Buyer Guide: 1985-1992 VW Golf GTI

Robert
By Robert Bowen
Aug 2, 2021 | Volkswagen, GTI, Golf, A2 | Posted in Buyer's Guides | From the Aug. 2011 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

[Editor's Note: This article originally ran in the August 2011 issue of Grassroots Motorsports.]

Plenty of cars are named after animals that could kill you if provoked, but Volkswagens have tended to go by more humble handles. A zoo of Jaguars, Cobras, Barracudas and Sting Rays may make Beetles, Foxes and Rabbits seem downright sheepish, but VW models have enjoyed sales records that are anything but modest.

From its introduction in 1975, the Volkswagen Rabbit—known in overseas markets as the Golf—was an outstanding success for VW USA. It replaced the aging Beetle with a much more sophisticated package: a modern front-wheel-drive powertrain, clean Guigaro-designed lines and a useful hatchback layout. Available in two- and four-door guises with a number of different engines, including a clattering diesel, the Rabbit gave VW a new standing in the U.S. auto market.

In 1983, toward the end of the Rabbit run, VW introduced a cool, sporty two-door model known as the Rabbit GTI. Residing under the hood was a hotted-up 1.8-liter engine. With 100 horsepower, grippy sport seats and an uprated suspension in the lightweight package, the car won over enthusiasts. 

Magazine reviewers fawned over the the GTI’s combination of practicality, fuel economy and sporty handling, and the car helped to popularize that oh-so-’80s category of “hot hatches.” Successive cars, such as the Toyota Corolla GT-S and Nissan Pulsar NX, can thank the GTI for paving the way in the U.S.

By the mid-’80s, though, the A1-chassis Golf/Rabbit was looking pretty dated, and sales had started to taper. VW needed something new, but not revolutionary. The factory set out to create an evolution of the A1 chassis, predictably dubbed A2, with updated looks and a larger size. 

Up the Food Chain

Instead of hiring an outsider to pen the A2 body, this time VW enlisted in-house styling boss Herbert Schäfer. He created a clean design that was clearly related to the creased-line A1 Rabbit/Golf but featured nicely rounded edges, a longer wheelbase and more interior room. It was recognizably the same car but better in almost every way, not just in terms of styling.

Renamed the Golf in the U.S. market to match worldwide naming conventions, the new car was well liked for its increased utility, safety and looks over the previous Rabbit. It was heavier, sure, but the base model’s increased performance and dimensions made up for the extra poundage in buyers’ minds.

A2 GTIs have been a staple of club-level racing for years, and these robust little cars even make good stage rally machines. Photography Credit: Al Merion Padron

Concurrent with the car’s 1985 launch, a new GTI joined the lineup. It had nearly the same SOHC 1.8-liter engine as its predecessor, and it was rated at 100 horsepower. Unique red-striped exterior trim parts plus sport seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, four-wheel disc brakes, front and rear anti-roll bars, low-profile tires and alloy wheels completed the GTI package. 

The new car wasn’t quite as tossable as the original—a problem that would eventually be rectified—but it was nearly as fun to drive and a much better vehicle in every other way. The eight-valve engine was quick enough and the suspension was tight enough to keep drivers interested. A year later, the same basic engine was tweaked to gain a couple ponies.

Leader of the Pack

Soon, however, the GTI’s power was looking a bit measly compared to the competition—it trailed the Corolla GT-S and Acura Integra by 10 horses and the Pulsar by twice that much. VW struck back in 1987 with a 16-valve DOHC version of the 1.8-liter engine, putting it ahead of the pack by a single horsepower. That year, buyers could choose a GTI with eight valves or 16. Power steering finally became standard, too, making the car much more pleasant to drive. 

Badging, different wheels, Pirelli tires and a center-mounted roof antenna hinted that the new car wasn’t your average Golf. Function followed form, and the quick 16-valve GTI was praised by auto journalists the world over. Its popularity and sales figures were impressive on our shores, but the car’s impact on the European market was simply huge. 

People in the U.K., for example, still see it as one of the iconic cars of the 1980s.

Dallas Fox’s Alpine White 1991 model is a stellar example of a street GTI. He picked it up in 2005 and hopped it up with a variety of modifications, including engine and ECU upgrades, Bilstein PSS9 coil-overs, Neuspeed anti-roll bars, Eurosport strut braces and Wilwood brakes. Fox freshened the exterior with new OEM headlights, badges, door handles and more. Photography Credits: Dallas Fox

Today, the A2 Golf GTI—particularly the 2.0-liter 16-valve variant—offers an amazing combination of mechanical simplicity, performance, clean looks and daily drivability. Only the fourth-generation GTI released in 1999 has come close to the performance of the A2 car, and even it can’t compete against that telepathic steering and light weight. 

After being overlooked for many years, the A2 is beginning to receive attention on the classic car market. Prices appear to be creeping up for this nearly forgotten pocket rocket, and for good reason; after all, it remains one of the best driver’s cars of any era.

Things to Know

These cars are getting old. That means most run-of-the-mill GTIs have had every mechanical part replaced or repaired. Rubber suspension bushings, shocks, springs and brake calipers should have been swapped out long ago—some multiple times. Cars with original parts—wheels, steering wheel, shift knob, etc.—will be rare. Same goes for cars with their original paint.

How much will you pay? That’s an interesting question. These cars were so cheap for so long that asking prices and transaction prices are all over the map.

