Time Travellers: MkII GTI vs. MKV GTI

By James Wong

The favoured of the children, the teacher’s pets in class, the yardstick for performance hatches. Meet the MkII and MkV GTI – 20 years set them apart but did age really change anything? I drive both to step back in time – and fast forward to the future – to give you an answer.

There are many hatches out there which might give you ideas that you are driving a cool car. Take the Alfas for example – the new Giulietta no exception – they have such sex appeal that makes you just foolish enough to sign on the dotted line for one. Those ideas quickly dissipate, however, when your Alfa suddenly springs a squeaky door handle or flashes a phantom light on the dashboard that comes out to play only when the mechanic is away. Of course, sex appeal does count for something – after all, we cannot deny that looks do play a part in perception, no matter how small – which is why the GTI is quite a bit of a car. It is not outwardly sexy, but it is very appealing in the sort of way that you can count on it when everybody’s walking cold outside and you’ve got the heater working in a car that is 20 years old. It is with some amazement that things work at all in a car that is almost as old as me. The GTI too is widely known as a classless car, which means that even if you are the fruit seller from down the street or an investment banker from the City, you wouldn’t look out of place driving one. Now if that isn’t cool, I don’t know what is.

We consider two of the lineage’s six generations here, the MkII from the 1980s and the modern GTI that revived the nameplate’s glory, the MkV. It is widely known that the GTI has had quite a turbulent history, with some particular models in its range being sorely out of tune with the hot hatch world. The MkIII, for instance, gained a whole lot of weight over the MkII without having significantly more power; even the 16V version released in the early 1990s could not stop the slippery slide of the GTI into ‘average car’ territory. This is debatable, of course, but the general consensus is that the MkI/MkII GTIs were the original hot hatches that started it all, and the MkV the one that carried the baton off from there as the benchmark hot hatch.

For those not in the know, the MkII GTI is powered as standard by a 8V 1.8L engine. When new, the engine was good for about 112bhp, but getting into exacting figures for the car on the test would be nigh on impossible due to the car’s age, where a few horses would have been led astray with wear-and-tear. Although by modern standards the motor may appear to have rather lacklustre outputs, in the real world it counts for a lot when the car only weighs a tad below a ton. For the car that could probably match a lot of modern hot hatches, the 16V version is probably the one to go for with its relentless top end gunnery that still amazes many who have had seat time in it. In this test however, we went for the hugely popular 8V which was sold in far more numerous volumes and which would probably be an easier, more accessible used car prospect.

The MkV in comparison packed a lot more power and torque that continued on the tradition of forced induction starting from the MkIV GTI. The younger set of this world (me included) would usually think ‘turbocharged’ and ‘GTI’ on the same wavelength, but it would surprise more than a few that this is not the case until the MkIV.

The MkV has a 2.0L direct injection turbocharged engine that nearly puts out twice the power and torque of the MkII. It might seem like it’s clear who would be the winner here, but that’s definitely not the case as modernity has also made the MkV gain a lot more weight over the MkII. We all know how weight can stumble almost anything that moves, particularly anything that we also want to corner well. So, more power and more weight on the MkV – how different does it feel in the real world from the MkII?

Not as much as you would expect. Sitting in the MkII for the first time, you are immediately struck by how airy it feels. Visibility is particularly superb, with large, squarish windows that are easy to look out of. Sitting position is near perfect, which counts for something when the seats only have limited adjustment options. It has the much-loved tartan seats which still look new even with 96,000 miles of use, and access to the back seats is easy. The rear legroom is a surprise to anyone who has ever tried sitting behind, like GTIs of all generations. Who can also fault that wonderful golf ball gearstick, which is satisfying to shift even when fiddling with in the car park. The beauty of minimal electronics also shows in the MkII; there are no buttons on the steering wheel, no electric windows and seats, and in this particular example, no radio as well. It is simply a car that is to be driven. It’s easy to forget that when you step into the MkV, with a melange of buttons that do all things from controlling the temperature in 0.5C steps (do you really need this?) to switching on automatic wipers. They are nice to have, and I agree that some of these little robots would even be appreciated, but anything that distracts from driving is invited to stay unticked in the options list. That said, it is a pleasant surprise that the MkII has oil temperature, MPG and ambient temperature readouts. I’m sure people 20 years ago would have been very impressed indeed, because I am even in 2010.

