1991 Volkswagen Golf 1.8 Driver Automatic Mk2

1991 Volkswagen Golf 1.8 Driver Automatic Mk2

In the first of our new Road test series, we try out a mid-range model from Volkswagen's Mk2 Golf family.


Classic Road Test

The first in a new series of road tests looksat a Mk2 VW Golf Driver automatic.

Volkswagen introduced their first Golf in 1974, and it arguably saved the company. Up to that point VW had been largely relying on the Beetle to keep it afloat, but that had become a classic in its own lifetime and a replacement was long overdue. The Golf was so dramatically different with its crisp, angular styling and water-cooled engine driving the front wheels that it could all have gone horribly wrong, but the basic concept was spot on while the engineering and build quality were both exemplary and VW never looked back.

1991 Volkswagen Golf 1.8 Driver Automatic Mk2

The Golf nameplate is still on sale and currently in its eight generation, which was introduced in 2019. For Classics Monthly it is the Mk1 (1974- 1983) and the Mk2 (1983- 1991) that are of real interest, though the convertible Mk3 is already nudging at the door of classic status. And while everybody gushes over the GTI versions, there are many options further down the food chain that can give just as much pleasure, if not quite the same turn of speed.

1991 Volkswagen Golf 1.8 Driver Automatic Mk2

It is just such a car that we have on test today, a Driver from close to the end of Mk2 production. As such it had most of the styling cues of the GTI and some little added luxuries, but a carburettor-fed engine with only eight valves. It belongs to Jaime-Lea Roberts, and is used today in exactly the same way that it would have been used from new – as daily family transport.

1991 Volkswagen Golf 1.8 Driver Automatic Mk2 - interior

As you approach the Golf, first impressions are that it is a small car by modern standards, not tiny by any means, but certainly compact. In fact it is 180mm longer and 55mm wider than the Mk1, but each successive generation of any car always seems to gain a little extra bulk – the latest Golf is a full 264mm longer than the Mk2, 105mm wider and 85mm higher. For me though, the Mk2 hits a sweet spot and its proportions are spot on. I even prefer the rounded corners of the Mk2 to the more angular lines of the Mk1, a view that may be not to all tastes but which is my take.

There is a distinct lack of chrome, but plenty of black trim which is so very much of its era and looks really good against the bright red paint. Being a 1991 car it has no quarterlights (lost in a 1987 update) and the biggerbumpers that were fitted from 1989. Being a Driver model, it also has a sliding metal sunroof and a slatted grille with twin headlights. Post-1990 cars like this also got the plastic arch trims blending into the black rubbing strips more commonly found on the GTI.

There is plenty of glass area, but the big and chunky C-posts do look like they could seriously affect your rear 3/4 vision. You can see easily across the roof, a reminder of just how tall and gangly the current crop of SUVs has become. The compact external dimensions belie the amount of space on the inside, though.

1991 Volkswagen Golf 1.8 Driver Automatic Mk2 - engine

Sit in the back and there is plenty of leg room and great visibility out. Again, it is a reminder of the foolish styling trends of modern cars with their steeply rising waistlines that may look dramatic from the outside, but end up leaving rear seat passengers feeling claustrophobic and travel sick. This is a proper family car – it can take plenty of people away and nobody really gets shortchanged by sitting in the back.

In the front there is plenty of headroom again, despite the presence of the sliding sunroof. The bonnet drops away quite sharply at the front compared to cars of just a few years earlier, but generally the four corners are easily visible, partly because the seating position is reasonably high. The dash sits well away from you, a flat face that differs so markedly from the swooping, curvy affairs that came in later – I'm thinking particularly of the new Beetle here, a car which seems to have a mile of dash between you and the screen. Partly that feeling of space is a result of the simple dash design, but it also helps that the Golf's screen is really rather upright The screen pillars are nice and thin to aid visibility and a feeling of spaciousness, unencumbered by the need to accommodate air bags. All in all the glass area to the front and the sides is superb and gives cracking visibility, while the rear window is big too so there is decent vision in that direction whether using the mirror or turning your head for low-speed manoeuvres. The C-pillars are not nearly as bad as I had expected, certainly not enough to translate into any serious visibility issues on the move. With such huge glass areas everywhere else and decent mirrors, it is just a matter of staying aware of the traffic around you and not then getting surprised to find at the last minute during a manoeuvre that somebody has been hiding in your blind spot. And that, of course, is just basic road craft.

1991 Volkswagen Golf 1.8 Driver Automatic Mk2

The seats are on the firm side, not rock hard like Mercedes seats of the era and not squishy armchairs such as you'd find on an equivalent French car, but comfortable and supportive, ones you could sit on all day long without any problem. This car has manual windows, which is fine by me. Some models got electric windows, and that does have the added advantage of allowing you to adjust all four windows around the car from the driver's seat to manage airflow and avoid any helicoptering noise, but manual winders do give less to go wrong.

I have to declare an interest in that my mum had a Golf Mk2 CL from about 1987 until 2000 or so, and I did a lot of miles in that car. Like this one it was an automatic, which I never had a problem with because it was such a smooth and seamless operator. Before buying that car we did try out another whose autobox was constantly shifting around trying to find the right ratio, so I'm keen to find out whether that CL we bought was a one-off or typical of the breed.

Sitting in the driver's seat, the layout all comes back to me without conscious thought. The steering wheel is much thicker than it would have been on a classic from even just a few years earlier, but at least it is not festooned with buttons. That simple dash has big icons on the switches so you can tell at a glance which does what. There is a physical push required to rock each one on and off, and the switch stays in a different position for each state, so much easier to operate without taking your eyes off the road than the tiny push-on/push-off buttons on so many modern cars.

