​I Autocrossed Every Generation of VW GTI To Find The Best One

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

No one else seemed to notice it. Less than a quarter mile away from Volkswagen's Golf launch venue was an open gate leading to a massive parking lot. And there were cones. Lots and lots of cones. Unsanctioned GTI autocross? Unsanctioned GTI autocross.

It must have been part of a motorcycle safety course or some elaborate forklift training program. No matter. There was enough spacing in the outer ring of cones to turn this overlooked lot into a makeshift autocross course. And right down the street was every generation of GTI, provided by VW, just waiting to be caned.

Nobody would need to know.

(Full Disclosure: Volkswagen flew Zac to SF to drive the new Golf and GTI. They invited me too, but all I was interested in was getting seat time in all seven generations of the GTI. The new one is really good – even better than the steak tartare.)


Now before you get all up in arms about me thrashing priceless heirlooms from der Volkswagen Heritage Collection, understand that A) most of these bought by VW on Craigslist or Autotrader and kinda-sorta-not-really restored, or came from a trusted source and B) They were meant to be driven. And I drove the snot of out the MKI.

1984 Rabbit GTI


This is the car I came for. I've driven every other GTI, but I've never gotten my greasy paws on a first gen. Of the classics on hand, this was the most solid driver of the bunch, although the throttle overrun made it sound like a drugged hyena coughing through a coffee can – which I absolutely loved.

If there's a front-wheel-drive equivalent of an E30, the MK1 is it. The non-assisted steering is ridiculously direct, the seating position is bang-on, and the cabin is a no-nonsense affair that kinda reminded me of my first car (or maybe that's just the red velour interior). When it went on sale, it had 90 hp. This example maybe has 60. But it's still enough to spin the wheels when dumping the clutch, and with only a ton of metal to move, it's one of the most entertaining crap cans I've driven in years. I've set up a Craigslist alert. I suggest you do the same


1992 GTI 16V


A certain long-haired reformed womanizer informed me that the MK2 was a dog. That proved to be a massive understatement. I managed to take it out before the rest of the buffet dwellers got a chance, and between the disconnected steering and the overwhelming sense that a valve could shoot through the hood at any moment, I figured it wasn't long for this world. I figured right. The final nail in the coffin came after the Hooniverse's Jeff Glucker applied the brakes, the pedal went to the floor, and the right front wheel locked. It never made it to the cones, but a death trap has never looked so good in seafoam green.

1995 GTI VR6


Torque. Lots of it. And one of the most glorious noises to ever emanate from a VW product costing less than my house. When the MK3 debuted, I was part of the peanut gallery decrying the VR6 as a heavy lump that would spell the end of the GTI's flicktastic character. I was wrong. Between the engine and the light chassis, this was one of the best GTIs of the modern era, all wrapped up in a Q-ship, just-another-Golf shape. Another Craigslist alert set.

2002 GTI 337 Edition


Ah, the dawn of the turbo age. Too bad the 1.8T came right in the middle of the malasia era for VW. For over a decade, the 1.8T proved to be an unreliable, finicky mess, although its tunablity made up for some shortcomings. Still, the MK4 is that college girl that got her masters in artisanal basket-weaving only to take a management position at Tim Horton's. She still owns a MK4 with a VW logo emblazoned into a Grateful Dead sticker.

2007 Golf GTI


Tonnage and turbos go hand-in-hand, but the 3,300 pounds of MK5 still caught me off guard. Between the weight, the lack of a proper diff, and no hint that the big round thing in front of me was attached to the bigger round things steering the car, the MK5 was an understeering fool. Even mid-corner lifts did nothing to quell the push, so the hand brake was the order du jour. Right up to the point that I sent three cones flying 10 feet in the air.

2013 Golf GTI


Just read Zac's review and subtract 10 percent of the accolades. The MK6 is a budget Audi, but without the stigma of owning an entry-level A3. It's really good, but I'd scour the seat cushions to come up with the extra cash for a MK7.