Used 1999 Volkswagen GTI Hatchback Review
The third- and fourth-generation GTIs are descendants 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. Through the end of the 1990s, we hadn't heard many horror stories about maintenance costs involving the third-generation Golf-based GTI (1995-1999), and the overall staff consensus is that this would be a rewarding car to own and drive. However, the Golf will undergo a complete redesign in 1999, so that means an entirely new GTI as well.
Both generations will be sold as 1999 models, but the new version is easily the better choice. Advantages include greater structural rigidity, which yields tighter body panel fits and improved handling characteristics; engine and suspension upgrades; more standard equipment and a more stylish interior (replete with VW's signature blue and red backlighting at night) furnished with a more comfortable driver seat. Further, the new GTI has a slightly longer and wider body and rides on a longer wheelbase; the result is more interior head- and legroom and another cubic foot of cargo space.
VW will sell just one version of the third-generation GTI in 1999 -- the VR6. This spunky hatchback is powered by a compact, 172-horsepower 2.8-liter six-cylinder paired with a five-speed manual transmission; an automatic is not available. Standard features include four-wheel antilock disc brakes, a sport-tuned suspension, 15-inch wheels with 205/50 tires, traction control, air conditioning, cruise control, a stereo with cassette player, a power sunroof, keyless entry with alarm system and power windows, locks and mirrors. Options include side airbags, leather upholstery and a single-disc CD player or six-disc changer.
The fourth-generation GTI will be sold in two trim levels -- GLS and GLX. For those concerned about fuel economy and monthly payments, the base 115-horsepower 2.0-liter inline four returns -- under the hood of the GTI GLS -- though a new cross-flow cylinder head allows drivers to access the engine's horsepower and 122 pound-feet of torque lower in the rpm range. You can choose either a manual or automatic, though fuel economy is nothing to write home about with either transmission (24 mpg city/31 mpg highway versus 22/28). Instead, we would happily steer you toward the GLX -- this gives you the spreadably smooth VR6, which gets a new intake manifold, allowing it to generate 174 hp and 8 more pound-feet of torque (for a total of 181) at a much lower rpm (3,200 vs. 4,200 in the old GTI). As before, a five-speed manual is your only transmission choice with the VR6. If you're looking for something to bridge the gap between the weak four and the enthusiast-oriented six, just wait until the 2000 model year when VW offers its 150-hp 1.8T engine for the GLS.
The GTI GLS basically has all of the standard equipment that the old GTI VR6 has, except that side airbags are now standard and a leather-wrapped steering wheel (complimentary on the VR6) is now optional. Also, the GLS wears modest 195/65R15 tires mounted on five-spoke alloys. The options list also includes an automatic transmission, leather upholstery, seat heaters and a CD player or changer. The GLX comes standard with heated leather seats and more appropriate 16-inch wheels and 205/55 tires, but you still have to pay extra to get a CD player.
Endowed with a sport suspension, a communicative steering setup and strong brakes, the GTI holds its own when two-lane roads turn twisty. And if you select the GLX, you'll get to enjoy the VR6's broad powerband during hard runs on meandering mountain passes. 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.
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. The basic warranty, 2 years/24,000 miles, is still weak by industry standards, however. The GTI offers a lot of standard content compared to the competition, which we like. But unless you're after the VR6, you'd do better to wait for next year's 1.8T engine option.
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This review was written by a member of Edmunds' editorial team of expert car reviewers. Our team drives every car you can buy. We put the vehicles through rigorous testing, evaluating how they drive and comparing them in detail to their competitors.
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