Collectible Classic: 1986 1/2-1988 Volkswagen Scirocco 16V

June 21, 2010
Over the past thirteen years, the silver spoilered brat pictured here has confidently watched its owner acquire - and then rid himself of - a hot red Nissan, two Mazdas, a VR6-powered Volkswagen, three Mercedes-Benzes, five BMWs, and a pair of Porsches. From its heated garage spot, it has snickered at Ferraris outside braving the rain and Aston Martins fighting the cold. And it laughs so hard it pees - Mobil 1, on the floor - every time some expensive, exotic new car sits out overnight, suffering the indignity of being molested by the neighborhood cat.
1006 01+1986 1988 Volkswagen Scirocco 16v+front Three Quarter View
Such favoritism toward a twenty-three-year-old VW might seem strange, but there is something pretty special underneath the Scirocco 16V's skin: it shares its A1 chassis with the Rabbit GTI - the original hot hatch, the pocket rocket that started it all.
The Giugiaro-designed two-plus-two Scirocco arrived in 1975 together with the taller, more utilitarian Rabbit that shared its chassis. A 1982 update to the Scirocco kept the A1 underpinnings but ditched the Italian bod in favor of more aerodynamic - but just as angular - styling. A nearly identical-looking Guigiaro-designed sport coupe, the Isuzu Impulse, debuted a year later, fueling endless speculation among the Vee Dub crowd that Wolfsburg had simply stolen the Italian design proposal. It's not the case, but the similarity between the cars is unmistakable.
Who's-my-daddy drama aside, the Scirocco's shape was becoming stale as the second-generation car neared its fifth birthday. Midway through the 1986 model year, though, a 124-mph gust of fresh wind blew into dealers - a hopped-up engine made the Scirocco 16V the fastest and most powerful Volkswagen ever. Multivalve engines were just entering the mainstream, and VW's 1.8-liter was particularly advanced, with a slightly outrageous (for the time) 10.0:1 compression ratio requiring a knock sensor to guard against detonation; hydraulic lifters; sodium-filled exhaust valves; and oil squirters to cool the pistons. It redlined at 7200 rpm - a tach twitch below the highest-revving Ferrari V-8s of the day - and produced 37 percent more power than its similarly sized eight-valve counterpart.
A power rating of 123 hp doesn't sound like much today, but with less than 2300 pounds to propel, the Scirocco 16V's eight-second sprint to 60 mph was quicker than Porsche's 944, which cost twice as much. The Scirocco 16V could even threaten BMW's brand-new, 168-hp 325is.
To show other drivers that the 16V meant business, Volkswagen slapped on a body kit replete with oh-so-'80s fender flares and the requisite enormous - but functional - spoiler that split the rear glass. Behind the upsized (fourteen-inch) "teardrop" wheels were disc brakes front and rear. And the pièce de résistance: a small, angled, and amplified antenna on the roof.
That bee-sting antenna has since become commonplace, but the Scirocco 16V still ranks among the automotive elite on the smiles-per-mile chart. The engine's response is so instantaneous that it makes you wonder why, if computers are so darn fast, modern electronically controlled engines don't react like this. The clutch pedal's heaviness is your clue that it, too, is connected by cable - not hydraulic fluid - to the pressure plate, and the reward is perfectly smooth shifts every time. Rowing the old VW through the gears is a full-on riot, thanks to comically short ratios so closely spaced that you sometimes wonder if you just shifted back into the same gear. Its long stroke creates lots of vibes, but the sixteen-valve engine absolutely loves to rev, and it rewards forays to the top of the tach scale with an unusually baritone exhaust note.
1006 03+1986 1988 Volkswagen Scirocco 16v+rear Three Quarter View
A stock Scirocco 16V leans its way through corners with near-perfect balance, holding its inside rear wheel high in the air like other A1 Volkswagens. Steering inputs are met with an immediacy that's missing from today's heavy cars, and the wheel transmits far more information about what the front tires are doing than you'd ever expect from a front-wheel-drive vehicle. Torque steer is nonexistent, proving yet again that front-wheel drive worked better back when engines were modest and mass was minimal.
Of course, that light weight translates into a quivering structure with all the rigidity of a baguette soaked in milk - the 16V's extra bracing couldn't perform miracles on a chassis dating back to the mid-1970s. But that wasn't the Scirocco's biggest shortcoming - what it really lacked was headroom. A six-footer fills the front seats to capacity, and only a four-foot-something Romanian contortionist would be truly comfortable in back.
Vertical space was no problem for the tall GTI, which had already moved up to the more robust A2 platform by the time it inherited the 16V's firepower in 1987. It wasn't quite as quick as the Scirocco, but its stiffer structure and increased practicality made it the more desirable VW - at least until the Corrado came along in 1990.
Time has proven that this modified 1987 Scirocco 16V is "desirable" to its owner. Show the faintest trace of interest in his car, and he'll whip out pictures and tell you a story about how much fun it is to drive. How do we know? Because that's exactly what just happened: that enamored owner is me.
ENGINE: 1.8L DOHC I-4, 123 hp, 120 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION: 5-speed manual
DRIVE: Front-wheel
SUSPENSION, FRONT: Strut-type, coil springs
SUSPENSION, REAR: Torsion beam, coil springs
BRAKES f/r: Vented discs/discs
WEIGHT: 2287 lb
Years produced: 1986½-1988
Number produced: 10,000 (U.S. market, est.)
Original price: $12,300
Value today: $1000-$10,000
Why buy?
Because the only curve on this car is the one it likes to go sideways around-on three wheels. Few inexpensive classics can put a bigger smile on your face. Unfortunately, many Sciroccos have found their way into guardrails, and clean 16Vs are nearly impossible to find, especially unmodified. Despite crazy-short gearing (about 4000 rpm at highway speeds) and updated EPA city/highway ratings of 21/26 mpg, owners report more than 30 mpg in mixed daily driving.


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