25 Greatest Cars of All Time: Driver's Cars

Sam Smith
Charlie Magee

Volkswagen Rabbit GTI

It is impossible not to hammer on it. Go ahead. Try. Climb into that high-backed, heavily bolstered velour seat, reach down for that little golf-ball-shaped shift knob, and think calming thoughts. Tell yourself that you cherish the color beige, wipe that grin off your face, and for chrissakes, try and drive nice. We can almost guarantee that it won't happen--and if it actually does, then Volkswagen's dinky little Rabbit GTI will probably unclick your seatbelt, pop the door latch, and spit you out onto the sidewalk. (In that case, don't worry. You're simply a boring person, and the GTI knows it. No offense.)

By the numbers, it shouldn't be that impressive. The American-market version of VW's first GTI, introduced in 1983, produced just 90 hp at 5500 rpm--20 hp less than its European twin--and buzzed to 60 mph in a shade under ten seconds. It was little more than a stiffened, lowered, and shorter-geared version of the standard Rabbit hatchback. And yet, within the space of two short years of production, it single-handedly breathed new life into Volkswagen of America, prompted an entire class of imitators, and changed the lives of more than 30,000 people. If that wasn't enough, it also produced (thanks to an $8000 sticker price) more grins per dollar than just about anything else on the road.

How was all this possible, you ask? Simple: the GTI had character, spunk, and guts, and it had them in spades. The 1.8-liter, fuel-injected four doesn't mind being lugged--its torque curve is flatter than a Nebraska afternoon--but you don't care, because for some reason, all you want to do is go humming toward the rev limiter. You want to beat the snot out of it, shift, and then beat the snot out of it again. There's a chunky, rubber-mounted, Beetle-like feel to everything that convinces you that the GTI can take anything you can dish out. The whole car feels indestructible.

By modern standards, the GTI's front struts and rear torsion beam aren't sophisticated, but they get the job done with touches of brilliance--lines are easily tweaked midcorner with a flex of your right foot, and front-end grip is eye-opening. The unassisted steering is blissfully transparent, and a cheery pitter-patter makes its way from the pavement to your fingers in every corner. The whole package prompts feats of strength; it cries out for full-throttle, giant-killing, lift-a-wheel heroism. From behind that meaty four-spoke wheel, anything is possible. Possible, that is, so long as you don't drive . . . nice. Sam Smith

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