Owner Review

2003 Volkswagen Golf GTi review

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As a teenager, it seems few things actually matter in life – having a ‘fully sick’ turbocharged car is one of the few things you think actually does matter.

Here in South Australia, as well as in a number of other states, turbocharged cars were outlawed for P-platers because, it's believed, that tiny little bit of boost was too much for the small minds and feeble hands of rookie drivers to manage.

There was, until the laws were altered slightly in recent years, only two ways to get around it – buy a first-gen Subaru Forester GT with a big bonnet-scoop or a subtle and understated Mk4 Golf GTI. That second option is certainly the best way to fly under the radar of the polizei.

For just under a year now, I’ve owned a 2003 GTI. I picked it up at the age of 19 on Christmas Eve of 2015 for just over five grand, which is a bargain for what is still a good little hatchback, though one that is, in retrospect, unloved by GTI fans. Some even dub it the worst GTI ever!

The bit that’s important to teenagers is under the bonnet, a somewhat stupidly over-engineered 1.8L turbocharged four-pot with five valves per cylinder, connected to a five-speed manual box which sends power to the front wheels through a well-sorted locking differential.

While you might be able to brag to your mates in shopping centre carparks at 8pm about how you do have a turbocharged car, just remember it is a miniscule turbo on this engine, namely a BorgWarner K03 producing a boost figure no one is really certain about. Let’s just call it 7psi because that’s what it feels like.

On the inside, you get some body-hugging Recaro seats, and that’s about it. It’s a sparse interior, but this was 2003 after all, and technically 1999 since the Mk4 was largely unchanged throughout the course of its run.

The GTI does have a few niceties though, such as an adequate trip computer, automatic climate control, and an optional sunroof. You could also option heated leather seats and traction control, which I don’t have and wouldn’t have wanted.

You also get seats that fold almost flat in the back, making for great cargo-carrying capacity, which is something I require.

I can’t avoid the fact there are a lot of rattles and squeaks. Some I have been able to fix quite easily, such as the glovebox which had a loose screw, but others like the door card and sunroof cover when in the fully open position, persist with their annoying rattle.

But it’s behind the wheel where this car shines. Starting at the wheel, the steering is incredibly precise. It's heavy in comparison to the electric power steering on most modern cars, but that makes it so much better when you’re going for a spirited drive, as you likely will a lot with any GTI.

The ride is what one would call 'sporty', which means it doesn't ride like a Bentley, but it does keep it incredibly flat through corners. The cheap upgrade of Powerflex polyurethane sway bar D-bushes I put on mine help even more in terms of handling.

Wrapping those BBS Montreal wheels in some quality rubber is another worthwhile upgrade. My personal pick would be the Michelin Pilot Sport 3.

You really do feel one with the car when you're in the body-hugging driver's seat, feeling all of the sensations through the steering wheel, the pedals, the gearstick, and your bum.

It might not be that quick but it does have great pickup with peak torque of 210Nm coming on from just 1750rpm. The five cogs are all evenly spaced as well, and changing gears at 4500rpm means you can keep it right at the top of the boost curve – the boost runs out well before the 6500rpm redline.

Speaking of the gearbox, it really does feel bulletproof. With almost 230,000kms on my car, all of the synchros still feel like they are in great nick, with every change smooth and slick. The clutch is quite heavy though, which I personally like, but it will mean every mechanic who takes it for a test drive after fixing something usually stalls it.

And speaking of mechanics, find a good one, because you’ll need them with this. It’s at that age where things go wrong a lot, as I have found out the hard way.

In summary, I think some calling it the worst GTI ever, is I think, going too far. Sure, it’s not the most reliable car, the interior rattles are irritating, and the lack of equipment essentially leaves me in the dark ages, but it does drive incredibly well.

Most importantly though, it's mine and I love it.