A total of 90 horsepower. Really? What’s to get excited about here? The 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI takes 9.7 seconds to reach 60 mph, has about the same roadholding grip as a modern Ford F-150, and buzzes and rattles like a tin can shaking in the bed of that same truck. But I just drove one and had more fun with 90 horsepower than I’ve had in any car in a while.
Which begs the question, why? Why did a 36-year-old car deliver more satisfaction behind the wheel than a modern one? Is it just nostalgia? Or have car enthusiasts genuinely lost something? Let’s take a closer look.
Upon start-up, the Rabbit GTI barks to life with a raspy exhaust and rattles and shakes and runs noticeably rougher when cold. It didn’t like 5thgear below 45 mph until everything was up to temp. Even once everything warmed up, unless you were perfectly precise with your feet, the car would jerk forward with each new gear, especially if you went slow. In fact, the faster you went, the smoother it was.
Furthermore, the engine seemed to run out of steam by 5,500 rpm, even though it had a 6,500 rpm redline. Shift throws were long, grip was low, and brakes felt a little spongy. On top of everything else, if I hustled the car hard, the water temp crept up on me. Hustling hard here still means slower than any current minivan on the road, by the way. It was a rattle trap with no air conditioning or power steering and crank windows. And I absolutely loved it.
This little pocket rocket of a car did vibrate and buzz, but because I sat in a purely analog, unfiltered machine with a direct line of communication between the engine, the wheels, the road and me. You feel involved in everything. Getting those shifts that I mentioned earlier just right requires you, the driver, to do it. There are no electronic aids to help. That builds a relationship between you and the car. You learn from and understand each other.
It didn’t much matter that the GTI’s steering wheel was big and the ratio was slow. It shook in my hands because there was an unfiltered path to the front wheels doing the work on the road. It was a lark to heave it into a corner and strain the 185 section-width tires around. Corner limits were low, which made them more accessible, more often. And as you approached those limits, the whole body rolled over due to the softly sprung struts in front and torsion beam in back, which made the cornering feel fast.
Even driving in a straight line felt livelier. I can’t articulate exactly how, but the way the whole car moved and buzzed with energy made 55 mph feel faster than 85 mph in a modern GTI. The car proved an excellent example of how driving a slow car fast is more fun than the reverse.
Is that the conclusion then? Cars were better ‘back then’ because they were worse? Well …
To start, I was lucky to drive the GTI in low humidity and a temperature of around 75 degrees Fahrenheit outside. Much warmer and even the fresh breeze would cause sweat. Additionally, 90 minutes in this car left me more worn out than I’ve felt driving in a while. Remember that buzzing with energy? That also shook my body and rung my ears.
And then there several objective truths come to mind. Not only does the 1984 GTI corner slower, its braking power vastly underperforms modern equipment. Older cars also overheat more easily and more often. All this leads to a higher chance of an accident and just looking at the thin a-pillar and closing the light door, you know the human body is not well protected in here.
Over time, cars have improved vastly across a broad spectrum of metrics, but in doing so lost some of their intimate charms of connecting person and machine. There is no one reason for that, it’s the culmination of everything, but if you had to choose one, it’s weight. This GTI weighs little over one ton. That’s more than 1,100 lbs. lighter than the current Mk7 GTI. All the added comfort and safety is part of the weight gain, certainly. But so is size. The Mk7 is 10.7 inches longer, 6.6 inches wider, 2.3 inches taller and has a 9.1 inch longer wheelbase.
That’s what made the Mk1 GTI work and such a delight to drive. Its small dimensions and petite structure all put together with the right balance of parts made the machine work so well as a whole. And while the current GTI is great, it still seems a bit substantial, doesn’t it? Ironically enough, the best modern car that captures the magic of the original GTI, to me, is the Ford Fiesta ST. But that’s gone, too.
Modern cars do exist today that bring more of that happy-little-hot-hatch spark; they’re just not sold here. Maybe if enough of us shout loud enough, Volkswagen will bring GTI versions of the Polo and Up stateside. Otherwise, values of used Mk1 and Mk2 GTIs will continue to rise as more enthusiasts long for the magic they’re missing.
1984 Volkswagen Golf GTI Specs
Price When New: $7,990
Powertrain: 1.8-liter I4, five-speed manual transmission, FWD
Output: 90 hp at 5,500 rpm, 100 lb-ft of torque at 3,000 rpm
Wheelbase: 94.5 inches
Length/Width/Height: 157.3/64.2/55.5 inches
Curb Weight: 2,011 lbs
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