1984 VW Rabbit GTI Retro First Drive Review | Driving impressions, performance

Autoblog wasn’t around for the literal first drive review, but as they say, it’s better late than never. Take a trip down memory lane in our latest retro first drive.

When Volkswagen introduced the GTI to the United States, it was an oasis for enthusiasts caught in a desert of post-emissions malaise.  As American manufacturers scrambled to add power back to their pony and sports car nameplates, VW introduced a practical, nimble and efficient hot hatchback that could embarrass plenty of Detroit’s entry-level fun cars, even in a straight line.

Over the past few weeks, Volkswagen circulated a few gems from its heritage collection, including a Rabbit GTI. This 1984 model would have represented the second model year for the GTI here in the States, where it was locally assembled at a brand-new facility in Pennsylvania.

This is important, because the Rabbit GTI was very much a product of Volkswagen’s American arm. Though the Golf GTI had been on sale in Europe since 1976, the imported Rabbit was not offered in this hopped-up (sorry) variant. In fact, the European Golf GTI and American Rabbit GTI were put together quite differently. As is often the case in these situations, the Europeans got the better end of the deal, including a more powerful tune of the 1.8-liter engine that delivered closer to 110 horsepower.

Meanwhile, America’s Rabbit GTI packed 90 horsepower (some references suggest 100 for 1984, but we’re going by information furnished to us by Volkswagen) and 105 pound-feet of torque from an eight-valve, 1.8-liter inline-four. The peppier 16-valve engine wouldn’t arrive for a couple more model years. Power steering was not available, but with such a low curb weight, the GTI didn’t really need it.

Consider what was available to car enthusiasts at the time. The V6 Camaro packed just over 100 horsepower and weighed nearly 1,000 pounds more. The six-cylinder Mustang wasn’t much better off. The Fiat 124 Spider offered a bit more punch than the GTI, but lacked the Volkswagen’s practical hatchback layout. Plus, it was Italian, so you never really knew how much of it would show up to work on any given day.

The Dodge Omni, meanwhile, which even borrowed engines from Volkswagen, wouldn’t get its turbocharged GLH variant for another year. To put it simply, many enthusiast options were accessible in 1984, but big power numbers were not readily among them.

So Lightning McQueen the GTI is not. If anything, it’s The Little Engine That Could, or, in this weather, maybe more like The Brave Little Toaster.

Did I mention that it has no air conditioning? Thanks to the juicy remnants of Tropical Storm Cristobal, it’s pushing 100 degrees outside with nearly 80% humidity as I set off north in search of decent roads. Between the lack of A/C and the GTI’s manual steering rack, I’m going to be working up a bit of a sweat. Fortunately, the GTI’s massive windows roll cooperatively into the doors. So long as air is flowing, I’m OK; my quarantine mullet, not so much.

The lack of power assist is not a big deal when you’re in constant motion, but there are still consequences to its communicative nature. On the battered roads of Metro Detroit, a manual rack has quite a lot to talk about, and some potholes can be downright argumentative. Hit an over-sized highway seam at 75 mph and the GTI’s wheel will attempt to escape from even a pretty solid grip.

In fact, little about driving the GTI is trivial. The uncorked exhaust is loud in that small-engine kind of way, so it’s not going to endear you to the neighbors. And despite its low curb weight, 90 hp is 90 hp. So, considering that it was meant to be a bit of a pony car giant-killer, Volkswagen paired the 1.8-liter to a close-ratio five-speed manual with some pretty short gearing.

This paid dividends in performance, giving the GTI a 0-60 time just shy of 10 seconds. That may seem pitiful now, but it was just as quick as a 1982 Chevrolet Camaro with a Crossfire-injection V8 and an automatic transmission. Let’s not even talk about the four- and six-cylinder pony cars that were available in the early 1980s.

It wasn’t all roses, of course. The GTI was less efficient than the basic Rabbit, which was to be expected, and it’s also pretty vocal at highway speeds. MotorWeek measured its cabin noise at 70 dB at a 55-mph cruise. At 70-plus, with the tachometer needle well to the right of its center-line, it’s quite chatty, especially if you have to keep the windows down to avoid melting in the summer heat.

Despite this, the GTI managed EPA ratings of 26 mpg city and 36 mpg highway … in 1984. Those numbers have since been revised down significantly; a check of fueleconomy.gov shows estimates of 21 mpg city, 26 mpg highway and 23 mpg combined — a figure that didn’t even exist back in ‘84.

On a back road, these things are forgotten. The engine is zippy and rewards quick, deliberate shifts. Matching revs is trivial thanks to the immediate, mechanical response to throttle inputs. There’s no heavy, emissions-friendly flywheel or computer-controlled rev hang to deal with on a car this old. Just snick-snick, bang-bang, and you’re on your way.

And the GTI offers a surprisingly commanding view of the road, despite the low seating position and limited adjustment. The greenhouse is just that big; the pillars just that narrow. The doors are also incredibly light — and thin — and can easily be manipulated with just one finger. I’m not even going to touch on crashworthiness; there’s just no good news on that front.

The GTI’s shifter takes a light touch and the throws aren’t too long, but the action is a bit vague. This is repeated with the clutch, which is surprisingly light and engages pretty quickly off the floor, but it doesn’t provide a ton of feedback. The throttle cable also seemed to have just a bit of slack in it.

Now, it’s important to note that while this loaner GTI has been maintained to an excellent standard, it is still a 35-year-old car. The paint is in fair condition (at best) and the interior shows signs of use. The rear hatch even has a failed strut; I had to prop it open with my head while I loaded and removed grocery bags. Yeah, I took it shopping; it’s a hatchback! But with these obvious superficial deficiencies, it stands to reason that other items have their share of age- and wear-related maladies.

But even notwithstanding the quirks of automotive senior citizenship, there’s plenty to be said about how the GTI’s character has evolved over the past three decades. Today’s GTI is meant to be the refined hot hatch buyer’s default choice. There’s nothing particular refined about this GTI’s highway manners. Its short gearing puts plenty of torque on tap for highway passing, but at the cost of noise. It’s loud and twitchy over surface imperfections, and the gabby, high-revving 1.8-liter found here is very much a relic of a bygone era. Sure, it’s still practical, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “grown-up.”

This GTI was probably much sharper and more dialed-in the day it rolled out of the factory in Pennsylvania, and while it may not be the precision instrument it was in 1984, it still packs plenty of charm, and its anachronistic idiosyncrasies should appeal to the type of buyer who actually wants a proper mid-1980s time capsule.

But I’d find one with air conditioning.

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