Remember the "Pocket Rockets"? OK, get your mind out of the gutter, we're talking cars here. Back in 1983, the Volkswagen Rabbit GTI stormed onto the scene and created a new market segment: the hopped-up econo-hatchback.
Powered by a feisty 90-horsepower 1.8-liter fuel-injected inline four, the GTI sported a five-speed manual gearbox, alloy wheels, full instruments, blackout trim, red accents and sport seats. With nimble handling and brisk performance (the car only weighed around 2,000 pounds), the Rabbit GTI was a hit with driving enthusiasts who appreciated the beauty of low mass and intelligent, efficient engineering. Inevitably, competition sprang up from all corners, as cars such as the Toyota Corolla FX-16 and Dodge Colt Turbo entered the fray.
In 1985, the Rabbit was redesigned and renamed (in the U.S.) the Golf, and as before, a sporty GTI version was available. Subsequent years saw the GTI receive a 16-valve inline four, become more expensive, take a hiatus and return in 1995 even more pricey but with a V6 stuffed under the hood. A weak-kneed GTI that had a lowly eight-valve 105-horse inline four was offered in an effort to have a lower-priced (and lower-performance) GTI for the masses.
Two years ago, the GTI adopted the turbo 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder engine (rated at 150 horsepower) that VW used in the Passat and New Beetle Turbo. At this time, the GTI could be had as either the GLS (with the turbo four) or GLX (an upscale version that had leather, moonroof and the 174-horsepower VR6 engine). This fussy nomenclature made the name of the car confusing to those not versed in automotive history. "So what kind of car is that?" "It's a new Volkswagen Golf GTI GLS."
Unlike the old GTI, the more recent versions were getting out of reach for enthusiasts who lacked fat wallets. The GLS started at $19,425, while the GLX listed for a hefty $23,050. For 2002, VW decided to restructure pricing and content and market the car simply as the GTI with a choice of either the 1.8T or VR6 engine. Pricing now stands at $18,910 for the 1.8T, a decrease of around $500 for a car that is similarly equipped and more powerful. And at $20,295, the VR6 sticker drops a whopping $2,755. The price cut on the VR6 was achieved by removing some of the formerly standard features (such as leather trim) that folks may not want anyway and moving them to the options list.
Rest assured that the 2002 GTI is not stripped down, however. Air conditioning; keyless entry/anti-theft system; cruise control; premium stereo (with both cassette and CD players); tilt/telescopic steering wheel; and power windows, locks and mirrors are all standard features on the GTI. Performance hardware includes 16-inch alloys, four-wheel disc brakes and a sport suspension with front and rear stabilizer bars.
A plethora of safety features is also present. In addition to dual front and side airbags, the GTI comes with the latest wunderbag: the side curtain airbag. This last feature helps to protect the heads of both front and rear passengers in a severe side-impact collision. Active safety (that allows one to avoid an accident) is up to snuff, as well, with antilock brakes and traction control both standard.
For 2002, the GTI has double the power it started out with in 1983. Yep, 180 horses' worth, an increase of 30 ponies (20 percent) over last year's GTI GLS. Torque is up, as well, to 174 pound-feet; an increase of 12 percent. The hefty boost in power was achieved via revised engine electronics and a less restrictive exhaust system. VW chose to be discreet about the new muscle; in fact, there is nothing to distinguish the more potent '02 GTI 1.8T from the '01. Visually, that is.
Although the present VR6 has less power (174 horsepower) than the new 1.8T, VW will be correcting this discrepancy sometime next year when they bring out a more potent VR6 sporting four valve heads and 201 horses.
The other big news this year is the availability of a five-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic, a feature that allows manual-style shifting for those who prefer an automatic but sometimes have that urge to change gears for themselves.
VW claims the new GTI can scoot from 0 to 60 mph in just 7.5 seconds, which is a full second quicker than a 2001 GTI we tested. Power delivery mirrors that of last year's version, characterized by a broad, flat powerband where peak torque hits under 2,000 rpm and stays there (174 pound-feet) right up to 5,000 rpm. We drove a five-speed manual GTI, and the car felt quicker than the 2001 GTI GLS we drove awhile back.
Otherwise, this GTI felt the same as last year's model, providing a slightly firm, controlled ride and strong, progressive braking. Typically VW, the rubbery gearshift won't be mistaken for a Honda unit, but it's teamed up with a smooth, linear clutch that made for easy gearchanging.
As it was raining the day of our ride and drive, we didn't push the car in the curves, but we wouldn't expect any surprises in this area, as the GTI's underpinnings are carried over from last year. Precise, well-weighted steering reminded us of why we enjoy driving German-engineered automobiles so much.
Those who loved the philosophy of the original GTI -- a no-nonsense, fun-to-drive and functional hatchback -- should try out the newest version with the 1.8T engine. But before making a buying decision, know that competition is springing up anew, with hot hatches such as the Ford Focus SVT and Honda Civic Si soon to debut. Sounds like a comparison test to us.