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Used Volkswagen Golf GTI buyers’ guide
The Volkswagen Golf was born in 1974. It was created to replace the venerable Beetle - a tough act to follow: some would say impossible. But the Golf's versatility and class-crossing appeal has led to sales of more than 27 million models.
The first Golf was a compact three-door hatchback, initially equipped with small engines as a response to the global fuel crisis. In 1975, engineers fitted a 1.6-litre engine giving the lightweight hatch a lift in performance. The suspension was also upgraded to get the best from the wheel-at-each-corner chassis configuration. Motoring journalists raved about the new GTI's ability to hound supercars through the bends, and the GTI legend was born.
The Golf was not the world's first hot hatchback: that title could go to a number of cars that predated the first GTI. But the Golf's Teutonic character and unburstable build quality soon put it at the top of the pile. The GTI has survived on that reputation ever since, but not all models have embodied the GTI moniker.
Mark 1 GTI is the original and classic three-door hatch. Mk 2s add the practical five-door option, as well as that 16v engine choice. Mk 3 has bigger engines and body, and is probably today's cheapest route to a nice GTI, but Mk 3 is also where VW began to sacrifice some build quality: they're just not as solid as earlier cars. Ford Focus came on strong as Mk 4 took Golf GTI in the wrong direction: Golf is not as sharp to drive as Focus.
Mk 4 GTI shares its platform with Audi A3 and TT. Engine options include the 1.8-litre turbo, 2.0-litre and, for the first time, turbodiesel power. But park a Mk 1 alongside, and the model drift is obvious: later cars lose that sense of lightness in design and chassis.
Mk 5 and 6 Golf GTIs continue the platform sharing. Though modern GTIs are still fun to drive, the original's uniqueness is gone. Cutesy Lupo GTI is heralded as the modern Mk 1 equivalent, but the reality is, if you want the undiluted GTI experience, you have to buy one of the first proper Golfs.
Where to buy
Early GTIs have a strong enthusiast following, so if you want one of these you are mostly dealing with private owners. Trade specialists are emerging for mint examples of Mk 1 and Mk 2s, but the Mk 3 has yet to take off in the same way, so is mostly offered by private sellers.
Independent dealers like the Mk 4: it is generally reliable and liked as a family hatch. Mk 5s can also be found at independent dealers but, as the age of the car comes down, franchised dealers become the main source. Most 2009 and later GTIs will be found in the official network.
Price points: up to £3k
Up to £3,000 will buy anything from Mk 1 to Mk 4. High-end Mark 1s and 2s are also found in the next bracket up, but you can find good private examples of both at this price point.
Mark 3 GTIs sold well with the fleet buyers, but Mark 4 with the TDI option was a super fleet seller. I was a fleet buyer when the GT TDi first came out, and we bought a stack of them.
Don't think you need a diesel, though: one of the best features of early Golfs is exceptional fuel economy. Mk 1s are good but Mk 2s are better, making the first five-door Golf an affordable daily driver. Mark 3s are not bad: the two-litre can show over 50 on the trip computer - but fuel economy goes backwards with the turbo Mark 4s when boost is used often.
Price your insurance before buying. GTI premiums have risen sharply in recent years.
Project Golfs may seem a good idea, but do not underestimate the cost of bodywork on the early cars. Both Mk 1 and Mk 2 can have terminal rust. Pattern panels are available but might not fit as well as genuine ones. If you're restoring with the intent of adding value, panel fit and finish is everything.
Any to avoid
Early GTIs have basic spec, which some people add to over time. Aftermarket bits should be chosen carefully. Mk 1s with aftermarket glass sunroofs are a no-no. Mk 2s lowered on coilover kits with silly wheels are also not good. Standard cars are where the smart money goes. Early Mk 2s have no power steering: make sure other potential drivers don't mind.
Golf GTIs have well-documented weak points. Driver's seat bolsters will fray from entry and exit: this is easily fixed by a trimmer, so don't ignore an otherwise good car.
Gear linkages wear and gearbox synchros can play up, particularly second gear, which suffers during traffic light launches. All Golfs in this price bracket can have worrisome electrics: check everything works and watch out for sluggish starters. Early cars can block the heater matrix: check for eyebrow-burning air when the heat's on full.
Price points: £3k - £10k
£3,000 is the start point for decent Mk 4s. Good supply of ex-fleet diesel Mk 5s means these can start below £4k for tired examples. Petrol Mk 5s can start a bit higher and may also have mega miles on the clock.
