What's New for 1996
Last year's two-door Golf Sport and GTI VR6 models become a separate nameplate called simply the GTI, with respective base and VR6 trim levels. Like the Golf Sport, the base GTI will continue on with VW's 115-hp inline four but will get some additional content, including alloy wheels, bolstered sport seats, whip antenna and smoke-tinted taillights. Meanwhile, the GTI VR6 gets a black leather seating option. Both models will benefit from new cloth upholstery, the addition of a glovebox, retractor locking seatbelts (for more secure child-seat installation), easier-to-use height adjustment for the front belts, a central locking switch on the dash and a warning tone to remind you that you've left the headlights on. New exterior colors include Catalina Blue for the base GTI and Windsor Blue, Bright Surf Green and Sequoia Green for the GTI VR6.
The GTI is a descendant of the wonder car that started the pocket rocket trend almost two decades ago -- the Volkswagen Rabbit GTI. The first GTIs were fun to drive and inexpensive to buy, but unfortunately, costly to maintain and repair. Nevertheless, this sporty hatchback earned a loyal niche of fans, who claimed that once you found a good VW mechanic, you could reap the benefits of an exclusive club. To date, we haven't heard many horror stories about maintenance costs involving the third-generation Golf-based GTI (introduced in the U.S. for 1995), and the overall staff consensus is that this would be a rewarding car to own and drive.
For 1996, VW has split its hatchback ranks into distinct GTI and Golf lineups; last year's two-door Golf Sport and GTI VR6 go to the performance-oriented GTI side, while the four-door GL hatchback will remain on the practical Golf side. The GTI will be sold in two trim levels -- base and VR6. The base hatchback is powered by the familiar 2.0-liter inline four that manages 115 horsepower and 122 pound-feet of torque at 3,200 rpm. A five-speed manual is standard, and a four-speed automatic is optional. Fuel economy isn't great for a lightly powered hatchback -- the GTI is rated at 23 mpg city/30 mpg highway with a manual and 22/28 with an automatic.
The GTI VR6 retains its namesake 172-horsepower 2.8-liter VR6, a compact, narrow-angle V6 that Volkswagen's engineers created for smaller engine bays. Power delivery from the VR6 is smooth with a flat powerband. A five-speed manual gearbox is mandatory with the VR6; fuel economy is rated at 19/26.
Standard features for the four-cylinder GTI include four-wheel antilock disc brakes, dual front airbags, air conditioning, an eight-speaker cassette stereo, sport seats with height-adjustment for the driver, height adjustable seatbelts in the front, power locks, an alarm system, power moonroof, 14-inch alloy wheels, foglights and a rear window wiper and defroster. New this year (besides the sport seats and alloy wheels) are a glovebox, retractor locking seatbelts (so you can get your kids' car seats snugged down more securely) and a central locking switch. The options list includes the aforementioned automatic transmission as well as a CD changer.
Step up to the GTI VR6, and you'll get traction control, a sport-tuned suspension (with a beefier front stabilizer bar and gas shock absorbers in the rear), 15-inch alloys with P205/50R15 tires, cruise control, a trip computer, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and power windows and mirrors. The CD changer is also optional on the VR6 model, as are leather seating surfaces.
Endowed with communicative suspension and steering setups and strong brakes, the GTI holds its own when two-lane roads turn twisty, especially in VR6 form. But as most enthusiasts know, the GTI is softer than other sport coupes and hatchbacks on the market. While this may not please those who demand all-out performance, anyone who needs a comfortable daily driver will appreciate the GTI's more subdued demeanor. Additionally, the benefits of driving a hatchback are immediately apparent when it's time to load groceries or luggage: with the rear seats in use, the GTI provides 17 cubic feet of cargo space, and you can fold down the 60/40 rear seat for a total capacity of 41 cubic feet.
Though solidly constructed, the GTI doesn't have quite the reliability record of competitors like the Acura Integra, Honda Prelude and Toyota Celica, so Volkswagen is offering a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty to ease concerns. Besides that, the GTI offers a lot of standard content compared to the competition -- next to BMW's 318ti hatchback, the GTI VR6 is a bargain. So in your search for an entertaining yet practical car, you should definitely put the GTI on your test drive list.