Buyers Guide Volkswagen Golf GTI & VR6 Mk3
These Golfs might not have captured the hearts of enthusiasts but good ones can still entertain. Here’s how to buy the best of them.
BUYING GUIDE: Mk3 GOLF GTI & VR6
Still something of an undervalued gem in the GTI story, the Mk3 can be an easy modern classic to own.
Enthusiasts might debate about whether it was the first ‘hot hatchback’ but few would argue that the Golf GTI defined the genre. The first two generations quickly garnered a legion of devoted followers, so the third model needed to be good. Unfortunately, those fans – and some of the motoring press – were left somewhat underwhelmed. On the plus side it had grown a little which improved interior space, and you could pick from three or five-door flavours, but slotting the 8-valve 115bhp 2.0-litre engine under the bonnet of this heavier model meant that it lacked the sparkle promised by that famous badge.
And it didn’t help that many felt the Mk3 had taken a backward step when it came to solidity and quality. VW wasn’t deaf to the concerns and in January 1993 equipped the GTI with a 16-valve engine boasting a healthier 150bhp, resulting in much-improved performance. And speaking of which they’d go further still with the launch of the VR6.
In terms of outright shove, this was more like it — the narrow angle 2.8-litre motor produced 174bhp which was enough for 0-60mph in 7.4 seconds and 140mph (although the automatic added around a second to the benchmark sprint). Styling tweaks added further appeal, and there was plenty of standard kit with the plush Highline models benefitting from heated leather seats and the like. Returning to the GTI, VW shifted just shy of 40,000 examples which was notably less than previous generations, so they seem to have missed the mark. But almost 25 years after its demise perhaps we shouldn’t treat this model so harshly. There’s still fun to be had, and there’s always that VR6 if it’s maximum punch you want.
The earliest cars are now three decades old, meaning the spectre of corrosion is never far away, so unless you’re happy heading into project territory the bodywork requires plenty of attention. Concentrate on the lower areas and seams of the tailgate and doors and the leading edge of the bonnet, and you should also check around the front and rear screens. The sills are another risk area, while the plastic mouldings both there and around the wheelarches can hide galloping rot beneath — any bubbling around the edges should ring alarm bells. Jacking points can dissolve, too, and it’s advisable to check the A-pillars as rot could have spread from the front wings and sills.
We’d also look for corrosion in the cabin and boot floor (blocked sunroof drains won’t help here), along with the battery tray and suspension strut towers, and check around the sunroof opening as major rust here can be a pain to sort. Sagging doors aren’t unheard of, either. However, panels and repair sections – both new and repro – are available at reasonable prices.
All of this applies to the VR6, too, and both models need the usual checks for evidence of previous accident damage. And if you’re tempted by the six-pot is it really the desirable Highline model? They only came with Black or Mulberry paintwork, so check the V5 to be sure.
ENGINE AND GEARBOX
We’ll start with the GTI, and with the 2.0-litre engine a known quantity there’s nothing to faze a specialist or competent home mechanic. They were tough units to begin with and proper maintenance should keep them running sweetly, so it’s a matter of avoiding examples that have been neglected. A noisy top end or excessive exhaust smoke are obvious signs that all’s not well, but those issues aside you’ll want to see a history of regular oil changes (6000 miles is sensible) and a fresh cam belt at 40k miles. Elsewhere, fuel injection faults can lead to lumpy running and there’s the potential for ECU, relay and sensor problems that can require specialist diagnosis.
And watch for an unsteady idle caused by a failing Idle Control Valve; new ones are less than £80, although pricier for the VR6. Which brings us to that model, and you should approach these a bit more carefully. For one thing it’s prone to oil leaks – oil cooler pipework is a common culprit – and you’ll want to ensure the head gaskets haven’t been compromised. With alloy cylinder heads a healthy cooling system is paramount. Coolant strength must be correct; the plastic pipe at the front of the engine that goes to the thermostat can crack and the cooling fan switch/sender can fail. Be wary if you suspect previous overheating and consider upgrading the radiator and hoses.
Apart from the potential for a cylinder head overhaul at around 100k miles, the largest expense will be replacing the timing chains at the 80k-mile mark. If you can hear an obvious rattle at low to medium revs then replacement is due, and with the gearbox having to come out the bill can reach four figures. You can buy a kit for £200 but it’s not really a job for the inexperienced. As for the gearboxes the manual units are long-lasting unless abused, although high mileages will naturally raise the potential for bearing whine and weak synchromesh.
The linkages use rods or cables depending on model, and both can be overhauled to cure a sloppy gearshift. Clutch wear is always a concern on sporting hatches, so check for slippage; it makes sense to renew the VR6’s item while the gearbox is out for timing chain replacement. If you prefer that model’s automatic ‘box then refreshing the fluid and filter is a wise move, and check for jerky shifts on the move.
