2001 VW Golf GTI MK4 – Buyer’s Guide – 153
Past indiscretions aside, the Germans aren’t a bad bunch. Their fashion sense and propensity to form hardcore satanic metal bands sometimes leaves a little to be desired, as does the typical German middle-aged woman’s choice of hair dye, but overall they’re all right. We’re not interested in old ladies with red hair though, we’re interested in cars and it just so happens the Germans know how to make a good one. Obviously the names Porsche, BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz come to mind, but Volkswagen is another that sits right up at the top of the list, and the Golf GTI is what we’re going to take a look at this month.
It’s often been said that the Mk2 Golf GTI set the benchmark for hot hatch performance. It was small, light and powered by a 1.8-litre four-cylinder, which in later versions pumped out 137hp. Even by today’s standards, achieving that level of power from a normally aspirated 1.8-litre engine is nothing to be sneezed at, let alone 20 years ago.
The difference between that car and the latest hot hatches is, of course, the curb weight. The Mk2 Golf GTI weighed a little over 1000kg. Compared with the majority of today’s three-door hatchbacks, the Golf was a featherweight, and for that reason it set the standard for performance.
So VW has the history and the know-how to make a decent hot hatch, but how does the 2001 Mk4 version stack up?
The Mk4 GTI was fitted with the well-regarded 1.8-litre DOHC 20-valve turbo inline four, an engine shared with Audi, which used it in the company’s A3 turbo models. From an exterior perspective it’s a great-looking donk, which is something that can’t really be said for a lot of Japanese engines of the time. It’s a solid unit of cast iron block and aluminium head construction, and it was also one of the first engines to benefit from having the exhaust manifold at the back of the engine bay and the inlet at the front.
At 9.5:1, it has an unusually high compression ratio for a turbocharged engine. Of course, the latest turbo engines are reaching that level of compression ratio now, but for the time, this was higher than the majority of other turbo mills.
It produces a respectable if not remarkable 110kW at 5700rpm and 210Nm at just 1750rpm. Those of you with a keen eye will have spotted that the power figures are a little on the low side compared with many Japanese turbo engines of the same era, and that the rpm levels at which they are reached are also lower particularly the torque figure. This means that the Golf is not as demanding a drive as, say, a Mitsubishi Lancer GSR.
While the 1.8-litre GSR has higher specific kilowatt and Newton metre outputs, both are also reached at much higher rpm. The Golf, on the other hand, generates the majority of its torque at less than 2000rpm. The Germans are also notoriously conservative when quoting power figures, so it wouldn’t be at all surprising to learn that the true numbers were a little higher than what was revealed.
Either way, it is a robust and reliable engine that doesn’t have the same highly strung nature as many Japanese units. It’s also smooth and not so prone to vibration and harshness under load. It still delivers the goods, just in a more refined and subtle way.
The standard transmission found in the Mk4 GTI was a slick 5-speed manual driving the front wheels. There was a limited slip differential option, which is a nice addition, but some higher mileage gearboxes can experience problems with worn bearings. Overall, however, it’s a sturdy transmission that is more than up to the task of handling a little more power than Volkswagen blessed the GTI with from the factory.
The Mk4 GTI is equipped with a fairly standard suspension setup consisting of Macpherson struts and coil springs up front, with a stabiliser bar to prevent body roll. At the rear of the car you will find an independent torsion beam arrangement with struts and coil springs. It’s not a complex suspension design, but it provides decent handling from standard and a good, comfortable ride.
It’s also ripe for modification, which is what we’re mostly interested in.
One downside of the GTI is its bland exterior. While it does look like it’s been hewn from a solid block of steel, it’s not going to win any awards for outstanding design flair or set the heart racing with its curves, vents or aggressive bulges. Then again, neither can the competition. Unless you’re comparing the GTI with an Evo or WRX of the same era, which wouldn’t really be fair, there isn’t a lot on the street in this price range with this many features and as much driveability as the GTI that will cause you to drool, so don’t focus too much on it’s understated style. That’s what owning a Euro is about anyway. People don’t buy them to stand out from the crowd; people buy them because they’re well made and great to drive.
On the upside, and like all VW hatches, it looks robust and well built, and that’s exactly what it is. You should never need to worry about rust or loose trim, and if you experience either of those then chances are the car has been in an accident and suffered a bad repair job, so steer clear.
This is really where you reap the benefits of opting for a Euro over a Japanese car. The interior of the GTI, while not exactly super-modern by today’s standards, is a great place to be. It doesn’t suffer from that cheap, plastic feel that so many Japanese cars do, especially from the ’90s and early 2000s. Just about every creature comfort will greet you inside the GTI, and the front and rear Recaro seats won’t disappoint, either. It’s a genuinely comfortable place to sit and enjoy the ride, and the factory audio system is top notch, even if it does feature a MiniDisc player.
While the GTI may be European and therefore have a different approach to style, it responds to modification in the same way any Japanese turbo four-cylinder will. The usual recipe of a quality mandrel-bent exhaust coupled with a professionally designed intake system complete with a decent filter will do wonders for performance. Be careful with the exhaust though you don’t want to ruin the car’s smooth feel by installing a system that’s too noisy or suffers from too much vibration. It’s a quality car and was designed for high-speed, quiet cruising in comfort, not thrashing around forest roads like a WRX.
Since the GTI has a pretty sophisticated five-valve-per-cylinder head design, it would probably pay not to carry out work on the cylinder head. It breathes well enough as it is. Instead consider the turbo, intercooler and injectors. Like many stock systems, these are all on the small side and are designed for driveability and responsiveness, rather than outright power. But if power is what you’re looking for, these are the areas you’ll need to look at. As ever, you will need to have the engine thoroughly checked over and tested to ensure that any money you spend on modifications is not lost on a worn engine with no compression.
If you are upgrading the turbo, don’t go for the biggest one you can find that will fit. Choose a unit that will work well with the 20-valve head and the characteristics of the engine. Remember, it’s not as much of a high-revving beast as many Japanese engines, so there is no point bolting a massive turbo to a manifold that doesn’t generate any boost until 5000rpm. If that were the case you would only have 1500rpm remaining before the engine was operating outside its design parameters.
Intercooler-wise, the same applies. You simply need to match the intercooler to the engine and turbo combination. You do not need the largest one you can find that will fit. Anything will be an improvement over the stock ’cooler.
Volkswagen Golf MK4 – Factory Specifications
Engine: VW/Audi 1.8-litre DOHC 20-valve inline-4, cast iron block, aluminium cylinder head, intercooled turbo, multi-point fuel injection
Driveline: 5-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel-drive, LSD option
Suspension/Brakes: Front — Macpherson struts, coil springs, stabiliser bar. Rear — Torsion beam, struts, coil springs, front ventilated discs, rear solid discs
Wheels/Tyres: 16-inch VW alloys, 205/55R16 tyres
Exterior: GTI bodywork
Interior: Recaro seats, leather-bound steering wheel & gear knob, air conditioning, power windows/mirrors
Performance: 110kW @ 5700rpm, 210Nm @ 1750rpm
Words: Rob Dawson Photos: Brad Lord
This article is from NZ Performance Car issue 153. Click here to check it out.