Last year I ran a short feature called “Crap Cars I Like” on ESM. The aim was to explain my love for cars which automotive journalism, the internets, or society as a whole had shunned. However, I decided the name did too much of a disservice to the cars featured. So, instead, this segment is now going to be known as “Hidden Desires”. In a nutshell, these are the cars that I cannot help myself from liking, even though deep down I know I shouldn’t.
#1 – Vauxhall Corsa VXR
The inspiration for the first car to be featured came during a journey with ESM’s OH just the other day. Whilst sitting at traffic lights opposite a used car dealership in Gateshead, I spotted a tidy Arden Blue Corsa VXR sat on the forecourt. It’s fair to say the Corsa isn’t a bad-looking little car, and with the VXR adornments it does look genuinely sporty.
Granted, the triangular exhaust tail-pipe is a bit naff, and the big block colour grill irritates me, but on the whole it looks good. I like the triangulated fog light surrounds, the cheeky vents in the front and rear bumpers and the fake diffuser at the back-end. If you were wanting to produce a miniature hot-hatch, ticking all the styling benchmarks, then the VXR does this in spades.
It’s also pleasing to note that the VXR easily has the firepower to back up the looks. With its turbocharged 1.6 litre engine chucking out 192bhp and 192lb-ft of torque, this Corsa has some serious bite. Autocar managed to drag a 0-60mph time of 6.7 seconds from it during a road test, backed up by a 0-100mph in 16.8 seconds. No matter how you slice it, that is quick. All that power is transferred through a six-speed manual gearbox, with the handling said to be confident and surefooted. Ignore the real-world mpg of 28, and it makes for a decent package.
Objectively, the Corsa VXR ticks all the boxes you (or I) might want from a small hot-hatch. Granted, new prices have swelled to over £18,000.00, but decent used ones start from as little as £7k. So why, given it would meet a lot of the requirements for what I need, am I not rushing out to buy one? For what reason could I overlook such a seemingly competent car? The badge, obviously.
I admit it; I am a badge snob. Blame it on the stream of Vauxhall company cars (Carltons, Cavaliers, Vectras and Omegas) that my Father had when I was younger. Blame it on the fact that, when I was in my late-teens, the Corsa was the car to have if you lived in Teesside and wanted to Max Power your motor. Or, just blame it on the fact that having owned a string of Volkswagens, I struggle to see myself in anything un-German.
Oh, and there is the interior as well:
I know it has Recaro seats in there, I know it has a standard-specification others would charge huge amounts for. But the problem is that clock at the top of the centre console. That was the clock/temperature gauge in the Vectra and countless other 1990s Vauxhalls. Plus, it also looks like the person who designed the dashboard only communicated with the person designing the door card, by telephone.
Should you choose to buy, or already own, a Corsa VXR I do not judge you. I salute you for not being bothered by the snobbery of people like me, and for instead picking a competent supermini with prodigious performance. It is just a shame that I am not enlightened enough to do likewise.
Tonight, ESM’s Mate Steve explains why he’s surrendered ownership of the iconic MkV Golf GTi, along with noting the highs and lows of owning a hot-hatch legend.
Last week I handed back the keys to a VW Golf GTi MkV, you might ask why, hopefully this will become clear.
Just over 3 years ago I cheerily told my girlfriend “Don’t worry, I’m just going to look, not buy” as she went off to do some shopping. An hour and a half later and I’m dragging her out of the supermarket to have one final test drive before sitting down to agree the deal.
Over the course of the 3 years I’ve had it, the car has been reasonably reliable; the air-conditioning being the exception to this! The compressor on the air-conditioning is a known weak spot on the Golf MkV and, true to form, it failed resulting in a very warm car in the summer. Happily it was covered on my extended warranty as the cost including fitting came to just over £600.
The car also developed a small patch of rust at the back of the roof, which VW refused to cover under the anti-corrosion warranty. This was very disappointing and really knocked my faith in VW. Their decision was based on some blurry photos taken by my local dealer and emailed to their HQ, with them unwilling to discuss the matter further.