The heater is a masterpiece of simplicity too, just two sliders – one for direction and one for heat. There is a three-speed fan switch next to it and that is your lot, but who really needs more? After all, zoned heating in a small closed space such as a car is a bit of a nonsense. Does anybody really think heated or cooled air from one place will not mix with the rest of the air in the cabin?

The other controls are equally basic – two chunky stalks for indicators on the left and wipers on the right, plus a horn push in the centre of the wheel where it belongs. There is a rear screen demist and fog light switch on the left along with three dummy switches on the row beneath, reminding us of just how few toys most cars came with as standard back then. On the other side you have the lights and another dummy switch. There is also a radio cassette in this car; remember those...?

The engine starts instantly as you would expect. There is no manual choke to deal with, that job being taken care of automatically. The 1984 car I used to drive didnot have power steering and could feel quite heavy on the move. It is amazing how much muscle memory you retain after some 20+ years because I expected this one to feel the same and oversteered into my first serious turn, not realising that by this time the Golf had hydraulic power steering! The assistance is enough to help, but without making it overly light in the manner of a 1960s Jaguar. On the move it feels unobtrusive enough.

The gearbox is indeed an absolute treat, suggesting that our earlier car was typical of the breed. A lot of people might shy away from an automatic, perhaps after previous experience of something like a Borg Warneror an AP unit. To be fair both of those would have been designed in a different era, but I have driven countless cars fitted with such self-shifters and never found one that changes seamlessly or doesn't chunter impatiently when stopped at the lights. This VW box in contrast is exactly as an automatic should be – you don't give it a second thought, you simply stick the centrally-mounted T-handle in D and off you go. It has no flat spots, no clunks, no hesitation when selecting ratios, it just gets on with the job. The brakes are servo'd discsup front and as you would expect from a car of this era, they are perfectly reassuring in action with a nicely progressive feel through the pedal telling you exactly what is going on. The car is not a road-burner, but if you want one of those you get a GTI. Just using modest pressure on the accelerator takes the revs up to 3500rpm before the gearbox changesup, which is fine. You can push it harder if you want, and with your foot buried a little deeper into the carpet it will hold a gear to 4500rpm without any strain. The red line is at 6000rpm so you could hold it back for longer, but there isn't generally much point because you are already past the point of maximum torque and the power peaks at 5200rpm.

There is a little bit of wind noise, not MGB levels but certainly not silent. Passing through a village, the great visibility and compact dimensions make it very easy to pilot between the parked cars and oncoming traffic, but when we exit the built-up area it is just as comfortable cruising at the legal limit. All in all there is a solid reassurance about this car which suggests you could drive it across Europe with confidence and get out without feeling unduly stressed. Indeed, I have done that in the past.

Exiting the village and the 30mph zone via a steep hill, the 1.8-litre engine pulls the Golf effortlessly upwards. By the time I am cruising at 60mph, the engine is spinning at an unstressed 3000rpm. The roads I am on are fairly bumpy, but there is enough give in the suspension and the high profile tyres to cope with poor surfaces whilst at no point feeling loose or wallowy.

I am sure that if you took it out on track then the ultimate shortcomings would soon become apparent, but on the road it is a great all-rounder. This car has only got some 50,000 miles on the clock, which probably helps with its tautness and lack of creaks and rattles – 50k is just about run in for a VW of this era – but gliding through some sweeping curves, it occurs to me that 'composed' is the key word to everything it does. There is nothing flamboyant at all about the car, especially in this spec, but that is a statement of fact rather than a criticism. When considering its classic credentials, you will have to decide whether you are comfortable with that. Yet despite being so effortless to drive and so quietly competent, the Golf does still feel special to me. I think the squared-off dash has a big part to play in that feeling, reminding you that the basic architecture dates back to the Mk1 Golf and the 1970s. And that is not just me being sentimental, because I was amazed at how many people smiled or waved as I drove past. I guess this era of Golf was part of our street furniture for so long, and that has its own appeal – you might not get the instant wow factor, but you will certainly get 'Ooohs' and 'Ahhhs' from people who remember them. And even though the Mk2 is bigger and heavier than the Mk1, it is still small, light and relatively basic. In contrast, I happened to park it next to a 69-plate Golf. The owner of that came out, blipped to unlock the central locking and I watched as the mirrors – which had been folded in – automatically returned to their driving positions. On this Mk2 the mirrors are adjusted from the inside, but manually via cables. There are manually adjusted seats too, even a winding handle for the sunroof. All in all it has everything you need, and not much you don't need.

In fact, that sums up the Mk2 Golf very nicely. It might not look an ancient car, but nor does it look like a new one. It also makes you feel that you are driving it without having everything done for you. I think that's brilliant.

With thanks to Jaime-Lea for kindly loaning us her VW Golf for this feature.

TECHNICAL DATA1991 Volkswagen Golf 1.8 Driver Automatic Mk2

  • ENGINE: ....................................1781cc inline 4-cyl OHC
  • MAX POWER:… 90bhp @ 5200rpm
  • MAX TORQUE:… 106lb.ft @ 3300rpm
  • GEARBOX:… Three-speed automatic
  • BRAKES:.............................Front discs/rear drums, servo
  • SUSPENSION:. Independent by MacPherson strut (front)Semi-independent (rear)
  • ACCELERATION 0-62MPH:… 12.7 sec (manual) / 13.5 sec (automatic)
  • TOP SPEED:.........................................107mph (manual) / 105mph (automatic)
  • LENGTH:...........................................................4020mm
  • WIDTH: .............................................................1690mm
  • HEIGHT:… 1425mm
  • WEIGHT:… 1084kg

The Mk2 hits a sweet spot and its proportions are spot on. I even prefer its rounded corners to the more angular lines of the Mk1

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