Retro review: 2003 Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk4

Rory White

16 Sep 2021

1/7
Is 'the worst Golf GTI' still feeling quite so portly in 2021? We got behind the wheel of one on UK roads to find out.

Following a class-defining first release, a difficult but successful second album, yet a mediocre third, Volkswagen had its work cut out to get buyers back on side with the fourth generation of its Golf GTI.


Unfortunately, while the standard Mk4 Golf family hatch was a solid car, the supposedly spicier Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk4 proved less convincing from the off.


However, while the Mk4 got off to a slow start (literally) it did improve over its life. Here, we're driving one of the last ever produced and thus probably the best a Mk4 GTI can be.


Let's see if it's still quite so average.


Design


There was much frowning in 1997, mainly because the Mk4 Golf GTI was revealed and it looked, err, bloated.


After the brilliantly angular first and second generations, then more muted third-gen GTI, the Mk4 was VW's chance to turn things around and really win back GTI fans.


Instead, it was barely possible to distinguish a GTI from the rest of the Golf range. Just some smoked rear lights, subtle GTI badging and alloy wheels gave the game away. Although next to some of today's garish hot hatches, you could argue it's now looking much better.


Even so, our car is a late 2003 model with optional 17-inch alloys, and in its Reflex Silver metallic paint it could, quite frankly, be just about any other Mk4 Golf.


To some, that'll be a draw, but we'd like just a little more drama. That said, there is the 25th Anniversary Edition introduced in 2001 which came with BBS alloy wheels and a more aggressive body kit, making it easily the most desirable Mk4 GTI out there.


Interior


Inside, our car has optional leather seats and faux wood dash and door trim, making it feel more luxurious than sporty inside, truth be told.


Still, the Mk4's interior is bland but brilliantly built. The switches feel extremely solid and nothing rattled on our car, despite it having been assembled some 18 years ago. VW spent a lot of money developing the Mk4 Golf and it shows.


It also feels genuinely modern. The ergonomics are good, the front seats get standard lumbar adjustment, there's climate control, remote locking is present and correct and the Mk4 Golf was the first car to get Isofix mounting points for child seats in the rear.


OK, so it doesn't have Apple CarPlay, but there is a single CD Player, tape player and radio to keep you entertained.


On the road


So, the Mk4 Golf GTI is dull to look at but well made and thought-out inside. But what about the way it drives?


VW introduced the Mk4 GTI with a non-turbo 1.8-litre petrol making 125hp or a turbo version of the same engine making 150hp. Both were pretty tame, but when VW later swapped the entry-level 125hp 1.8 for a 115hp 2.0-litre, people were left scratching their heads.


Y'see, that's pretty much the same power as the original Golf GTI, but with nearly 50% more weight. Performance was always going to be an issue for the Mk4.


Thankfully, later on, VW introduced a 180hp turbo 1.8, which is the one we're driving here. It's by no means rapid – officially 0-62mph takes 7.9 seconds and 138mph is where things finish.



However, a slick manual gearbox with six speeds and a stout mid-range with the turbocharger on song means there's definitely enjoyment to be had should you get the revs right.


And let us not forget, while the Mk4 GTI seemed heavy in the late 1990s, it's actually nearly 200kg lighter than the current Mk8 GTI.


This could have resulted in a properly fun little hatchback, if the Mk4 GTI wasn't quite so soft. It leans quite a bit in bends, allows lots of vertical movement over crests and its overly-light power steering never really gives you the confidence you'd like in the front tyres.


As such, the Mk4 GTI feels happier at eight-tenths, and actually makes a comfortable and quiet cruiser that has a little spice in reserve when you need it. At least in this later 180hp form.


Verdict


It certainly isn't the best Golf GTI then, the Mk4, and it probably is the worst of them too.


Even so, in the context of where we are today, there's still plenty to enjoy about its minimalist interior, great visibility, relatively low weight and mid-range urgency, even if there's plenty to pull it up on at the same time.


The advice is still to avoid the 115hp and 125hp models and go for a 150hp or (ideally) 180hp model if you can.


Best of all, go for the more visually appealing and limited edition 25th Anniversary model and you may even find you make a few quid down the line in the process.



Facts and figures


Model tested: 2003 VW Golf GTI Mk4

Price new in 2003: £17,715

Price today after inflation: £28,643

Engine: 1.8-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol

Transmission: six-speed manual, front-wheel drive

Power/Torque: 180hp/235Nm

0-62mph: 7.9 seconds

Top speed: 138mph


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