SUSPENSION, BRAKES AND STEERING
Both models use a thoroughly conventional suspension set-up, so there’s nothing to unduly concern potential buyers. It’s mainly going to be a case of checking that wear and tear hasn’t left the car ready for an overhaul, and while there’s nothing too difficult in terms of work – apart from replacing rear axle bushes which requires a special tool – the costs will soon add up.
In terms of specific issues, we’d focus on checking for wear in the front strut top mounts and for any corrosion around mounting points, although this latter should be rare. The brakes are similarly conventional, although care is needed to ensure that ABS problems aren’t lurking somewhere so make sure that the warning light illuminates and extinguishes correctly at startup; items such as the pump or ECU can be repaired by specialists at a reasonable cost.
Rear calipers can stick on littleused examples but there’s less little else to worry about, and replacing discs/pads isn’t costly. A PAS pump or rack that’s leaking are about the only steering issues you’re likely to encounter. Lastly, suspension and brake upgrades aren’t uncommon so ensure you know what’s been done.
TRIM AND ELECTRICS
With even the newest examples approaching 25 years old it’d be reasonable to expect the cabins to be showing some wear, or perhaps signs of previous refurbishment. Threadbare seat facings and damaged bolsters are the commonest issues, and while a competent trimmer can sort things you’ll need to budget accordingly. Most VR6s got leather upholstery so look for damage or clumsy attempts at repair, and if heated seats are fitted check they still work; replacing the elements isn’t straightforward and failed items have probably been ignored. And if you’re a stickler for originality see if the interior’s been cut-about for speakers and the like.
Unfortunately, the cabin electrics aren’t quite as robust as you’d hope so you’ll want to check it all works. Air-bag faults, failed window regulators and temperamental heater controls aren’t uncommon, and ensure that the trip computer on a VR6 still works as it should. Replacing a leaking heater matrix requires dash removal, and check that factory-fitted or aftermarket alarms and immobilisers aren’t on the blink. The good news is that there’s a decent supply of used parts for these models, so trim and electrical issues needn’t be a deal-breaker.
While values have risen over the years it’s been fairly gradual, and while the earlier generations of GTI continue to command the best money the model here has remained temptingly affordable. £1000-£2000 is where the cars in need of plenty of TLC can be found, but paying closer to £3500 will bag something nicer that can be used and improved.
The 8V models top-out at around £5000, with £8000 enough for the best 16v cars. As for the VR6, while the classifieds aren’t exactly awash with them there’s a reasonable choice, and prices for a project start at around £2000 – if you can find one. Doubling that budget gets a tidy, usable example with £6000 enough for a nice car with a sub-100k mileage. As with the 16v GTI £8000 is pretty much the upper ceiling for the smartest ones, which still represents cracking value for something so capable.
EV SAYS… Andrew Evanson Senior Operations Manager at Lancaster Insurance Services, says: “The Mk3 is a cert for future classic status and they’re really affordable still.”
Paul Wager, Group Editor Mk4 Golf GTI If you can't fi nd a decent Mk3 and the Mk2 is starting to look a bit costly, then jump the queue and go straight for the Mk4. The bog-standard GTI was rather underwhelming but the later 1.8 turbo is great fun with plenty of scope for performance upgrades too.
Dave Youngs, Lancaster Insurance Seat Ibiza GTI Sticking with the VW Group but with a dose of Mediterranean brio, the Ibiza in 16-valve GTI form is a hoot, living up to the VW's positioning as a ‘Spanish Alfa Romeo’. Get the trademark bright green and it's defi nitely not just like a Golf…
The VR6 is subtle but effective – and the rarer car today. Some say the Mk3's trim isn't as robust as earlier generations, but it's still far more solid than any of the French rivals. The 150bhp 16-valve engine is the one to go for. Body panel and trim availability remains good for the Mk3.
Quotation supplied by Lancaster Insurance
• 1994 Golf GTI, value £4000: £127.75 or £145.75 with Agreed Value
• Based on 45-year old, with a second vehicle. It’s garaged, covers 3000 miles a year and lives in an SP2 postcode. They have no claims or convictions, are a club member, and are employed as a marketing manager.
Disclaimer: Policy benefits, features and discounts offered may vary between insurance schemes or cover selected and are subject to underwriting criteria. An additional charge may be payable.
• Subject to underwriting criteria.
www.lancasterinsurance.co.uk 01480 809176
- MODEL GTI 8V GTI 16V VR6
- ENGINE 1984cc 1984cc 2792cc
- POWER (BHP/RPM) 115/5400 150/6000 174/5800
- TOP SPEED 122mph 134mph 140mph
- 0-60MPH 9.8secs 8.0secs 7.4secs
- ECONOMY 37mpg 32mpg 31mpg
- GEARBOX 5-spd manual 5-spd manual 5-spd manual
- LENGTH 4013mm 4013mm 4013mm
- WIDTH 1711mm 1711mm 1711mm
- WEIGHT 1035kg 1090kg 1155kg