Unfortunately last winter I also had problems with the sensor in the coolant expansion vessel. This was remarkable, given that VW had this same fault on the Mk3 and Mk4, they still hadn’t fixed it for the MkV so a replacement vessel was required. Again this falls short of the standard I expect from a brand such as VW.
These issues aside, the car has been fantastic; it lived up to all the excellent reviews I read before purchasing it. It can be driven sedately and comfortably or it can be driven aggressively, either way it’s an excellent drive and has always returned circa 30mpg, which I consider pretty good for a 200BHP hot hatch. The suspension is the perfect compromise between bone shaking firmness and French softness and is therefore far better than the Seat FR equivalent with its horrifically stiff suspension. The seats are supportive and hold you well through the turns but the downside to this is the seat bolsters do wear badly and older people find it difficult to get in and out.
Each and every time I’ve driven the GTi I’ve had fun, its blend of performance and practicality makes it an easy car to live with but its performance is what makes you love it. The power-band is so large that there’s always plenty of torque available. This makes overtaking in 6th a breeze, but bother yourself to drop a cog or two and the GTi can really take off. So much so that I had to set the onboard computer to alert me at 95mph since it was so effortless to break the speed limit one had to keep a careful eye on the speedometer. Not that I ever speed you understand, simply as a precaution.
The interior of the car is as well-engineered and designed as the rest of the car, buttons and switches in logical places, well labelled and the fit and finish was top-notch with not a single rattle in the whole 3 years I had it. The party piece of being able to get the display on the Climatic automatic air-conditioning to display information such as current speed, oil pressure etc. was a lovely little hidden Easter Egg. However it would have been nice if some of this information was available a bit more readily, such as in the Ford Focus ST where there’s an extra pod of dials for turbo boost pressure etc.
Indeed the GTi has been fun not just for me but for friends and family too; most friends have had a go of the GTi and not a single one has been disappointed. Every time I parked the car at my parents it seemed to disappear off for several hours with my brother who couldn’t get enough of it. Having a hot hatch is an itch I needed to scratch and the GTi certainly scratched that itch!
Its performance in the snow is probably best forgotten (it doesn’t perform!) but I can forgive it, given that it was shod with 17inch summer tyres. The standard brakes never caused me issue and always had just the right amount of stopping power. I am certain my car had a modified exhaust due to it being fully stainless steel and pretty loud. However, when it was serviced by VW they did say it was a standard exhaust again showing how poor VW are; they can’t even recognise a non-standard exhaust on one of their own cars!
In fact VW customer service really lets the brand down, when I phone my local independent garage all I have to do is mention it’s a Golf MkV GTi and they know what I’m talking about. When I phone VW dealerships even with the information about it being a GTi they without fail always ask if it’s a petrol or a diesel. Now I know some UK dealerships sold Mk4 GT TDIs badged as a GTi but really there’s never been a diesel GTi and I expect VW dealerships to have a better grip on their own products than they do. They also seem to have a problem keeping up with VW Germany since VW Germany issued a technical memo several years ago that only LongLife oil could be used in the MkV Golf, but every time it’s been serviced by VW I’ve had to argue this point to ensure it gets the correct oil.
Unfortunately, this review seems to have spent more time talking about VW customer service than the car itself, but this is a major problem. VW price their cars higher than their competitors and trade on their reputation for quality. My experience is that their products are no longer worth the price and, although I consider myself a VW enthusiast, I would not consider purchasing another VW at this time.
So I’m sure you’ll be wanting to know what I’ve purchased to fill the GTi shaped gap in my life and, unfortunately, you’ll have to be patient since I won’t be purchasing a new car until March next year. I’ll be running around in a 56 plate Seat Leon FR TDI until then but my choices in March will likely be either Mini or BMW – you’ll just have to wait for my next blog post to find out which. Oh and just by the way VW, the reason it’ll be a MINI or BMW is down to the excellent customer service received recently when looking for a new car for my girlfriend. I never intended for her to purchase a MINI, but their customer care and product are so good she couldn’t resist. So she now has a rather excellent MINI Cooper D Countryman All4 (a stupidly long name for a car).
