COAL: 1996 VW GTI Mk3: How’d They Get Rid Of the Fahrvergnügen?



When I recently wrote about the car that my girlfriend brought into the home that we had started to share, it ended with that car (1986 Toyota Cressida) being sold to make way for one that her grandfather had promised to buy her upon graduating from college. That time had come, so he was ready to step up to the plate…

We’d also just gotten back from a long trip to Europe, where Allison discovered the practicality and convenience of the hatchback body style.  So she decided that she wanted a hatchback, just like a European.  After looking at cars such as the BMW 318ti (too pricey) and a Honda Civic (too plain), we located a near new 1996 VW GTI being sold by the original owners with only 8,000 miles on the odometer in Tornado Red with a Black and colored inserts cloth interior that they had bought new earlier in the year.  The intro pic at the top is of our actual car.


I was a little hesitant about it since my 1995 Jetta was still in my possession. That car hadn’t always been the most trouble-free vehicle, but she was smitten so we went ahead and bought the GTI.  I still harbored fond memories of my Mk2 GTI and was sort of hoping that this might be pretty good after all.  Uh, no. 

First of all, this one had a soul-sapping automatic transmission.  Shifts were slow and really took a lot of the fun out of the car.  On top of that, when VW re-introduced the GTI in 1996 it was with the SAME 115hp cross-flow 2.0 liter that was in my Jetta, which while driving OK, was nothing to write home about.  In a 4-door sedan that was a somewhat upscale economy car (the Jetta), the engine (and maybe even the automatic transmission) could be considered acceptable, but in something with a GTI badge on it, not quite.  Previous generations of the GTI had a more powerful engine than the regular Golf, but not the Mk3.


Originally the Mk3 Golf was introduced in in the US for the 1993 model year, for 1994 it got dual airbags, in 1995 there was a “Golf Sport” version, and in 1996 this pretty much turned into the GTI with the only real difference being the alloy wheel style, however still at 14” with non-performance rubber.  There was also a GTI VR6 version from 1995 on; while a completely different animal performance-wise it has gone down in automotive history as being the reason for the well-known UK car magazine CAR’s cover that had a picture of an actual lemon sporting a VW badge on it after they completed their long-term test of a Golf with a VR6 engine that is very similar to our GTI VR6.  Overall the Mk3 GTI’s are considered the “softest” of all the GTI generations, which I completely agree with.  Lots of promise, little substance.


Allison didn’t dislike it nearly as much as I did.  She happily commuted in it from San Francisco down to Palo Alto along the 280 freeway.  Whenever I had to drive it around town however, I just noted how glacial the acceleration was, the way it kind of vibrated with a buzzy noise when stopped at a light and how it really did not feel much if at all different than my Jetta when cornering hard.  It really was just a regular Golf and not anything special as the older ones had been. 


VW’s with automatics (and I suppose most cars really) I personally tend to prefer when I am able to drive them long distances at higher speeds, such as on the (non-traffic) freeway commute that Allison had.  Around town I much prefer a manual, which is counter to what a lot of other people find I think.  This car at least had a 4-speed automatic, VW had stuck with their 3-speed much longer than most competitors did. 

Funnily enough (but not surprisingly I suppose) it had the same AC issues that my Jetta had, which although covered under warranty were not a pleasant experience at the dealership.  The car never actually let us down, but it was not really a joy at any time either.  It was practical though, I remember we were able to get a 6-foot Christmas tree into the car and were able to close the hatch on it.  Of course then we also were picking pine needles out of the trunk carpet for the next year…large TV’s came home in it, it was great for shopping, you could fit bikes if you took the front wheel off, overall much better than a sedan like the Jetta although that had a cavernous trunk as well, just with a much smaller opening.


Parking it in the city was easy as the sightlines were excellent.  Being able to ratchet the seat up (for her) and down (for me) was a very nice thing that no other small car seemed to feature at the time.  The front seats themselves were the same excellent faux-Recaro seat style that had been a staple in sporty VW’s for years and the back seat was a split-folding affair that let you either just pull the backs forward or tilt the bases into the rear footwells and then the seatbacks folded virtually flat.  The dashboard was identical to my Jetta’s.  At least all the buttons and knobs were in familiar spots due to that.


It’s kind of funny, for about year we overlapped with two cars that were virtually the same including the color, just one had a trunk and one did not.  It just kind of worked out that way and was not intentional at all.


After a couple of years it was time for something else, kind of a shame as it never really fulfilled what we thought it would when we got it. We tried for ages to sell it in the San Francisco area, in the end we took it down to her folks in Orange County and her Dad managed to sell it there, amazingly enough to someone who was moving to San Francisco, we all got a laugh out of that.  In the end, although not the most unreliable vehicle we ever had, it did not deliver the fun that it should have.  It turned me off newer VW’s for a very long time thereafter, which is a shame as really it should not have cost VW much, if anything, to make the car much more enjoyable from a driving perspective.