A sensible Mk 5 start point might be six to seven thousand pounds. This buys a family-friendly five door with the two-litre turbo engine, but average mileage or more. Question the petrols at this price: ample supply makes same-age diesels easy to find, good value to buy and run and that TDi torque is more like the old 8v Mk 2 through the twisties.
On the subject of Mk 2 Golfs, low mileage 16v cars with big bumpers and decent run-out spec can fetch £5k or more with classic car dealers: twice the price they might sell for privately. Snap up the last of these while you still have the chance.
Every Golf GTI model run has its special editions. Low mileage specials on Mk 1 are seen as a good investment, so you will often find examples in this price bracket. Mk 1 'Campaign' cars need the right bits: do your homework carefully.
Special editions of later Mk 3s are worth less of a premium. A burgeoning VW scene encourages some to ask crazy prices on well-preserved Colour Concept and Anniversary models, but big bucks are a long way off for these cars.
Any to avoid
Some Mk 4 colours are an acquired taste. Tropic Orange, Futura Yellow and Cosmic Green are all a bit unloved at present, but well-kept examples in rare colours will do well when the model begins to appreciate down the line. Leather trim is another nice option.
Mk 4 Golfs have their niggles, all of which can cost a pretty penny to put right. Interior trim can rattle and squeak, and skimping on diesel oil changes can lead to premature cam wear. Smokey turbos are a worry. Rear axle bushes can wear on high mileage cars. Electronic climate goes wrong: manual air conditioning seems more reliable. Ignition coil packs can play up and windows can fall off the runners, needing new metal retaining clips.
Price points: £10k+
The most recent GTIs are extremely expensive to buy new: the 2.0-litre TSI 235 five-door is knocking on 30 grand. As is the way with German manufacturers, much equipment is charged out as options, so expect to pay handsomely for a late-model Golf with spec sold through official channels.
That said, later cars depreciate, so £10,000 can buy a reasonable 2008 car sold privately, or a 2007 car sold through the trade. These are petrol engine prices, but diesel is in good supply, so price differential between the two is not always scary. Diesels are economical, but outright reliability is up for debate. If you want to buy diesel, insist on every inch of history and on-the-button cambelt changes, with the water pump changed, too.
The £1,300 option of dual-clutch DSG transmission came to the Golf in 2005. Some reviewers criticised it for being too good, which sounds strange unless you grew up with GTI manuals. The reality is DSG can be fun to drive on the right road with the right engine. TDI 140 DSG makes a good case for itself when it can be bought at a reasonable price.
Any to avoid
The Golf GTI has long been thrashed, crashed and generally badly treated. Usually they laugh it off, but many end up on the insurance registers. If the price is low enough these can look a good buy, but with so many Golfs around, there's no point bothering with Cat C or D. Use a cheap check-by-text service and walk away from hit-list cars.
The move from Mk 5 to Mk 6 is not huge. Mk 6 is quieter inside, which has its disadvantages on a car intended to inspire the driver. Most reviewers say their favourite new Golf is the basic 1.4, so perhaps the biggest potential problem in your £25,000 GTI will be boredom.
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The ride was good, the seats amazing and in 35,000 miles I never had any problems with it. The only real weak point with it were the brakes. Because the Mark 1 golf was designed as a left hand drive car, they had to put a push rod from the brake pedal where it went into the engine bay across the width of the car, to the brake master cylinder which was on the passenger side of the car and this significantly lessened the servo effect of the brakes and made them feel spongy and reduced the braking effort quite considerably. However, there was a fix. The rod was adjustable so if you shortened it slightly and fitted slightly harder brake pads, both the feel and the stopping power were increased. The only slight down side was that by shortening the rod, the brake pedal's height increased, however, you quickly got used to it and as it was now the same height as the clutch pedal, ( it was actually lower before ) there were no driving problems.
Although I never had any problems with mine there are a couple of things you need to look out for. By far the worst thing I have heard of is the clutch cable pulling through the engine bulk head. Basically where the clutch cable fitted through the engine compartment bulk head was the pressure point which enables the cable to work, however, instead of the metal at the hole being reinforced, it wasn't so over a period of time, the metal buckled and eventually split, pulling the cable through the bulk head and stopping the clutch form working.
The cure was to have a piece of metal welded over it or have a special plate fitted over it, etc. This was also an issue with other VW cars at that time as well. I would imagine most if not all Mark 1 golfs around now would have had this seen to, but it is always worth checking. Alternators can go very frequently, especially if the engine leaks any oil as it drips down onto the alternator so check for oil leaks. The only other thing you have to watch out for is front tyre wear. There is no traction control on the Mark 1 Golf and the 1.8 GTI will spin its front tyres very easily when pulling away so you may only get around 7K to 10K from the front tyres.
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