The MkV’s interior in contrast feels luxurious, with its bolstered Recaro seats and thick steering wheel. It feels like everything has become more round and fat, which makes it feel a lot bigger and more difficult to look out of. In short, it just feels like a bigger car than the MkII, and by dimensions and weight it surely is. Yet, there is some familiarity to the MkII here as the car also has a great seating position, with the steering wheel and pedals at the right places. It is really a great precursor to a day of exhilarating driving.

Start the MkII and after a crank or two that suggests a sleepy engine, the engine catches and cycles at a higher idling speed than usual to warm up and let the essential liquids flow. After a while the exhaust note settles into a purposeful hum that immediately gives the car some attitude. It is certainly sporty, especially when backing off the throttle after giving it some stick, and the exhaust gurgles. It is not particularly melodious, but it’s rough, gruff and people would know you’re driving something angry. It’s something I struggle to hear in the MkV. In fact, I spend way too much of my time trying to hear the exhaust note of the MkV at all, because it is simply so refined and quiet in the cabin. Sometimes, I would resort to turning off the air-conditioning and winding down all the windows to get the first-class seats of the exhaust’s symphony (for a tropical climate, this means getting sweaty). And even then, it is still muted at best. Of course, you could go for aftermarket options if you so desire, but the car straight off the factory should have a little meanness as standard already. Refinement is a double-edged sword; it makes driving more comfortable, but it also numbs the experience.

The MkII made a trip to the Stonehenge in the United Kingdom recently, and parking at the foot of the mystical monument the car rests after giving a faultless, memorable drive down to southwest England. The combination of motorway miles and B-road jaunts gave the car a good workout. It wasn’t without hard work and determination that the car could even complete this trip. Just merely days ago, the car found itself at the workshop waiting for a head gasket replacement and a new clutch cable which snapped halfway while driving. The car had been in storage in derelict conditions for the past few years as I reasonably suspect, as while the condition looks great inside and out, the problems of the car started to pile up as it accrued more mileage. This can only mean that a car that is left undriven, having its parts not worn by use but by the elements. It is a process of restoration and renewal that is time-consuming and yet satisfying, and having brought the car to this stage so far has been nothing but joy. A new lease of life, you could say.

The trip to Stonehenge involved about 180 miles, carefully chosen not to be too far from help as the car has only been recently fixed. Moving out of Central London has always been a slow affair no matter which generation you’ve lived in, but at least it is not frustrating as the MkII has a delightfully light clutch that engages easily, although the clutch travel does seem a bit too long when it already bites much earlier than expected. The gearshifts are also delightful, bringing the car to the 30mph urban speed limit in no time with a cruise set on fourth. Much of the joy of driving has got to come from nailing a shift time and time again – something that is even more satisfying if mastered backwards, downshifting before a roundabout for instance.

Onto the motorway, the car is surprisingly quiet, although the exhaust has a rather boomy voice between 2,500-3000rpm which betrays all sense of refinement. The car is torquey enough to be kept in fifth on a lazy straight, although overtaking would probably require a downshift or two. The car is a fine cruiser, although you know that it would much prefer tackling the smaller roads. Which is of course, where I went to next.

