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Volkswagen Golf GTI (1996)

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SEE ALSO: Volkswagen Buyer's Guide

1996 Volkswagen Golf GTI

by John Heilig


ENGINE: 2.0-liter I-4 
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE: 115@5400 rpm/122@3200 rpm
TRANSMISSION: Five-speed manual
FUEL ECONOMY: 23 mpg city, 30 mpg highway, mpg test
WHEELBASE: 97.4 in. 
OVERALL Height: 56.2 in.
OVERALL WIDTH: 66.7 in. 
CURB HEIGHT: 2557 lbs
FUEL CAPACITY: 14.5 gal.
LUGGAGE CAPACITY: 17.5 cu. ft.
TIRES: 195/60HR14
INSTRUMENTS: Speedometer, tachometer, fuel level, water temperature,
             digital clock.
EQUIPMENT: Power mirrors, air conditioner, power sunroof,
           daytime running lights, AM-FM stereo radio with cassette,
           anti-lock braking, dual air bags. 
STICKER PRICE: $16,500 (est.)

It's funny that the whole week I was driving the Volkswagen GTI, I kept calling it a Beetle. No, it's not a Beetle. The only similarities were in that both were Volkswagens and both had four-cylinder engines. The GTI's engine is water-cooled, while the Beetle's was air-cooled, making the GTI decibels quieter in the end. I don't even remember my Beetle having a five-speed transmission; I believe the best they did in those days was a four-speed.

And the GTI is about 100 percent better than the Beetle ever was.

This version of the GTI is the "economy" four-cylinder version, as opposed to the V-6-powered GTI that offers almost 60 more horses. But the final list price for this car is just under $17,000, which isn't bad these days. At least it's under the $21,000 average selling price we've been seeing in all the literature.

The GTI is powered by a 2.0-liter inline four driving the front wheels through a five-speed manual gearbox. I was at first a little reticent about the four-cylinder version. I thought that the GTI should have at least six cylinders and maybe even eight. Like the GTO, it should be overpowering.

But this was different. Sure, it could have used more power, but the four pumps out 11 horses, and it's not underpowered. With the manual gearbox you can make up for less horsepower by downshifting and taking advantage of the torque at higher revs. You realty don't need all the horsepower if you're willing to shift some and have fun doing it.

The GTI handled marvelously for a small sport coupe. Cornering was very good. No, it wasn't in race- car class, but it was very good for what the car was supposed to be. On my favorite mountain road I was a gear lower than I would have beep in a bigger car, so I ascended in fourth most of the way. There's that initial corner, though, that I have finally discovered is a third gear corner no matter what the car, and third gear allows me to get a good start on the hill.

Traveling was very good over two lane roads and Interstates. Sporty driving was equally fun and the lower power of the engine made it possible to have fun and keep out of trouble.

During the week I drove the car, I had a trip to New York City for a press conference. I took the GTI. It handled the Interstates into the city very well. In the city, it served as an Urban Guerrilla vehicle that had the acceleration and handling to beat the cabbies at their own game and maneuver through some traffic jams. I used second and third gears most of the time to use the acceleration.

The GTI is an honest four-seater. Rear seat passengers have good leg room and don't have to look forward to hours of cramped driving if they're assigned back there. My guess was that there were at least nine inches behind my seat and there was over a foot of knee space behind the passenger seat. The fabric covering those seats looked a lot like airplane seats.

The rear seats folded to increase trunk carrying capacity, but the trunk wasn't too bad for a small car. Volkswagen claims over 17 cubic feet, which would do a Cadillac proud.

One advantage that makes the GTI less expensive is that it has wind-up windows. It doesn't have power door locks, but it has dual door locks, so that you can control the passenger side from the driver's side. It has two cupholders that were too small for what I was carrying. While there is excellent interior carrying capacity, I would like to have seen a glove box. That space is taken up by a safety knee bolster under the air bag.

While I said at the top that I might have liked more power with the GTI, it was not underpowered. My only serious complaint was with the clutch. With a sporty car I like a "digital" clutch, that is either on or off. The GTI's clutch was mushy, with a poorly defined engage point. It reminded me of stepping on jello and didn't have the crispness of a sporty car's clutch.

But except for that minor complaint, the GTI did all it was asked to do in a nice little package for a decent amount of money.