Driving the Mk1 and the Mk7.5 Rabbits GTI in Santa Monica

The Rabbit GTI has always been the Volkswagen to buy and with the name’s return for the seventh-and-a-half edition of the Golf, that hasn’t changed. The 2019 Golf GTI Rabbit Edition is the Volkswagen to buy. If I had any money at all, I’d go out and buy one today.

I didn’t need to drive it alongside a Mk1 Rabbit GTI to come to this conclusion, but sometimes things go well for you and I’m not about to turn down the opportunity.

I’m not just bragging about my weekend, though, driving these two cars back to back did teach me something important and helped me to reach my conclusion. Both Rabbits GTI share a spirit of everyman humanity that elevates the GTI and helps explain why it’s the hot hatch we all talk about when we talk about hot hatches. Capturing the low-buck fun of the original, the real performance, and the spirit of unencumbered simplicity that makes the GTI the legend it richly deserves to be, the GTI Rabbit edition comes together to become something greater than the sum of its parts.

But first, let’s talk about what the new Rabbit GTI is. Before we unwrap all the layers of history that have gone into the car, we should just talk about what an uninformed customer gets if they pick up this car: a nice rabbit badge, some neat colors (1,000 in Cornflower Blue, 1,000 in Urano Grey [pictured], and 500 each in white and black), a full measure of power (although all GTIs get the full 228 hp for 2019), Golf R brakes, Golf R wheels, LED headlights, plaid seats, and a VAQ mechanical diff. So, you get a performance-focused GTI without all the luxury crap that gets in the way. And all of it for $28,895. Great.

So what did I need the Rabbit GTI to teach me? Kind of you to ask.

First lesson: getting into any classic car, especially one whose roots are as plebeian as the Golf’s, you immediately notice that the interior is really barren. The 1983 Rabbit GTI I drove is no exception. Steering wheel, gauges (in the charmingly incorrect place), long-ass gear lever, pedals, and a radio in case you get bored. That’s it. And it’s kind of liberating.

Look, I’m not ascetic. I, too, like bluetoothing my phone into the infotainment system, and my buns get chilly from time to time. What I’m advocating here isn’t for us all to drive around in hollowed out race cars because suffering is faster. All I’m saying is that cars are full of stuff. A lot of which costs money, but most of which doesn’t enrich our lives in any meaningful way. I mean, what do I really gain from seeing the album artwork of the song I’m listening to?

The new GTI isn’t exactly free of this nonsense, but it honestly feels simple. There are, like, two buttons that matter (both them “on” switches: for the car and the radio, respectively) and the rest is polite enough to stay out of your way. Like the Rabbit, the Golf feels like it was designed before the term “mobility” entered the vernacular. It’s a car, not a “solution.” It wants to drive, not inform and entertain.

That’s not to say it’s old-fashioned, though. The Mk1 and the Mk7.5 share about as much in common as I do with Sebastian Vettel. Unlike that example, though, one (me) isn’t clearly better than the other (sorry, bud). But the Mk7.5 makes use of the technology that weirdos like us care about.

Second lesson: old cars are scary. I know. I know that being in possession of a Y chromosome means that I’m not supposed to express fear, but driving someone else’s pristine MkI on a rainy, downhill road right after California’s dry season so that all the oil and rubber come washing off the road, stealing what little grip you had is frightening. Brakes not quite large enough, a vague mistrust of the car’s its safety systems, and a very real desire not to destroy something beautiful conspired to make my experience of the MkI kinda scary. But the really good news is that it was scary in the Mk7.5, too.

Thanks to its VAQ diff, its Golf R brakes, and 30 years of engineering, the new GTI can achieve a whole lot more than the old one—as you’d expect—but crucially, these are all chassis improvements. That means that they’re part of the drive and behave predictably, rather than taking away your throttle to give you an uncanny valley of power when it thinks it shouldn’t be available. And that means they don’t get in the way of you screwing up.

So, while the electronic diff (also available on the GTI performance) is directly responsible for 8.5 seconds of pace on the Nurburgring, you’ve gotta be driving to get it. The VAQ diff, for the curious, is VW trying to give you the best of both worlds. It effectively operates as an open diff when your tooting around town, but can lock in hard cornering to help pull you around corners. The result is a front end that holds on onto the road tighter than a shy toddler holds on to its mom.

Even on the greasy roads above Santa Monica, I only had one spot of understeer. As we pushed towards the edge of a cliff and the taste of tin entered my mouth, but grip came back quickly and I could pull myself around the corner without much more drama.

I don’t mean that as a knock against the car, the mistake was mine and the car was supremely easy to catch, but I experienced that same desire not to wreck someone else’s lovely car. I wanted to protect the car from my own hamfistedness. More importantly, though, it was fun at speeds that, on paper, look minuscule. 

Third lesson: Brakes are important. Put simply, the Mk1’s brakes haven’t aged as well as its design. And while the Golf R brakes on the Mk7.5 are a welcome addition, they also struggled a bit, fading after fewer than 14.5 miles of, admittedly, very hard work. Tuna Canyon road is probably more demanding than about 90% of what most cars will do on public road, but it is still a public road, not a track, so you might consider upgrading your pads if you’re planning on tracking your car. But you were already planning on doing that because you read our piece on brake fade, didn’t you?

In the end, the experiences are pretty much what you’d expect. The Mk1 is more communicative and the Mk7.5 is more capable, but neither is mired by the trappings of performance (unlike this story). Rather, they both give you what you’re actually after—not a lap time or a corner speed, not a 0-60 time or a braking distance. They give you fun.

But we know that the regular GTI pretty much does all of this. So why get the Rabbit edition? First of all, it panders to enthusiasts. I know that’s a complicated idea, but we really need allies right now, so 3,000 of you (that’s how many they’re selling of these in the US) better buy these quick, otherwise VW will get the message that we’re too cheap to be worth selling to.

More importantly, though, it’s a trim level done right.

Final lesson: The MkI GTI wasn’t just about power. It was about delivering a carefully designed package that delivered exactly what a set of people wanted. That’s why the American GTI is as important as the much more powerful Euro version. Yes, the power was the headline, but a lot of hot hatches had a lot of power. What made the GTI special was its magical combination of good. A good car, a good engine, a good suspension, and nothing to get between you and all that goodness. The new Rabbit GTI is good. And there’s very little getting in the way of that.

Sure, you could get more power in an R, and I’m sure a bunch of you will, but the GTI is more accessible. The Golf R, to me, feels like Bruce Lee. Very capable, very strong, but kind of serious. The GTI feels more like Jackie Chan: a little silly, a lot of fun, and nearly as capable. And of all the GTIs on sale today, this is Drunken Master (by which I mean it’s peak GTI).

But I don’t want to dunk on the Golf R, I love it. It’s just that considered against another extremely good car, I prefer this new Rabbit GTI. Claiming that this is the best VW on sale today isn’t a comment on the VW lineup, it’s a comment on just how good this car is.

Now go tell my boss that I need a raise so that I can buy one.