Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk2 Review
Bigger, more sophisticated and faster than its Mk1 predecessor, the second-generation Golf GTI is rapidly growing in desirability…
What Is It?
Replacing an icon like the original Mk1 Golf GTI was never going to be easy but there was no ‘difficult second album syndrome’ for VW, and its Mk2 replacement simply moved the game on.
True, it became a bigger and more solid car in the process. But it also introduced significantly improved performance with the arrival of the more powerful 16V version, while the option of a five-door body increased the practicality for those not wanting to ditch the fun of driving just because they needed a family hatchback.
As the Mk1 slips into true modern classic territory the Mk2 is going the same direction, but still represents a more affordable route into a classic GTI in a considerably more modern-feeling package.
Inner front arches
- Original 8V engine carried over from first-generation Golf GTI and joined by revvier, more powerful 16V version in 1986
- Non-cat UK-market cars are more powerful than those sold elsewhere, the 16V sold here getting 10PS (7kW) more to 139PS (10kW), equating to half a second off the 0-62mph time and top speed increasing from 124mph to 129mph; some later UK cars may have cats, though
- 8V cars may have as little as 107PS (79kW) depending on the version but they punch above their weight and the Mk2 is still a sub-tonne car, the more flexible power delivery appreciated by those who don’t want to be up in the revs all the time
- Post-1987 models identifiable by various external changes, including switch from seven- to five-bar grille, ‘right-hand drive’ wiper configuration (look for the blanking plates for the previous arrangement on the scuttle), single piece front side windows with the loss of the quarterlights and replacement of the Bosch fuel-injection on 8V models
- Engines are generally considered tough, though smoke can suggest worn valve seals, stems or piston rings; any hesitance or stalling could be trouble
- Earlier Bosch K-Jetronic fuel-injection can prove troublesome compared with the later Digifant system
- Sloppiness in gearchange could be as simple as worn shift bushings, while a tricky shift to first and/or fifth could be a misaligned linkage – both are relatively simple fixes
- Hydraulic tappets were introduced for post-1985 models and may rattle on start-up, though this should quickly quieten so beware any lingering top-end clatter
- Check all electric features work as they should; also make sure that the tip and release system on the front seats of three-door cars operates properly
- Worn, modified or damaged interiors can be tricky to put right, so seek out cars in good condition where possible
- Any good Mk2 should drive with precision, with any looseness or slop likely due to the usual stuff like worn suspension parts, bearings or bushings
How Does It Drive?
For those used to more modern hot-hatches the lack of power steering on all but later versions adds a level of physicality to the Mk2 driving experience, the extra metal around you compared with the Mk1 making it feel a good deal more substantial.
It still has that spring in its step, mind, and there are plenty of period pictures of road testers pitching it into turns with lashings of lurid body roll and an inside rear wheel cocked in the traditional hot-hatch style. The decision between 8V and 16V versions is less obvious than it may seem, given the substantial increase in on-paper power and performance of the latter.
True, its revvier, peakier power delivery may ultimately be more exciting on the limit, and it benefits from a stiffer, lower set-up, but the torquier 8V has its fans for its improved flexibility and all-round comfort.
The Mk2 took the Golf GTI from the ‘80s and into the ‘90s and, as a result, feels a bit step on from its ‘70s-designed predecessor. As such it’s a much more liveable car for frequent use, so if you want a modern classic you can use every day rather than just save for the weekends it’s still just about viable for that.
Later versions with the option of five-door bodies, power steering and more modern styling also open up GTI ownership to a wider cross-section of drivers, the Volkswagen feeling considerably more grown-up and refined than hot-hatch contemporaries like the Astra GTE or Peugeot 205 GTI but still having that feisty spirit fans of the genre love so much.
Inevitably age-related issues are starting to make their presence felt and corrosion is going to be your number one concern when choosing a Mk2 GTI to buy. Refinement may have been improved with the addition like wheelarch liners and suchlike but these also make it harder to identify regular rust spots without a detailed inspection. If the front subframe looks rusty there’s a good chance the inner wings may also be crumbling.
Other common corrosion spots that are easier to spot but also indicators of more worrying rust include bubbling round the ‘blanks’ for post-1987 cars with the ‘reversed’ wipers, at the base of the screen and in the A-pillars. If there’s rust here there’s a good chance it’s spread to the bulkhead. If the car has a sunroof check the surround and make sure the drainage channels aren’t blocked – wet carpets are a bad sign and should be a prompt to check the condition of the floorpan and sills if you haven’t already.
Interiors wear their years well but trim parts can be hard to find so bringing a scruffy car back into good condition can be tricky. Beyond that the GTI is mechanically pretty tough, but it still pays to choose carefully.
Which Model To Choose?
The choice between 8V and 16V will be a personal one and best resolved – where possible – by trying both or sampling opinion from other owners within the enthusiastic VW community. Everyone will have their opinions, of course, but consider your personal driving preferences and whether you prefer to rev your car out to the ragged edge all the time or generally take it a little easier.
Other than that, the main choice is between the original look or post-1989 ‘big bumper’ configuration. Accepted wisdom in classic circles is that earlier cars of a given model are usually the most sought-after for their apparent purity but the Mk2 GTI bucks this trend and these later cars are much sought-after for their chunkier and more resolved looks. They’ll also be that bit younger, so hopefully a little less likely to be suffering from terminal rust. This configuration with a nice set of original BBS wheels is, for most fans, peak Mk2 GTI.
Specifications: 1990 Golf GTI 16V (non-catalyst)
1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol
139PS (102kW) @6,100rpm
168Nm (123lb ft) @ 4,600rpm
Five-speed manual, front-wheel drive