Curbside Classic: Volkswagen Golf (A2) – Ready, Steady, Golf


(first posted 2/13/2014)    You are looking at the car that oversaw the decline of Volkswagen’s fortunes in the US market, but don’t hold that against it.  The teal jellybean parked in the background to its right, though admittedly newer, better illustrated what American buyers wanted in a small car.  VW, of course, wasn’t about to throw out what made its forebear such a sensation, but dispensing with the Rabbit name said more about the car than the company’s North American operations could have expected.


Although renaming their famous hatchback Golf was meant to bring a certain maturity to VW’s biggest seller, it not only paralleled Wolfsburg’s slow and steady approach to the small car rat race, but came to describe how Westmoreland ceased to be as fruitful as its original product’s namesake.  Wie schade.

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No longer desperate to find a new way, VW was confident it could design the car in-house. In a sense, this was a bit dishonest, as they simply took the Italian design and filed off its sharpest edges.  Nevertheless, the new shape, penned by Herbert Schäfer, dragged the Golf into the ’80s and while each subsequent Golf series claims a direct connection with the original Mk1, the Mk2’s influence–particularly its trapezoidal rear quarter windows and high tail–is more evident in later cars.  Interestingly, all subsequent models borrow their headlight design from the Mk2 Jetta/North American Golf’s rectangular units.


It’s from the rear that Golf II looks most modern today, with its distinctive triangular taillights, license plate trim, fuel filler flap and hatch release looking especially well integrated.  Indeed, these elements saved car from looking rustic, like the Mk2 Passat (Quantum/Santana) and Mk2 Polo; or weird, like the Mk2 Scirocco.  It is one of Schäfer’s better looking designs, both unmistakable and dignified.  The window frames, faithfully copied from the first Golf, added a sense of solidity, with the doors appearing to be made from a single stamping.


When viewed as a whole, certain details conspired to make the Golf look like a product of the late seventies.  The small bumpers looked dated when other manufacturers were moving to full fascias, the upright B-pillar gave the car a static appearance, the bluff grille and headlights suggested a scorn for aerodynamic principles, and the front quarter glass seemed to hail from another era.  For many European customers, this intentionally unfashionable look made the car seem more purposeful and unpretentious, but in the US, response was decidedly cooler.

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Part of this may have had to do with the interior.  A space efficient design with supportive seats, it reflected the need for the car to carry affluent Germans families long distances around Europe as they zealously took advantage of their generous Urlaub, but excitement was not part of the equation.  The seats and door panels looked appropriate to the mid-80s, but again, the dashboard and headliner belonged to a product from the prior decade.

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The lack of pizzazz seemed to reflect the stinginess of the average American worker’s vacation benefits, and with more exciting layouts to mollify drivers on their daily slog to earn enough to pay the era’s high-interest loans, austerity was a hard sell.  Those who overlooked the dreariness, however, were treated to one of the most ergonomically friendly designs to date, with seats that forced drivers to sit up and a radio and other switchgear mounted squarely in the driver’s line of sight.  There were few excuses for fatigue or distraction in a mid ’80s A-platform VW.


But enough about the design and lack of US market sales success; we all know this was an ultraconservative car, and that the Japanese ruled the small car market during the MkII’s model run.  Better to focus on the car’s talents and unique character.

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The careful approach to development, begun as the original car gained accolades left and right for its excellent handling, ensured chassis dynamics few could match.  The biggest changes versus its predecessor were about two inches of added width, an additional inch of front suspension travel and angled rear axle mounts which allowed for additional toe-in under cornering.  I am of the belief that any enthusiast who can afford to do so should own a MkII Golf or Jetta.  Drivers of modern front-drive cars–of any recent cars, for that matter–will be struck by the abundance of steering feel and throttle adjustability in particular.


Grip levels are lower than today’s standard, body lean is greater and steering ratios are noticeably slower, but the ability to use available grip is easily superior.  The degree to which drivers can sense what the wheels are up to is uncanny for a front-drive car, allowing even a novice to muscle his or her way through slow moving traffic almost instinctively.  A very tight turning circle also aids arrogant maneuvering on busy streets.


Compared with the best US market competition (i.e. Honda or Mazda), there was some on-center steering deadness, but even with power assist, heft increased substantially as lock was applied and there was strong self-centering.  Bumps were transmitted to the driver’s hands as minor wiggles and while some may not have cared for this latter trait, enthusiastic drivers were always aware when the tires’ capacities were exceeded.  When that happened, given the right conditions, lifting off the throttle could allow the back end of the car to step out, neutralizing any understeer, allowing one to get back on the throttle and continue on their way aggressively.  It all worked very intuitively, with the main tradeoff for such direct steering being a propensity for torque steer.

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Even the ride was better than what many other cars could offer, with ample suspension travel and sufficient damping to match a stout (for the times) structure, though sixteen-valve cars sometimes came in for criticism (likely because the eight-valve car was so pliant).  For American drivers who lacked access to cars like the Peugeot 205, this was arguably the best front-wheel drive chassis available.  Those who disagree are invited to share exactly what they feel these VWs lacked relative to other cars.


