Joe Montana or Tom Brady? Madonna or Lady Gaga? The first love or the new flame? It’s in our nature to look in the rearview mirror, to measure the brightness of the present against the best of the past. It’s no different with car enthusiasts. For all the areas in which automobiles have improved—safety, performance, efficiency, reliability—they still live in the shadow of the past. The great thing about cars, though, is that we don’t have to rely solely on our memories. We’ll never know how twenty-eight-year-old Michael Jordan would have fared against twenty-eight-year-old LeBron James, but we can find well-kept classic cars—the icons that enthusiasts worship—and pit them against their modern equivalents. That’s just what we did with these seven matchups. It’s throttle cables versus direct injection. AM radios versus infotainment screens. Old-car patina versus new-car smell. So, was it really better then? Come back next Thursday for the next entry in this series.
Younger readers can’t even picture 1983, but trust me: All those Subaru WRXs, Mazda 3s, and Ford Focus STs you take for granted today, those slick-as-grease small cars? They wouldn’t exist without the original Volkswagen GTI.
The 2015 GTI, the seventh-generation version that we’re cranking through the hills of Virginia, would barely recognize its Duran Duran–era self. Sure, the original’s red eyeliner is still there, but now it also involves ambient cabin lighting.
The GTI has settled into its elder-statesman role. It’s no longer an underdog. Rather, it’s the most mature, well-groomed hot hatch, happy to let pups like the Ford Focus ST nip its heels. The 2015 model’s crazy-rich performance, features, technology, and safety show that the GTI is more than just the original hot hatch. The VW was and is an avatar of a cultural and automotive trend: the democratization of luxury.
The Golf-based hustler shoves eighteen-inch wheels to its shapely corners and drives them with a silken 2.0-liter TSI turbocharged four-cylinder making 210 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. With the performance package adding 10 horses, bigger brakes, and an electronic limited-slip diff—plus an optional driver-adjustable magnetic suspension—our Euro-spec GTI did a convincing Golf R impersonation.
The GTI also satisfies whims you’d expect in a $50,000 or $100,000 car. The leather-lined Volkswagen (plaid cloth is available) will launch itself from a stop, peer backward, guide you home, dial calls, swivel headlamps, stream music, and whomp a subwoofer. Soon, it will automatically pace traffic, guard your blind spots, and might even park itself (features haven’t yet been finalized for U.S. cars).
If the new, digital GTI would not recognize its old Rabbit-based self, the feeling is mutual. The boxy progenitor is proudly analog, from its whip antenna to its manual door locks, window cranks, and power-free steering that forces a shoulder workout at low speeds. Handling limits are low, and features are all but nonexistent: 185/60R-14 tires, an eight-valve 1.8-liter engine, rear drum brakes, and a dealer-installed Craig AM/FM stereo. Airbags? Are you some kind of wimp?
Yet—and unsurprisingly to a writer who owned both ’85 and ’88 GTIs—this buzzy, underpowered hatchback still charms. Lugging about 1100 fewer pounds than the 2015 edition, the thirty-year-old GTI still plays the terrier, eager to pass or pester any car in sight. In modern terms, the flesh is weak, but the GTI’s spirit is willing. Some things never change.
|1984 Volkswagen GTI||2015 Volkswagen GTI|
|Engine||1.8L I-4, 90 hp, 100 lb-ft||2.0L turbo I-4, 210 hp, 258 lb-ft|
|Transmission||5-speed manual||6-speed automatic|
|Curb Weight||1950 lb||3100 lb|
|Price||$8350 ($18,800 after inflation)||$25,215|