I have to admit, having driven the MkV GTi when it first went on sale, along with driving Steve’s also, it was an addictively fun car to be behind the wheel of. It’s a huge shame that the overall ownership experience for Steve hasn’t lived up to the basic product underneath. In addition, I share Steve’s sentiment in that I would not consider buying a Volkswagen at this time; notice how my shortlist featured no VWs (unless you count the Ibiza). With the current models on offer, along with the genuinely exorbitant pricing, the veneer of the VW badge has worn a little bit thin in ESM’s opinion.
Up until owning the Panda 100HP, I’d only ever had VAG products. Three Volkswagens and an Audi to be precise.
This presented me with something of an existential crisis as someone heavily opinionated on cars and the motor industry. How could someone who had only owned products of one (albeit huge) manufacturing group, really offer views on other marques? With VW Group cars I was well within my comfort zone; I knew where the headlamp switch would be, I knew the grab handles would be dampened and I knew what it would be like to own.
And so, to push myself outside the warm blanket of Volkswagen, I bought a Fiat; possibly the complete opposite of what I’d grown to expect from VW. Six months later, that experiment is over, the Panda has been traded in and I have moved on.
To try to make sense of this, here is a very short summary of what I loved and loathed about the Panda 100HP:
- The looks. Every time I walked over to the 100HP on a morning or when leaving work, the chunky, cute, faux hot-hatch styling made me laugh and smile without fail. The sporty looking grilles at the front, the deep mesh-diffuser and rear spoiler made it look like no other Panda. The fact it had the world’s smallest wing mirrors also amused me greatly.
- The gearbox. Six-speed with the gear-shift mounted on the dash like a touring car/WRC car; the best I’ve encountered after the Civic Type-R. Helped to keep the fizzy FiRE 1.4 on cam with tightly stacked ratios.
- The handling. In Sport mode, with the weight of the steering turned up, the 100HP was great fun to chuck about. Roundabouts became ovals, one-way systems equalled rally stages; any road could be fun.
- The equipment. Bluetooth phone integration, full electronic climate control, steering wheel mounted stereo buttons and bass heavy sound-system were all big car toys in a small package.
- The ride. Oh My God! I’ve owned performance cars, I’ve owned modified cars. Neither compared to the sheer spine-crushing body-control of the Panda. With stiff springs pitted against soft dampers, in a short wheelbase, potholes and speed bumps were to be feared. I would tense involuntarily at certain parts of my morning commute, knowing pain was about to reverberate up my vertebrae.
- The MPG. One would hope that a teeny city-car, weighing less than a ton, with a 1.4 litre engine and 6-speed gearbox would return good fuel consumption. Think again; the 100HP averaged less than 35MPG in my time with it. Driving with the utmost care and attention never returned better than 38, and driving like it was intended meant the average fell to 32MPG. Motorways were even worse, with a steady 70mph cruise giving fuel economy of less than 30! Not since the Audi S3 had I encountered such a drink problem, but at least the S3 had the performance to excuse its petrol addiction.
- The speed. Or the lack thereof. 0-60mph in under 10 seconds, top speed of 120mph. Not earth-shattering, and certainly not enough to offset the above. It made a lot of noise and seemed enthusiastic, but in reality it wasn’t that quick.
- The reliability. Along with drinking petrol, the 100HP also consumed worrying amounts of oil and coolant for reasons I couldn’t get to the bottom of. The electric power-steering also liked to handily fail every so often. This was fixed by turning the car off and on; but relying on the Microsoft method of problem-solving made me uneasy. In short, I could never escape the impending sense that one morning it would just turn to bits on my drive.
Six months is the shortest I have owned a car for, though to be honest it felt a great deal longer with the Panda. It charmed me and never ceased to make me smile. I would proudly defend it to the hilt, knowing that it was probably pissing (coolant) on someone’s leg like a badly behaved puppy.
In the end, the compromises began to outweigh the benefits and deep down I knew the 100HP was not a long-term proposition. Try as I might, I couldn’t shake the fear of unknown, huge mechanical catastrophe. Once you have that fear, it becomes very difficult to think of anything else. I certainly don’t regret the Panda; my car ownership portfolio covers a much broader palate now, and it was genuinely good fun. Fondly remembered, but not missed.
