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1984 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI: More entertaining than 95% of the cars I've driven this year

The US sport-compact revolution started right here. Decades on, VW's pumped-up Rabbit might still be America's most entertaining hot hatch.

1984 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI
America's hot hatch family tree has its roots planted firmly in this first-generation VW GTI.
Chris Paukert/Roadshow

Spend enough time with car nuts, and "the one that got away" will inevitably come up. Somebody's beloved first car they had to sell to pay a bill. Someone else's grandpa's pride and joy. That time a last-second bidder sniped away a dream driver on eBay Motors. We all have those stories of bad timing, worse luck and general regret that, for one reason or another, prevented us from pulling the car-buying trigger. 

It stings.

I've got my fair share of those stories, but the one that looms largest is a certain 1984 Volkswagen GTI, formerly owned by VW of America and kept in stock, minty shape as part of the automaker's own collection. After the owner of that particular car managed to buy it from VW during a mid-HQ-move asset sell-down, I routinely hounded him throughout the late Oughts, checking in once or twice a year for several years. The owner was a casual friend, and he'd kindly promised me first dibs when he tired of it. We had even agreed upon a price. At the time, I didn't even necessarily know how I'd scrape up the money -- let alone a spare parking space -- but it didn't matter, I'd find a way to do the deal.

Long story short, I was taken aback when I came upon a listing for that very same GTI, black with red interior. It had been listed for sale on Bring A Trailer, which was at that point already long one of my daily digital haunts. A flurry of frantic emails and phone calls followed, but it was no use -- the seller had already agreed to terms with another buyer. That was back in early 2011, and I don't even know what price the car ended up selling at. I do know the owner had numerous above-ask offers, so it doubtlessly ended up being significantly more than what we agreed upon (let alone what my meager salary could have afforded for a second toy at the time). 

In truth, I can't say I blame the seller -- he made out handsomely on the sale. Today, we're still friends who stay in periodic contact, and he's even helped me here and there by dispensing advice and sharing connections for subsequent project cars. But I still have those 2011 emails, and I still wish I had landed that '84 GTI.

These memories come flooding back as I watch Volkswagen pluck an entirely different 1984 GTI out of its collection and plant it in my driveway nearly a decade later. Ceremoniously disgorged from a covered trailer, the silver VW's arrival is announced by its surprisingly cacophonous exhaust. In point of fact, it doesn't take long to realize that this particular Rabbit-based hatchback has a hilariously brash soundtrack, broadcasting a loud, resonant tone with plenty of pops and burbles on overrun. (Click on the Twitter video below to hear a taste.) 

The GTI momentarily revs high and runs rich, spewing hydrocarbons and that caffeinated, adolescent tune from its pea-shooter exhaust on this unseasonably cold Michigan spring day. It hasn't even settled down to idle, and I'm already smitten.

A quick inspection reveals that this Westmoreland, Pennsylvania-built GTI is no trailer-queen concours beauty, it's a runner. While there's no visible rust, the finish is rough, and like any ordinary 36-year-old car, there's evidence of wear and a small list of things that don't work. There's even a period aftermarket cassette deck plumbed into the dash from that staple of discount '80s audio purveyors, Craig Electronics. Far from a disappointment, this is exactly how I'd hoped the car would arrive: Mechanically sorted, but not so pristine that I'd feel guilty for flogging a museum piece.

The GTI's cabin is a rectilinear, business-first affair, packing everything you need in the right place.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

And GTIs, friends, have always been built for flogging, from this car -- the very genesis of America's hot-hatch culture -- right on up to the Golf-based Mk 7 you can find in VW showrooms today. While GTIs have steadily grown in power, sophistication, size and weight, they've always overindexed when it comes to delivering affordable, fun-to-drive performance. I hadn't been behind the wheel of a first-gen Mk 1 GTI in decades, but having recently driven today's 2020 model while looking forward to the already-announced Mk 8, I needed to get back into the original to see if it was as endearing as I'd remembered.

TL;DR? Yes. Oh, so much yes.

The Mk 1's 1.8-liter, naturally aspirated four-cylinder has its roots in the garden-variety Rabbit's 74-horsepower, 1.7-liter four-cylinder engine. Thanks to a modest boring out, lightweight pistons and a redesigned intake and exhaust valves, America's GTI was tuned to developed 90 hp and 105 pound-feet of torque when new. Yes, European models received substantially more oomph (110 ponies) owing to less-stringent emissions equipment, but either way, by modern standards, all of these output figures are hilariously low. Among today's new cars, only the sickly Mitsubishi Mirage offers fewer ponies (78 hp). And yet, with only 2,200 pounds to lug around (today's Golf GTI weighs upwards of 3,100), the Rabbit GTI isn't just surprisingly quick, it's enormously entertaining. 