I exited the M3 onto the A303, which was quiet given that it was still early in the morning on a Sunday. It was wide too, with two lanes on either side although it is still kept intimately snaking through the breathtaking scenery. The MkII must have enjoyed every single mile on this road as much as I did, because the car drove absolutely beautifully here. This model had the additional power steering and it was one of the first ones of its generation to do so. The steering was not hefty but not devoid of feel either; it is not the most direct steering rack around but is perfect for the potholed roads of Britain. Some play is allowed when the road gets uneven, allowing leeway when you get into trouble. The great visibility from the driver’s seat also gave a confidence boost, making sure that the car is made to use every available space on the road. It was a culmination of everything that made the MkII magic. It is not fast, but then you don’t have to go fast in the car to enjoy it. It is a bit like doing something slower so that you can take in more of what you’re doing in the first place. If you’re commuting on a train, you might see a blur of green, a glimpse of a shed or a lone dog. Take a walk instead, and you see tranquil forests, a shed serving hearty food and a shepard with his dog. Same with the MkII.

If I had taken the same route with the MkV, it would probably have been a very different experience, but still a GTI one nonetheless. Back to back, the MkV has a steering feels like nothing has changed in the years between them. Of course, the drivetrain is now totally different. The MkV is equipped with DSG, which allows the driver to be lazy. And on an early Sunday morning, I probably would be lazy. This is a bit of a problem because lazy people don’t really like to be put to work. In the MkV, you need to put in effort if you want to have more fun than just to go fast. It is easy to go fast in any car, just depress the pedal and depending on how powerful it is, you will eventually get to speed. But joy in driving is a lot deeper than that, it is a connection between driver and car that continually engages the senses. In that respect the MkV is affording you two possibilities – stay lazy and just leave it to shift by itself, where it would most probably stay in sixth most of the time. Or, take the car in your hands by using the paddle shifters and extracting some perfectly-timed and judged shifts from the excellent gearbox. In the MkV you have a choice to pot around effortlessly or have a blast; in the MkII your only option is the latter. The thing is, in these times when you need a car to appeal to more people to reel in the profits, the appeal of the MkV to both lazy and enthusiastic driver is understandable. But there is certainly more focus on driving and the driver in the MkII if I may be honest. Predictably, the outcome might have been quite different if the MkV was equipped with a manual gearbox.

The MkV is a whole lot faster than the MkII. Actually, in terms of speed it completely outclasses its older brother. It has a whole lot of low-end torque that contributes to the overall ‘lazy’ feeling of the car when left in D. It doesn’t encourage you to wring the engine to its redline, unlike the MkII (and especially in the 16V, I expect) which encourages more silly but enthusiastic gearchanges. Yet, some of the magic dust sprinkled over the MkII also made it in the MkV. Turn in is accurate and sharp in corners, the added power hiding the extra weight of the car and giving the car a lot more cross-country pace.  The damping is also well-judged, as in the MkII, soaking a lot of the road’s anger towards you and giving the car precise handling. Perhaps the defining character of the MkV is always engaging the ESP if you’re a bit too liberal with the throttle – it is always nearly a daily occurrence, while in the MkII you can confidently drive it hard without any unwarranted slip. Then again, the MkII has no ESP or ABS, so you’re all on your own – independence is no bad thing.

So much has been said of the two cars. Modernity is certainly tempting and the MkV is undoubtedly one of the best front drivers of its time. The MkII, on the other hand, shows that drivers back in the 80’s also had it good. I had thought that time would have given us a quantum leap in everything, including the way cars drive. But there is something warmly comforting that whether in 1990 or 2010, a GTI still drives like how it should. There are not many constants in the world today. Thank God for the GTI.


The only writer to be based in Asia, James provides a refreshingly different perspective to the automotive industry with his unique experience of living in the Far East. He is a prolific journalist who has written for several leading automotive publications in Singapore, including Torque Singapore and REV Magazine Singapore. He believes in the thrill of driving and champions for an appreciation of driving pleasure above the horsepower race. In September 2010, James relocated to the United Kingdom, London, bringing him to a whole new environment from which to start a new chapter in automotive journalism.

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  1. What a great editorial. A short time back I was
    entertaining the need for a city car as my daily driver is a 08
    corvette manual. I was seriously looking for a first generation GTI
    yet most were a little to rough. I enjoyed your editiorial. Thanks

  2. Thanks Jonathan. Hope you will be more inspired in getting an old-school GTI now!

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