The market seems to be headed up, too. You probably won’t pay for your kid’s college education with an A2 GTI, but if you find a nice one and keep it that way, you may just make a profit in a few years.

Engine and Drivetrain

The engines are tough, with the eight-valve having a slightly better reputation for longevity. Check for evidence of the usual issues, such as a leaking head gasket or recent timing belt replacement. High-mileage 16-valve engines can be noisy, but they should quiet down once they get warm. 

If the car smokes when accelerating from a stop or decelerating from speed, it can be annoying, but these engines can run for a long time half busted. They’re not expensive to work on, but it’s becoming tough to track down parts. Fortunately, the car still enjoys a thriving aftermarket. 

The GTI engine is great out of the box, but it’s easily modified for better on-track performance. The stock 16-valve cams are quite tame, so swapping them and tuning the factory ECU can unleash power. Exhausts, intakes and even turbo kits are readily available. 

VR6 and supercharged Corrado engines swap in with little drama, although the former tends to make the car nose-heavy. Later crossflow engines swap in easily as well, but without the downsides of the VR6 installation.

Almost any car you find will have a bad second gear synchro. VW used transmissions that were designed in the early 1970s, and they weren’t updated much as the car’s power and weight crept up through the years. The equipment was stressed close to the breaking point by the A2 era, and most transmissions have been rebuilt or replaced by now. Parts for the rebuild are inexpensive and widely available, but it’s not a pleasant job.

Suspension and Brakes

Corrado G60 strut bearings are a nice, inexpensive upgrade for the front suspension, but Ground Control makes some nifty bolt-in camber plates that work even better for track use.

By now, the control arm bushings in almost every GTI are probably shot. Delrin, polyurethane and even all-steel spherical bearing replacements are available. You can also upgrade the rear control arm bushing to the later R32 unit. It reduces compliance, but it doesn’t bind like some of the poly options.

Upgrading to Passat 10.1-inch brakes or Corrado 11-inch brakes is easy enough, but these will require 14- and 15-inch wheels, respectively. For either swap, you’ll need the steering knuckles, hubs, calipers and caliper brackets along with the large rotors.  

All but the later eight-valve GTIs came with four-wheel disc brakes. If your later car came with rear drums, it’s a simple swap—although the car will gain a little weight in the process. 

Plenty of anti-roll bar choices are available for the both front and rear, but keep in mind that there are lots of theories but little hard data on what works best. See our Project Golf suspension story in the December 2010 issue of GRM for some track testing results; the A3 chassis data we gathered will translate well to the A2 Golf.

Body and Interior

If your heart is set on an A2 GTI, take your time to find the very best car available and inspect it carefully. Evaluate an older GTI the same way you would a classic Mustang: by looking at the condition of the body and the originality of the parts. 

First, check for evidence of crash damage. A bent unibody should exclude a car from consideration. While bent suspension parts can be replaced, they indicate that a car has led a hard life and received little care.

Electrical systems are a weak point of these cars, as sticking window switches, burned-out fuse block connectors and dead gauges are frequent complaints. Don’t stress too much about nonworking electrical ancillaries; most can be fixed rather cheaply. The air conditioning systems also cause headaches for owners, but again, this issue isn’t likely to be a deal breaker on a car this old.

VW interiors are known for their quality materials, and the A2 is no exception. The seat cloth does wear, and a perfect set of factory sport seats can add thousands to the price of a GTI. Dashes can crack, but they don’t suffer as badly as the ones found in contemporary BMWs. Worn carpet is an easily remedied problem; worry more about missing or modified interior panels.

Seats from the later A3-chassis cars will swap in smoothly, but you may want to consider tracking down genuine Recaro seats from a special-edition Jetta GLI. 

Cars hailing from the salted-road states tend to rust under the plastic wheel arch trim as well as in the hatch and rear panel between the taillights. Check carefully for evidence of more tin worm by lifting the carpet and looking under the doors. Also look for rust around the windshield and rear hatch as well as underneath the rear bumper.

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Comments
View comments on the GRM forums
Placemotorsports
Placemotorsports GRM+ Memberand Reader
10/20/20 8:41 a.m.

Always liked these but I got a CRX si back in the day instead.  Lightweight hot hatches are super fun

noddaz
noddaz GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
10/20/20 8:54 a.m.

I still miss my 86 Gti.  But it is in good hands with my son taking over ownership.

rustomatic
rustomatic Reader
10/20/20 9:44 a.m.

I had two of these back in the olden days:  an '87 and a '92.  Both were 16V, but the '92 actually had the 2.0 16V, which seemed underrated at the listed power level.  The clutch lasted two days in the '92 (Bay Area used car--this was expected).  The '87 was run over by my (twitchy) neighbor in a tow truck.  Both cars would continue to be driven and sold at a profit.  The GTI will always rule the hot hatch market.

docwyte
docwyte UberDork
10/20/20 4:12 p.m.

My first real car was a '91 16v. Wish I still had it.

Slippery (Forum Supporter)
Slippery (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
10/20/20 4:57 p.m.

My '87 16V was one of the coolest cars I had. 

Bought it in the mid 90's from a Swedish girl for $1200, it was an old car back then lol:



Had it repainted and changed the doors to the later ones, big bumpers, deleted the parking lights and got rid of the flares. Today I probably wouldn't do any of that. 

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