1984 VW Rabbit GTI Retro First Drive | Looks like a toaster; cooks like one too

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When Volkswagen launched the GTI in the United States, it was an oasis for enthusiasts trapped in a desert full of discomfort after the emissions. When American manufacturers tried to give their pony and sports car nameplates back their strength, VW introduced a practical, nimble, and efficient hot hatchback that could embarrass many Detroit entry-level fun cars, even in a straight line.
In the past few weeks, Volkswagen has released a number of jewels from its heritage collection, including a Rabbit GTI. This 1984 model would have been the second model year for the GTI here in the United States, where it was assembled on site at a brand new plant in Pennsylvania.
This is important because the Rabbit GTI was largely a product of the American Volkswagen arm. Although the Golf GTI has been on sale in Europe since 1976, the imported rabbit was not offered in this pimped (sorry) variant. In fact, the European Golf GTI and the American Rabbit GTI were put together very differently. As so often in these situations, the Europeans had the better end of the deal, including a stronger tuning of the 1.8-liter engine that delivered closer to 110 horsepower.
In the meantime, the American Rabbit GTI has 90 horsepower (some references suggest 100 for 1984, but we assume information provided by Volkswagen) and 105 pound-feet of torque from a 1.8-liter - Row four packed with eight valves. The livelier 16-valve engine would only arrive in a few model years. Power steering was not available, but with such a low curb weight, the GTI didn't really need it.

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Think about what was available to car enthusiasts back then. The V6 Camaro had just over 100 horsepower and weighed almost 1,000 pounds more. The six-cylinder Mustang wasn't much better off. The Fiat 124 Spider offered a little more punch than the GTI, but it lacked the practical hatchback layout of the Volkswagen. It was also Italian, so you never really knew how much of it would come to work on a given day.
The Dodge Omni, which had even borrowed Volkswagen engines, would not get its turbo-charged GLH variant for another year. To put it simply, many options for enthusiasts were available in 1984, but large powers were not easily among them.
The GTI is not Lightning McQueen. If anything, it's The Little Engine That Could, or maybe The Brave Little Toaster in this weather.
Did I mention it doesn't have air conditioning? Thanks to the juicy remnants of Tropical Storm Cristobal, it pushes out by 100 degrees with almost 80% humidity as I head north looking for decent roads. Between the lack of air conditioning and the manual rack of the GTI, I'm going to sweat a bit. Fortunately, the massive windows of the GTI roll together in the doors. As long as air flows, I'm fine. my quarantine mullet, not so much.
The lack of power support isn't a big deal when you're in constant motion, but there are still ramifications for communication. There's a lot to tell in a manual rack on the battered streets of Metro Detroit, and some potholes can be downright argumentative. If you hit an oversized freeway seam at 75 mph, the GTI wheel tries to escape a pretty solid grip even.
In fact, little is trivial about driving the GTI. The uncorked exhaust is noisy this way with a small engine, so you're not popular with the neighbors. And despite the low curb weight, 90 HP is 90 HP. Considering that it should be a giant pony car killer, Volkswagen combined the 1.8-liter with a five-speed manual transmission with a tight gear ratio and a fairly short gear.
This paid off in terms of performance and gave the GTI a 0-60 time of just under 10 seconds. That may seem pathetic now, but it was just as fast as a 1982 Chevrolet Camaro with a Crossfire injection V8 and an automatic transmission. Let's not even talk about the four and six cylinder pony cars that were available in the early 1980s.
Of course it wasn't all roses. The GTI was less efficient than the expected Basic Rabbit and was quite noisy even at highway speeds. MotorWeek measured the cabin noise at a speed of 90 km / h at 70 dB. At over 70 years of age, the tachometer needle on the far right of the center line is pretty talkative, especially if you need to hold the windows down to avoid melting in the summer heat.
Nevertheless, in 1984 the GTI managed EPA ratings of 26 mpg city and 36 mpg highway ... These numbers have been reduced significantly since then; A review of Fuel Economy.gov shows estimates of 21 mpg city, 26 mpg highway and 23 mpg combined - a number that did not exist in 1984.
These things are forgotten on a side street. The engine is nimble and rewards quick, deliberate gear changes. Adjusting the speed is trivial thanks to the immediate mechanical response to accelerator pedal inputs. With such an old car, there is no heavy, emission-friendly flywheel or a computer-controlled rev counter. Just snick-snick, bang-bang, and you're on the way.
And despite the low seating position and the limited setting, the GTI offers a surprisingly impressive view of the street. The greenhouse is just that big; The columns are just that narrow. The doors are also incredibly light - and thin - and can be easily manipulated with just one finger. I won't even go into accident safety. There is simply no good news on this front.
The shift lever of the GTI takes a light touch and the throws are not too long, but the action is somewhat vague. This is repeated with the clutch, which is surprisingly light and snaps into the ground fairly quickly, but doesn't provide much feedback. The accelerator cable also seemed a little loose.
Now it is important to note that while this rental GTI was kept to an excellent standard, it is still a 35 year old car. The paint is (at best) in good condition and the interior shows signs of wear. The tailgate even has a fancy strut; I had to open it with my head as I loaded and removed shopping bags. Yes, I bought it; It's a hatchback! Given these obvious superficial shortcomings, however, it makes sense that other items have their share of age-related and wear-related diseases.
But despite the quirks of the elderly in the automotive sector, there is a lot to say about how the character of the GTI has developed over the past three decades. Today's GTI is said to be the buyer's standard choice for refined hot hatches. There is nothing particularly noticeable about the highway manners of this GTI. The short gearbox provides a lot of torque when overtaking motorways, but at the expense of noise. It's loud and nervous about surface flaws, and the gabby, high-revving 1.8-liter that's found here is a relic of a bygone era. Sure, it's still practical, but I wouldn't go so far as to call it "grown up".
This GTI was probably much sharper and more selectable the day it was shipped from the Pennsylvania factory, and while it may not be the 1984 precision instrument, it still offers a lot of charm, and its anachronistic idiosyncrasies should appeal to the type of Buyer who actually wants a real time capsule in the mid-1980s.
But I would find one with air conditioning.
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