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.