes cars look a little more expensive.
Is it Worthy?
The presence of big wheels and low profile tires hint that this is not your aunt’s Golf, but something a little more potent. However, having gobs of readily accessible power is not all its cracked up to be if you can’t keep the car firmly planted on the road. When driven at the limit GTI’s have a tendency to lift the inside rear wheel off the tarmac when cornering, as the front-wheel drive layout places the majority of weight up front and the tall body succumbs to lateral G-forces. While this is fun to watch on a track, it feels somewhat unsettling on the road. The resulting loss of traction and exaggerated feel of body roll make you reluctant to really explore the true capabilities of this car.
Unfortunately the car doesn’t seem to be as precise as it could, or should be, when you consider that it is regarded as VW’s performance offering. It doesn’t have the same point-and-squirt feel that you get from cars like Acura’s RSX Type ‘S’ or even the Mini Cooper ‘S.’ When driven in the safe-and-sane manner prescribed by the rules of the road however, the GTI offers exceptional everyday road manners.
Wow! A 6-speed Transmission!
Gear selection with the new 6-speed manual transmission is a breeze, as the short-shift lever reacts quickly to the commands of your wrist. First through fourth gears are nicely spaced, emphasizing the car’s ‘sporty’ nature, and fifth is perfect for high speed cruising. Sixth gear seems a little tall I am afraid, even while driving at speed on the freeway. The car was more than comfortable operating in fifth, and except to pull out to pass on a long hill, was the gear best suited for the 100 km/h speed limit. Cruising along in sixth gear at ‘legal’ speeds dropped the revs enough to sap some of my confidence in the car’s ability to get me out of trouble if I was faced with an emergency situation, so I was happy to stick with fifth.
The availability of a 6-speed transmission always sounds like a ‘must-have’ feature when looking at performance vehicles, but it might be a little too optimistic to believe that the addition of such equipment on a car in this class will offer much of an advantage. It might work like a dream on unrestricted highways like Germany’s fabled Autobahn, but for North America, it may just be a marketing gimmick to set it apart from some of its direct competitors.
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Hopefully VW has sorted out some of the niggling little problems that seemed to hamper cars based on the Golf platform in recent years, such as fragile window hangers and various electrical gremlins. During my time with VW test vehicles in the past year, all have seemed exceptionally well put together, as officials are focused at moving the company another step up the automotive pecking order.
A quick internet search will reveal countless forums and bulletin boards dedicated to the Golf/GTI platform, and lots of posts tend to lean towards less than positive issues. However, it is important to note that VW sells Golf-based cars all over the world, much like Ford’s Focus, meaning that there are enormous numbers of these cars produced each year. As a result, the number of recall notices and service bulletins issued for these models make up a far greater volume than for many of their competitors. In reality, the percentage of complaints is well within the norm.
If you think the GTI is attractive but you prefer the look of a sedan, VW offers the Jetta GLI, which is for the most part, a GTI VR6 with a trunk. In short, Volkswagen has all its bases covered. Now if only they would bless our shores with the limited edition, ultra-exclusive R32 GTI. Oh baby!
Technical Data: 2003 VW Golf GTI VR6
|Price as tested||$30,605|
|Type||2-door, 5-passenger, hatchback|
|Layout||transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive|
|Engine||2.8-litre V6, DOHC|
|Horsepower||200 @ 6,200 rpm|
|Torque||195 lb.-ft. @ 3,200 rpm|
|Wheelbase||2,511 mm (98.9 in.)|
|Length||4,189 mm (164.9 in.)|
|Width||1,735 mm (68.3 in.)|
|Height||1,439 mm (56.7 in.)|
|Fuel consumption||City 11.1 L/100km (25 mpg)|
|Hwy 7.3 l/100 km (39 mpg)|
|Warranty||4 yrs/80,000 km|
|Powertrain warranty||5 yrs/100,000 km|