Of course, while ride and handling were stellar, there were other problems.  The biggest of these was the gearchange, which was overlight, vague, occasionally balky and coupled with a clutch that retained its very high engagement point.  Despite a solid linkage, there was no evident advantage.  Bushings would often wear out, while the transmission itself was recalcitrant.  VW tended to tune engines for low-end torque and even eight-valve GTIs were given close-ratio gearboxes, making downshifting somewhat avoidable.  The mild tuning of other models and popularity of diesel variants also minimized the issue, but it remained somewhat of a sore point.


The introduction of a new sixteen-valve engine finally brought the A2’s drivetrain up to date.  Those only familiar with VWs of the past twenty years would find a GTI or Jetta equipped with this high-winding unit quite novel.  As a company which prefers increased displacement and turbocharging as a means of boosting power, VW has not sold a competitive naturally aspirated four-cylinder in the US market for a very long time.


When it arrived in the 1986 Scirocco and the 1987 GTI and Jetta GLI, the sixteen-valve brought the first crossflow head to watercooled VWs (finally), offering 123-horsepower at 5800 rpm and 120 lb-ft of torque at 4250 rpm.  Like Toyota’s narrow-angle sixteen-valve heads, only one cam (that controlling the exhaust valves) was driven by a belt, with the other slaved to it.  VW used a chain drive mechanism for this purpose, while Toyota preferred a more durable gear drive, which VW decided against because of noise.  It was a simple design, lacking any variable intake trickery, with long runners boosting low and midrange power.  Reviewers of the day nevertheless complained that it failed to deliver at low speeds, but it’s possible they were spoiled the the eight-valve’s solid low-end pull.


The engine was upgraded to two-liters in preparation for family car duty in the new Passat (where its raucous nature and peaky power delivery were unwelcome) and 1990-1992 models boasted 134 horses and, more importantly, 133 lb-ft of torque at similar power peaks.  In sixteen-valve form, sixty seconds was knocked solidly into the high seven to low eight-second range, and the quarter-mile reached in the about 16.5 seconds.  Eight-valve cars were surprisingly slow, given their very low gear ratios and light weight, with sixty reached in about ten seconds.

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It’s a good thing the sixteen-valve cars delivered on their promise of greater performance, because they weren’t particularly refined and the breathless eight-valve cars had fallen well behind the competition, with its variety of turbo, V6 and multi-valve engines.  For two thousand fewer 1987 dollars, an Acura Integra, with its vastly superior transmission and smoother engine, threw the VW’s shortcomings into stark relief.  By 1988, Mazda’s 323 GTX (which no one bought) posed a very unique and compelling alternative for the same price as the GTI 16-valve, and the Civic matured into a solid and sophisticated surrogate for the more basic cars.


It’s no wonder that from 1988 on, base level Golfs and Jettas essentially got the old 8-valve GTI’s engine, along with its close-ratio transmission from 1990 until the end of production in 1992.  Despite these changes, along with good aerodynamics, performance didn’t amount to what buyers might’ve expected and the less said about the three-speed automatic, the better.  Other meaningful improvements included a wider availability of fourteen-inch wheels and hefty stabilizer bars (15mm front, 20mm rear) on GL-trim cars.  Over the eight year production run, assembly was shifted between different factories while VW frantically juggled option packages, engine management systems, wiring and exterior trim.  As such, US-market A2s varied significantly from year to year, to the amusement of VW trivia geeks.


What never changed were the cars’ continued ability to trounce others when it came to chassis dynamics and space efficiency, but competition with other cars was hardly the point by the end of the model run.  Volkswagen was doing so poorly by 1992 that it considered pulling out of the US market altogether.  Cars were heavily discounted, and buyers consisted mostly of extreme cheapskates and a small self-selecting group of devoted followers.  In a market of gummy bears, the small VWs were salted black licorice.

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The biggest irony for VW was that its deliberate effort to make the Golf the coldly rational, default European hatchback imbued it with too much character for American buyers, who likely would have stayed away from the dated, austere cars even without the (justified) horror stories of poor dealer service and subpar reliability.  Fortunately, the A2s retain a cult following today, with a variety of gas and diesel engines and very easy engine swaps.  Proving the soundness of the platform, the Mk2 Golf bowed out with a supercharged 16-valve AWD variant, while the basic elements of its chassis design lasted through the Corrado, A3 Golf/Jetta and B4 Passat’s production run.


Strong aftermarket support remains available for all A2 chassis variants, and examples can be picked up for very low prices, although the chances of finding a clean one are scarce.  If there’s any truth to the rumor that German-built cars are of higher quality, note that all Jetta diesels, and 16-valves came from The Fatherland.  The same was true of the very unique coupe, which as a two-door sedan with a large trunk and front quarter windows, was a fun example of the awkwardness that characterized Herbert Schäfer’s early ’80s designs.


I myself would accept a Mk2 Golf or Jetta in any variety, but turbodiesel sedans are my favorite.  As an anti-car deliberately designed for people who love to drive, A2 chassis VWs are unlike most other objects of automotive lust, with an appeal evident in even the most humble models: just crank open the sunroof, find a winding road and have a fabulous time.