Used Car Review: The 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI

Used Car Review: The 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI

Ryan Tomas, Staff Auto Reviewer

From the outside, this Volkswagen Rabbit GTI just looks like a 1980s economy hatchback, nothing special. Under the hood is a four-cylinder engine without a turbo, nothing special. It’s just a small, square, European car with vinyl stripes. It looks like it could have been a Volvo. Yet the Rabbit GTI was a fast car in its day, being able to beat some muscle cars at the time. How is this possible? It’s just an economy car, not a sports car. But that’s exactly what Volkswagen wanted you to think.

One of the factors is the absence of power steering. This very direct and mechanical steering is tight and responsive, being able to transmit the road surface feel and behavior of the tires directly to your hands. This also saves weight and takes less power from the engine. Next is the throttle. Modern cars have throttle plates that are electronically controlled by sensors on the pedal. In the GTI, there is a metal cable that runs from the end of the accelerator pedal right to the throttle plate in the engine. This gives you great feel and predictability of how the engine will respond to your foot. The transmission is a five-speed manual, of course, but the gears are set so that the engine is never out of its powerband in the first three, but able to cruise at highway speeds in fifth. The engine is all analog, using mechanical fuel injection, so it will be very reliable as long as you don’t tamper with it. ‘More than the sum of its parts’ couldn’t be more fitting for this car.

The Rabbit drives great under normal urban conditions. It’s small, so it can fit in tight parking spaces and slip through slim gaps. The engine is smooth and the clutch is light and easy to use. As long as you aren’t afraid to use the car, it can keep up with modern traffic. It’s also practical, being able to hold four people and a backpack for each. The rear seats fold down which doubles the cargo space. All of this practicality is just due to it being a Rabbit, the GTI part is what makes this car special.

GTI is the sport option available for all VW Rabbits and Golfs since 1975. The GTI package gives the Rabbit tighter suspension, more power, and a closer-ratio transmission. It weighs about 1,750 pounds, so the tires aren’t under much load. This makes the car handle well without having wide, sticky tires that eat up fuel economy. This also makes it possible to use less horsepower, because they have less weight to pull around.

This car is very fun to drive. The steering always is communicating with your hands. The shift action is quick and satisfying. The whole car feels like one of your own appendages, an extension of your body. There aren’t any computers here to spoil the fun of driving, it is just you and the car. The 1.8 liter, K-Jetronic fueled, 95 horsepower engine doesn’t need to be revved out to gain access to most of the power. This makes driving fun without having to shift as often. The suspension is low and tight, and it tells you about the road through your seat. It will let you know how much traction the car has, all of the bumps in the road, and even where the weight of the car is. If you are going around a left-hand hairpin, you can feel the right front tire load up through the steering wheel and your seat. You can have so much fun and feel like you are going really fast without breaking any laws.

The only single problem with this car is availability. The Rabbit GTI was only sold in the US for two years, and those that are left are very rarely unmodified or unwrecked. Thankfully, the later 1985-1992 MK2 golf GTI is much more available and offers a similar experience.

Overall the VW Rabbit GTI is a very fun and practical car that you can use every day, as long as you can find one.