Rear View Mirror: Longing for Simpler Days

This past weekend I dropped in on the Chicago Volkswagen Organization’s spring dyno day. After a Chicago winter’s worth of cabin fever, this event is always a popular one. There were easily 40 or more tuned and modified VWs in the parking lot, including several of the new R32 Golfs.

Some of the people participating in this event are there to see what kind of power their cars actually make, simply satisfying their curiosities. Most, however, are hardcore power addicts out to prove they have the meanest machine, or at the very least to justify all the time and money spent in the pursuit of speed. Did the chip really add 30 horsepower? Did the big exhaust really free up the top end? These questions and more are revealed on the dynamometer, the great equalizer and the best all-around BS remover.

As I watched car after car get strapped down, probed, and revved out, I realized that the quest for ultimate power and speed are no longer priorities for me. They never really were, to be totally honest. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy driving a fast car as much as any other genuine car enthusiast, but I’ve fallen out of love with the idea that a car must be wickedly fast to be enjoyable. What I really long for is the simplicity and balance of the original GTIs.

The first GTIs were only blessed with 90 horsepower, but because the chassis was light and the gearing was short, they were great fun to drive. They were quick, but not outright fast, which is fine considering our arcane speed laws. They handled well and stopped well. But more important than the hard test figures on paper, they just “felt” great.

The second-generation GTIs gained power to match their new size, but retained the essential balance found in the original. Better aerodynamics allowed for greater top speed, but the car proved to be just as much fun at more reasonable speeds. The body was once again tight, providing a great platform for excellent handling. When the sixteen-valve engine was introduced, it only added to the character of the car without taking anything away.

The quintessential GTI for many was the last variation of the Mk II, the 1991-92 two-liter 16V. It was the perfect package, with its BBS wheels, Recaro seats, and aggressive updated bodywork. The mechanical package was at its best too, with 134 free-revving ponies, a close-ratio 5-speed, 4-wheel disc brakes, and low-profile performance tires. Even the exhaust had a perfect note. This car had everything going for it, and didn’t need to be modified to be enjoyed.

Until recently, VW had seemingly lost the recipe for great GTIs. The third generation GTIs were either the underpowered and softly-sprung 2.0 8-valve, or the nose-heavy and softly-sprung VR6. The fourth generation started out where the third left off, offering only the now-anemic 2-liter and the VR6. There was new hope for the GTI when the 1.8T engine was introduced. Unfortunately these cars were still sat on tall suspensions and featured ho-hum styling compared to earlier GTIs.

Things finally got interesting again with the special edition GTI 337 in 2002. The 1.8T engine was fitted to a six-speed gearbox. The brakes were heavy-duty. The suspension finally sat right, and not only handled great but also rode very well. BBS wheels made a return appearance, this time in 18-inch dimensions. Recaro seats were also part of the package again. The exterior featured tasteful, aggressive ground effects. Even the exhaust note was ideal.

VW had rediscovered the balance that made the earlier GTIs so much fun. The 337 could truly be enjoyed right out of the box, without a single modification. Luckily, VW decided to continue the 337 package, with only a couple of minor changes, in the form of the 20th Anniversary GTI for 2003.

Unfortunately, many enthusiasts cannot appreciate these cars for what they are, choosing instead to molest them in the interest of simply making them faster. I’ve seen a lot of people jump onto the power bandwagon and ruin some perfectly good cars in the quest for speed. Manual boost controllers, big turbos, 3-inch exhaust systems, blow-off valves, bigger intercoolers, custom programming, I’ve seen it all. The resulting cars are usually fast, but the problem, for me at least, is that they are often so one-dimensional. Like so many other great things in life, a great car will possess balance, something that is sorely absent from most of today’s “tuned” cars.

I already see the same phenomenon happening with the new R32. In standard form the car is just about perfect. 240 horsepower, all-wheel drive, true sports suspension, aggressive yet subtle bodywork, and a classy cabin make it a great modern hot hatch for a more sophisticated, more mature driver. Yet everyone seems bent on comparing it to Japan’s rally-bred boy-racer models. Suddenly the most powerful Golf ever offered by VW is not “powerful enough” regardless of the fact that it is a perfectly well mannered and balanced car.

So I’ll continue to drive my moderately powered but well balanced GTIs, despite the fact I’m perhaps the only one that seems to appreciate them. And I’ll continue to enjoy them for what they are. If I feel the need to go faster, I’ll consider a faster, well-balanced sports car, or maybe get my thrills on two wheels.

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