The GTI badge has commonly been used in the same sentence as Volkswagen, Golf and sometimes Peugeot if you’re lucky. An acronym for ‘Grand Tourer Injection’, the badge has been glued to the rear bumpers of numerous hot hatches during the 1980s and 90s and still denotes performance variants of certain car families to this day. From quintessential French hatchbacks to thoroughbred Italian grand tourers, let’s take a look at potentially the greatest cars to have earned the GTI badge.
The first car to ever exploit the now legendary badge, this beautifully-crafted Maserati is a straight-six stunner that has become frighteningly valuable in its old age. Built between 1957 to 1964, the 3500 GT used a 3.5-litre treble-carburetted engine that produced 217bhp – not too shabby for the 1950s.
However, the Maserati engineers soon set to work completely changing the Italian car industry by producing the 3500 GTi, the first ever production car from Italy to feature fuel injection. This leap in technology brought with it a power hike up to 232bhp, which in a two-door coupe weighing 1380kg made for the most capable of grand tourers, rivalling the style and presence of the British competition, the Aston Martin DB5.
This plucky B-road benchmark put Peugeot’s hot hatches at the forefront of any 80s and 90s teenager’s mind. Found in 1.6 and 1.9-litre form, the striped bodywork has implanted on the minds of current middle-aged petrolhead dads undergoing their statutory midlife crisis, resulting in prices rising as the little Pug begins to reach genuine classic status. The smaller engine in the earlier car is known to be livelier due to the shorter stroke, but the larger 1.9-litre variant is where the real torque can be found.
The dynamic prowess of the 205’s chassis resulted in the production of the successful Group B T16 rally car that went on to win the 1984 and 1985 World Rally Championships. With 200 road-going T16s produced to meet the criteria for WRC entry, the homologated cars had around 200bhp – half of the competition-spec rally monsters but 74bhp over and above the standard 126bhp 1.9 GTI. Unfortunately, the later UK-spec GTIs had to be modified to meet emissions regulations enforced by a catalytic converter which docked power slightly to 122bhp due to the added restriction.
Take the N14 Nissan Pulsar from the early 90s and slap on a large bonnet scoop and rear wing and you have yourself a perfect recipe to add a sweet performance engine to. Nissan obliged using the turbocharged SR20DET powerplant shared with the 180SX, 200SX and Silvia models to make yet another morsel of JDM goodness. Used as a homologated platform to meet Group A WRC standards, the GTI-R had serious sleeper potential, being capable of the sprint to 60mph in around five seconds thanks to 227bhp and all-wheel drive.
With the stock intercooler placed atop the engine to be fed by the bonnet scoop, a popular mod is to move the heat exchanger to a front mount position, increasing the efficiency of the airflow through its fins and naturally decreasing the inlet air temperature. Bleed valves and boost controllers are a common route to increase power from the GTI-R also. This is especially popular in Europe where the ECU used a less-powerful engine map to compensate for the lower octane fuel entering the cylinders compared to native Japanese petrol.
After the uninspiring effort that was the Mk IV, Volkswagen rallied itself with an instant classic through the chubby yet quietly capable Mk V. Sharing a chassis with the Audi A3, TT and Skoda Yeti of the time, the Golf GTI featured an eager 2.0-litre turbocharged inline-four engine.
With 197bhp on tap and the option of a six-speed manual or DSG automatic ‘box, the MkV made the petrolhead world rejoice, knowing that the Golf GTI was back on track after a rocky decade or so. Despite the VR6-powered Golf R32 taking things a step further in performance terms, the GTI is still revered as the greatest car to use the MkV platform. For this reason, it would be a solid purchase for anyone looking for the next appreciating hot hatch, particularly in Edition 30 form.
Probably one of the only cool Rovers, the 220 GTi Turbo used the Honda Civic-based Rover 200 chassis along with a brutish body kit to appeal to a younger demographic. Utilising the Rover T-Series engine coupled with a small turbocharger, the three-door coupe produced a respectable 197bhp and a 0-60mph time of just 6.4 seconds.
This little piece of British hoonery is now an extremely rare sight on the roads due to only around 500 cars being built. Some have speculated that an MG badge on the bonnet would have created much more demand for the torquey four-cylinder coupe.
Although it is often heavily-overshadowed by the desirable 205 GTI, the 306 GTI-6 was yet another performance variant somehow conjured from Peugeot’s array of docile hatchbacks. With the ‘-6’ signifying an upgrade to a six-speed transmission, this hardcore 306 featured a fettled version of the 205 GTI’s 1.9-litre four-pot powertrain. Bored out to 2.0-litres and emitting 167bhp, the GTI-6 also employed a chassis keen for lift-off oversteer, continuing the trend from the lesser-engined 205.
Peugeot quickly stripped any unnecessary luxuries from the GTI-6 to form the effortlessly-cool 306 Rallye that was built specifically for the UK market. These lightened special editions are tough to find in anything other than crusty condition, but a solid specimen should fetch up to £8000 in today’s future classic-obsessed marketplace.
Have we missed out any all-time GTI greats? Does the Lupo GTI stand above its legendary Golf brother in your eyes? Or does the 106 GTi deserve some recognition? Comment below with your thoughts!