1976 VW Golf GTI: Back to the future
WOLFSBURG, Germany – Well, this was certainly a surprise. While in Germany trying out Volkswagen’s new Up! city car (full review in Wheels forthcoming), a visit to the epicentre of all things VW had us in a non-descript grey building with a sign above its garage door marked “Volkswagen Classic”, in the shadow of the German brand’s original factory here in Wolfsburg that builds Golfs, Tourans and Tiguans.
Volkswagen Classic is not a museum. VW has one of those as part of its 11-year-old Autostadt (think car guy’s Disney World.) Instead, it’s a warehouse mainly filled with unique VWs that are kept in immacualte shape and are still able to run when asked. Many are rally-prepped cars on standby for VW execs who wants to indulge in historic races.
While the Classic shop had everything from one of the first Beetles to a trio of Euro-market VW-Porsche 914s to the 2001 Guigiaro-designed VW Nardo W12 concept super car, when asked which vehicle I would like to take out for a spin around the factory grounds, my eye caught a car that resided on my bedroom wall in poster from during my pre-driving license years: a pure-white 1976 VW Golf GTI, left.
Over 35 years later the GTI survives. Of course, it’s bigger, heavier, and has about twice the power the 108 hp the ’76 version had from its 1.5-litre four. In my all-too-short spin, the original GTI was nimble and incredibly visceral. It wasn’t as quick as the current car. Nor as refined. But I certainly felt more engaged as a driver.
Evolution means today’s GTI is certainly not the same car it was in 1976. And, usually at this point in the lecture, us auto writer types jump on a soapbox and start whining about how they “Don’t make 'em like they use to” or "Why can’t I buy a car like the Mk I GTI today?"
Well, if you live in Europe, theoretically you can. VW’s current subcompact Polo is within millimetres of the compact ’76 Golf GTI’s dimensions. And although it weighs more, an optional 180 hp 1.4-litre four allows it to get from rest to 100 km/h in 6.9 seconds, or about two seconds quicker than the first Golf GTI. Plus, you get all the inherent safety and reliability advantages of 35 years of industry progress.
Unfortunately, VW Canada doesn’t sell the Polo here. So, is there any new car that comes close to the feel of the original GTI? Well, yes, actually. In the form of the redesigned 2012 Toyota Yaris SE, a four-door hatch that’s is nearly identical to a 35-year old Golf GTI in terms of size and performance.
With a five-speed stick (one more gear than the original GTI) mated to a 1.5-litre that makes 106 hp, the Yaris SE gets to 100 km/h in the same 9.0 seconds as the ür-GTI. And while this lack of straight-line performance might hint there’s no fun to be had behind the wheel of the tiny Toyota, if you’re looking for an old school hot hatch feel, the Yaris SE delivers: it’s arguably the best-handling small Toyota (or Scion) you can buy, at least until the Scion FR-S sports car shows up this fall.
The SE’s special leather-wrapped steering wheel feels meaty, and its front seats offer more aggressive side bolstering than the lesser Yaris thrones. The combination of a quicker steering rack with larger 195/50 V-rated rubber on 16-inch alloys and a firmer suspension setup creates a car that actually likes to turn into corners with minimal complaints. And minimal filtering. You even get four-wheel discs, something of a rarity in thsi segment.
Frankly, like the opportunity to drive an original GTI, recommending a Yaris for driving fun came as a surprise. But if you’re tired of large, overly complicated performance cars, the Yaris SE will certainly take you back in time to hot hatches of yore.