With crisp lines and classic proportions, as a piece of design, the Mk1 GTI is has aged incredibly well.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

Contemporary road tests put the GTI's 0-to-60-mph times at around 10-11 seconds, which sounds like an eternity. And yet, that was as quick -- or quicker -- than many European luxury sport sedans of the VW's era. In fact, this car feels a chunk quicker than those figures suggest, likely because of exhaust system's auditory fireworks. While I was initially told that the car was fitted with an aftermarket exhaust, subsequent research by VW indicates the car has been straight-piped, so it's possible that in addition to the bratty backing vocals, this car may have picked up some additional power in the bargain.

Whether it did or it didn't is academic, though, because the GTI can feel legitimately rapid. Surely, these are 90 of the stoutest, hardest-working horsepower ever made, but it's not just their fizzy power delivery that carbonates your attitude. In contrast to its fun red colorway, this cabin is all business, and all the better for it. The seats are supportive, the gauges legible and thanks to thin pillars, outward visibility is outstanding. Better still, all of the inputs positively bristle with feedback, including the brakes, which are hydraulically assisted and utterly devoid of any electronic safety nannies to filter responses. 

Its cornering feels flat, and thanks in part to those generous sidewalls, the ride quality is good. The steering is manual, but despite being shod with stickier, modern 185/60-series Yokohama rubber, even low-speed parking-lot maneuvers don't require beefy forearms. At roadway speeds, you feel the tires load up faithfully and predictably, with steering that's alive from right off center. There's no dead spot designed-in to help ease inputs on the straight-ahead, the ratio is quick, and the wheel demands constant attention. 

You'll be busy with the gearshift, as well. The close-ratio five-speed gearbox takes ready advantage of the engine's (relative) wellspring of torque, but the GTI's iconic golf-ball shifter is too much fun to leave alone for long. Throws feel slightly longer than you might expect of a modern sporting car, but not much, and the gates themselves are spaced close to one another. It's a truly manual, truly satisfying experience.

Here's something I didn't expect: The GTI is even fun on the highway. Yes, it's loud, and there's a surprising amount of wind noise, but even here in greater Detroit, where traffic routinely runs 10-mph over the 70-mph limit, the GTI's irrepressibly effervescent character will goad you into wanting to pass everyone. Did I mention this car has only 90 hp?

It's worth noting that my joy with this longtime-coming reunion was hardly a foregone conclusion. Another common refrain among classic-car enthusiasts is this chestnut: "Don't drive your heroes." Despite a persistent, debilitating love of old crocks, I've found that's often sound advice. Going back and experiencing a model you coveted in your youth as an adult is a recipe for disappointment far too often. Modern cars have become so powerful and so polished that even the heady intoxication of nostalgia often fails to mask the chagrin one feels upon realizing that the Chevy Camaro IROC Z28 you once lusted over can't beat today's cold-brew-sipping Honda Odyssey driver off the line. With the GTI? No such regrets. 

You've never met 90 harder-working horses.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

Said another way, this decades-old hatchback with dull paint immediately proved to be more fun than 95% of the new cars I've driven this year.

After being revealed in February, I was disappointed to learn that the 8th-generation Golf GTI remains over a year away from US dealerships -- the new car is so far out that it'll carry a 2022 model-year designation when it finally arrives. While that's a bummer, having recently had the occasion to drive the Mk 1 and Mk 7 in such close succession has given me even more hope for the GTI's future. Despite increasing levels of tech and sophistication -- two things that tend to add refinement and convenience at the expense of engagement -- it's easy to see and feel a common thread of driver enjoyment through the generations. That thin red line used on GTI grilles since Day One? It's not just a stylistic flourish, it's a vein, one that runs uninterrupted from Mk 1 onward. 

Based on what I've seen, I've got no doubt that the 2022 Mk 8 will adeptly carry that bloodline forward. That said, it's this old silver hatchback that's lodged in my head, giving me the best kind of deja vu. Once again, I find myself with the inescapable urge to reach out and see if VW will part with a certain 1984 GTI from its private collection.