Three GTI Cars Battle to Be Hot Hatch King
During the end of the 1970s, the sports car was dying. Labor woes and stale designs hindered sales of quintessential British sports cars like the MGB and Spitfire. Meanwhile in the US, the bloated Corvette wasn’t exactly carrying the flame.
Affordable, sporty driving found an unlikely savior in the Volkswagen Golf GTI. With stiffer springs, a fuel-injected, rev-happy engine and a few bits of black trim, VW created a cult classic. The “hot hatch” genre was born and would continue to grow in popularity. By the late 1980s it was in full swing.
In fact, in 1989, car buyers who were shopping for cheap thrills had their choice of three GTIs: the original VW Golf GTI was available along with the now iconic Peugeot 205 GTI, and the featherweight Suzuki Swift GTi was sparkling in showrooms as well (the lower case ‘i’ was part of an unsuccessful attempt to keep VW from suing over the name). Though all three cars shared a common name, each front-drive boxes of fun hailed from three different countries and showcased three very different approaches to creating entertaining, yet functional front-drive transportation.
Volkswagen Golf GTI
Let’s start with the original, shall we? By 1989 the beloved VW Golf was in its second iteration as one of the world’s most popular hatchbacks. Weighing in at just over 2,100 pounds, the Golf was the heaviest of the three, and with the optional 1.8-liter, 16-valve engine making 139 horsepower, it’s also the most powerful. The second generation Golf was more complacent and livable than its forbearer. The stripped out, puppy-on-wheels ethos of the old MKI was still apparent in the MKII, but it had matured and become more refined with age. For better or worse, the Golf GTI was growing up.
Suzuki Swift GTi
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum from the relatively buttoned-down Golf GTI, was that twin cam, tin-can bottle rocket that was the Swift GTi. The Swift was a 1,600-pound featherweight which allowed its modest 100 horsepower output to propel it quite swiftly indeed. All this was made possible by a pronounced lack of luxuries. Sound deadening was minimal, interior panels were plain and crude, and painted metal was visible in many places within the cabin. This consequently made the Swift an absolute hoot to toss about on tight roads or weave through traffic.
Go-kart-like handling is one of the most overused clichés in automotive journalism, but here it really is quite apt. Drivers sat on the GTi rather than in it, and with a chunky, three-spoke steering wheel right between your knees it easily conjured memories of childhood go-karts. However, most owners treated their GTis like their childhood toys of old, which means that today the Swift is a very rare bird indeed.
Peugeot 205 GTI
Unlike the relatively obscure Swift GTi, the Peugeot 205 GTI is revered as one of the all-time great hot hatches. Powered by a 129 horsepower 1.9 and weighing 1,900 pounds, it’s the middleweight of this comparison. The 205 GTI was also arguably the prettiest car in this grouping. While the Golf and Swift’s boxy lines comprised a traditional hatchback shape, the 205 had a bit more flair to its design and features like the strakes above the rear wheels to add some visual interest.
The little Pug was also quite interesting to drive—its nimble nature and short wheelbases meant that over-enthusiastic drivers often had a bout with lift-off oversteer. This behavior combined with the young and exuberant nature of the average 205 GTI buyer meant that a fair bit of these French flyers met their demise far too early at the hands of a sturdy tree. But when driven with respect for its limits, the 205 was a joy. Its light curb weight rewarded drivers with some of the best front-drive dynamics of all time.
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Today, the 1989 versions of these cars are 24 years old, meaning that next year they will be eligible for import into the United States. Cars from the ‘80s are becoming increasingly sought after—one look at E30 M3 values can tell you that.Twenty-four years after they were released on the market, which is the GTI to have? All deliver classic hot-hatch driving experiences but each in a distinctly different way. Would you choose the original character of the Golf, go for cheap thrills with the Swift, or take a chance with a French icon? Make your opinion heard in the comments below.