COAL: 2003 VW GTI 1.8T, Suddenly It’s 1983!


It’s 1983, I’m 14 and I need a ride home from a buddy’s house.  My buddy’s older brother volunteered to take me home and we hoped in his brand new, silver over red interior, 1983 Volkswagen GTI.  He turned onto a twisty back lane and cranked up to 55mph!  I couldn’t believe how this little car could corner and accelerate.  I’ll never forget that he held a can of Coke in his right hand the whole time, steering with his left hand and shifting the golf ball shifter (waaaaah -snick – waaaah – snick – waaaaaah – snick -waaaaah) with just his pinky and ring finger.  I’d never been in anything like it, and I made up my mind, someday, I have to have this car!

1983-VW-Rabbit-GTi golf ball shifter

I’d been in some cool cars before then, including my baby sitter’s Fiat Brava, another buddy’s father’s Mercedes 6.9, my dad’s Opel 1900 4-speed wagon, but never had I felt that seat of the pants feeling before, that connection with the road, that feeling at one and the same time of high-strung lunacy and cold confidence.  It felt like the perfect car to me, and so I began dreaming of someday having a GTI.

1986 Jetta GL

Well my 1981 Buick Skylark and 1979 Honda Accord were nothing like the GTI, but then in 1986 my sister got a brand new car, a 1986 Volkswagen Jetta GL with a 5-speed.  It was awesome.  Same rev-happy engine, same quick shifting 5-speed, same german gauges, even the same 4-spoke steering wheel!  I had hope, all I had to do was wait two more years, and my dad would buy me a Volkswagen as well.

As we’ve covered here previously, that didn’t happen.  Then life intervened.  Twenty years later and I’d owned a Toyota, a Nissan, two BMWs (here and here), two Saabs (here and here), and a Mercedes, but still no VW of any type, much less a GTI.  I nearly gave up, because over the years, the VW star had faded.  I test drove a Jetta in 1993, and it was missing what I considered the fundamental VW-ness.  Instead of being revy and tossable, it was bloated and buzzy.  Instead of being no nonsense and straightforward, it felt cheap and as if stuff was going to start falling off immediately.  The 1993 Toyota Corolla DX 5-speed I leased was way more like a VW than the VW.  In 1999 or so, I borrowed my buddy’s GTI VR6 because I needed the roof rack to take my windsurfer to trade for my BMW, and I found my 1997 Maxima 5-speed to be faster and more fun to drive than his GTI, and noticed just how nose heavy the VR6 felt to me.

gti 3

Then, in 2003, the headliner in my Mercedes fell, and I’d had enough of the maintenance.  I estimated “normal” maintenance costs of an older car at about $3,000 per year, and I wondered, what reasonable car can I buy that would cost about the same monthly as my average maintenance cost.


I can’t really remember how I settled on the GTI 1.8T, but it must have been the car magazines.  The consensus was that the 1.8T made all the difference in returning the balance to the GTI.  It was nearly as powerful at the VR6, and significantly lighter.  I looked up the True Market Value (TMV) on and it said that people were paying $19,400 for a 2003 VW GTI 1.8T with 17″, sunroof and Monsoon sound system.  I called up Stohlman VW in Tyson’s Corner VA and said to the salesperson, I’d like to buy a 2003 VW GTI 1.8T etc. in Blue for $19,400.  He said we can’t sell it for that little.  I said Edmunds TMV says that’s what others are paying.  He said ok, let me ask my manager.  That was it, they honored the price.  I test drove a Subaru WRX to compare, but despite being faster, better handling, etc., the Subaru just didn’t fit me.  It was boy racer, loud, cheap in the interior, and $5,000 – $6,000 more expensive.  They gave me $4,500 for my Mercedes, VW had 1.9% financing for 60 months, and the deal was done, $282 per month.

gti 2

So I bought the VW, and woooohooo, the feeling was back!  What a contrast with the Mercedes.  Where the Mercedes made me look like an old man, the VW made me feel 10 years younger.  Where the Mercedes was solid, the VW was fast!  And with 225 width tires (as compared to the 195s on the Mercedes), the VW handled the corners with gusto!  Sure there was torque steer, but otherwise, it was an incredibly refined car!


tt steering wheel 2003 GTI Sport Cloth

In fact, I called it my Audi, because the way I spec’d it, it shared engine, transmission, suspension, chassis, wheel and tire size, steering wheel and key with the base model, fwd Audi TT.  The wheelbase was about an inch longer and half an inch narrower than the TT, but the car was also about 50 lbs lighter than the TT and it sat 4 adults in comfort, or in my case, confortably held two car seats in the back seat for my two children under the age of 4.

gti seat lifter Seat belt bar sliding seat

In fact, the folding seat mechanism and the seatbelt were so well designed that it I could literally step into the back seat of the car to strap my children in to the car seats.  The front seat would flip up and out of the way, and the seat belt would move completely out of the way and I could step into the back seat with both feet.  A great design.

back seat gti

The VW was outfitted almost perfectly for me:  a light and powerful engine, stick-shift, big wheels, manual seats, sport cloth, and a good sound system.  Almost no extraneous equipment.  As you can tell I loved the car!

GTI sunroof

Except that I hadn’t yet learned that I don’t like sunroofs.  About 3 and half years later my car started to smell musty, and then a little worse than musty.  I took a bit of time to figure out, but eventually I realized that my sunroof was draining into the car.  Well it was about time for a change so I went back down to the VW dealer and got a 2007 Passat with a 6-speed stick and no sunroof for the same monthly payment.