As for the replacement? That shall be revealed tomorrow.
If the first CCiL feature involved cruelly berating an essentially well liked and positively received car for its poor sales, then this one will certainly make amends. The Mk3 Golf GTi was always destined to be universally unloved and unwelcomed by the motoring press and the wider car buying public. Following in the footsteps of the iconic Mk1 and the even more legendary Mk2 (widely acknowledged as the hot-hatch) the Mk3 was always going to have its back against the wall. But when it emerged from the Wolfsburg factory doors in the early 90′s the disappointment for GTi enthusiasts was perhaps even more profound than expected. For a start, just look at it compared to its older brothers:
Under the pressures of the demands for better safety measures, greater refinement and stricter pollution controls the Mk3 left VW with a number of competing demands. The result was a GTi now weighing over 1000kgs with only a modest increase in power from the 8-valve 2.0litre engine. An output of 115bhp, compared to 110bhp in the Mk2, in the new bigger, fatter body was not going to set the world alight. 0-60 arrived in 10 seconds with a top-speed of 123mph; figures which even my 100HP Panda manages to beat! Handling was noted to be smoother and more mature; hardly the words you want to hear in relation to a performance hatchback.
VW tried to save the reputation of the Golf by later introducing the Mk3 VR6; transplanting the narrow angle motor from the Corrado into the dumpy hatchback body. Whilst the 170+bhp improved performance, inserting a bigger engine into an already heavy car did nothing for the weight distribution and handling. Like a large-bosomed lady in a top that’s too small, the potential for mishaps was ever-present.
Having proven beyond all reasonable doubt that the Mk3 GTi was, as the kids like to say, an epic fail how can I defend my affection for such a vehicle? As the saying goes “if it’s not one thing, it’s your Mother” and that proves to be the case in this instance.
As I’ve noted before, growing up in my house the world revolved around cars and motorsport. Whereas my Father languished in a string of company Vauxhalls (Carlton, Cavalier, Omega) my Mother had a bit more freedom in her motoring choices. The results being a white Fiat Panda (naturally), a Mk2 VW Scirocco GT (lovely) and a E30 BMW 316i (cambelt failure-y). And then one day I found myself at a Volkswagen-Audi dealership in Middlesbrough getting into the passenger seat of a Tornado Red Mk3 Golf GTi 8-valve, which looked rather a lot like this:
The only difference being that the one I was in had the most subtle of headlight eyebrows, giving the front end a slightly more aggressive look. Perhaps even more memorably about the day is the first time my Mother put her foot down on a slip road to join the dual-carriageway. At the time I was probably only about 12 years old and prior to that date I hadn’t heard my Mam swear.
So when the words “oh shit it’s quick” came out of her mouth, I realised a Golf GTi must be rather special! Looking back it wasn’t hugely quick, probably didn’t handle that amazingly and if recent reports are correct, has probably rusted away to nothing by now. But this car meant that I would be indoctrinated into the cult of the GTi.
The end result was a lifetime fascination with all things Volkswagen. Four out of the five cars I’ve owned to date have come from the VAG stable. Something about that Mk3 GTi got under my skin and refused to leave. When I came to buy a Polo GTi it had to be a three-door and it had to be red. My GTi also ended up with a string of subtle modifications, from lowered suspension to bigger BBS alloy wheels; all of which were met with maternal approval.
The Mk3 GTi will not be remembered in motoring history as Wolfsburg’s finest moment; you only have to look at how cheap tidy examples are now for proof of this. The Mk4 redeemed the GTi brand slightly, but even that failed to recapture the imagination of VW enthusiasts. Perhaps not until the Mk5 GTi of 2004 (one of the finest cars I have driven) was the magic of those three letters finally brought back to the Golf brand. The failures of the Mk3 and Mk4 were possibly the places which VW needed to go to in order to make a better hot hatch.
But this is all very much beside the point. That red Mk3 Golf GTi had a profound impact on my childhood and for that it will always hold a place in my automotive affections.