The MkIV VW Golf GTI Is Better Than You Think

While there are some underwhelming versions of the MkIV GTI out there, it's a fine thing in the right spec...
The MkIV VW Golf GTI Is Better Than You Think

The MkVII VW Golf GTI is a car that is revered by pretty much every motoring hack out there. Yes, there are sharper and more exciting hot hatches, but for a fast, capable and entertaining car that’s able to tick almost every box going, it’s hard to beat. And when it’s sprinkled with a little extra spice, you end up with something incredible like the Clubsport S, or something less incredible but still loveable like the new GTI TCR.

It hasn’t always been this way, however. The Golf GTI’s back-catalogue is patchy, and it’s always seemed to be the MkIV that’s been on the receiving end of the flack. Its detractors claim its bulbous body is an unacceptably huge departure from the beloved MkI and MkII, that it’s too heavy, and that it’s too slow. And I’m sure we can all agree the 2.0-litre N/A eight-valve with its paltry 113bhp output simply didn’t deserve to be badged as a GTI. In fact, in many markets, it wasn’t, but the fact VW had the affront to label it thus in some quarters is another black mark against the maligned fourth-gen.

The MkIV VW Golf GTI Is Better Than You Think

Even Bernd Pischetsrieder - VW’s chairman during the early 2000s - wasn’t a fan. Around the time of its discontinuation, he described it as “too slow, too average”. He concluded: “It was not a proper GTI. It was a good example of marketing getting it wrong”. Ouch.

When slipping behind the wheel of one for the first time at the recent GTI TCR launch, my expectations were low. The cabin certainly doesn’t do anything to dispel the notion that this is the ‘lost’ GTI generation - the only thing breaking up this joyless space is the golf ball-like gear knob.

The MkIV VW Golf GTI Is Better Than You Think

However, this particular GTI - one of VW’s own heritage cars - is not the naff 2.0-litre. It’s not the 125bhp naturally-aspirated version of the unusual five-valves-per-cylinder inline-four either, nor is it the 150bhp turbo. This one is the full fat 180bhp 20-valve turbo lump fitted to post-2002 cars, and it makes the MkIV GTI as fast - if not a smidge faster - than the MkV which replaced it.

In fact, it still feels quick after jumping out of the 286bhp TCR. It’s not massively boosty for a turbo engine, and is nicely revvy, emitting a pleasant, reasonably brawny noise at high RPM. The gear change is so-so, but the manual shift hasn’t been a stand-out feature in any GTI, I’d argue.

The MkIV VW Golf GTI Is Better Than You Think

The front end may give up and push into understeer much earlier than a modern hot hatch, and there is quite a bit of body roll to contend with, but this is still a capable and fun car to drive. It’s certainly not the clumsy fatty I’d been led to believe it is. Understand the traction limits, adjust your driving as necessary, and you’re going to have a good time. You might even make it tripod occasionally.

The MkIV VW Golf GTI Is Better Than You Think

To cap it all off, I think the MkIV as a design has aged beautifully. The low bonnet, the unfussy, rounded proportions, those neat headlamps - who cares if it’s not boxy like the MkI and MkII?

Admittedly, it does help that this is a 25th Anniversary Edition GTI. These were visually enhanced with a more aggressive bodykit and 18-inch BBS wheels, and the results of the aesthetic tweaks are extremely easy on the eye.

The MkIV VW Golf GTI Is Better Than You Think

The 25th is definitely the one to buy, or failing that, a regular 178bhp 2002-on car. But that’s the problem: taking a look at the cars available on the UK used car market right now, buying the right kind of MkIV GTI is going to set you back nearly as much as a MkV. Make no mistake, while the MkIV is - in the right spec - better than it’s given credit for, the MkV is the better car and one that’s worth stretching your budget for.

It has a more eager, better-sounding engine, the front end is superior, and most importantly, you can have it with ‘tartan’ Clark Plaid seats. This is rightfully considered to be the car that got the GTI back on track, and it’s the one I’d recommend. I just don’t think the car that came before it deserves quite such a hard time.


Tomislav Celić

Or you can get a Škoda Octavia from the same era. Just sounds like a better car.

And is more reliable. The MKIV GTi had some kind if electric problem, not sure what it is (some kind if sensor) but every MKIV GTi I ever saw is broken because of that and left to rot. Apparently it’s really expensive to fix.

01/29/2019 - 10:49 |
26 | 14

Not just that, mk4 Golfs are generally shit cars

01/29/2019 - 11:29 |
6 | 4

Erm, they’re technically the same cars. Shared the same engines, transmissions, suspension components, brakes, etc.
The only things that are better on the Škoda are that it costs less and has more space.

01/29/2019 - 11:39 |
26 | 0

All the MkIV Golf Cars (by that i mean everything that was based on that particular Platform) had the same issues:

  • Power Windows failing very often (plastic bits that broke)
  • ABS Systems that failed (Electrical and mechanical issues)
  • Central Power Distribution Box in the Cabin shorts out
  • Water Temperature, IAT, MAP and MAF Sensors are weak
  • Injectors on the PD Diesels are crap
  • tailgate and Rear Doors rot

If you have the Cash and don’t mind being a lot at the Garage then get yourself a Octavia vRS, they are the best to drive imho.

01/29/2019 - 13:03 |
16 | 2

That’s not an option in America

01/29/2019 - 16:57 |
0 | 0

I own a normal mk4 i really like it to drive but its really unreliable i already spent 2 grand fixing it now it runs but still other cars are more realible. Also i didnt know that the 2.0 N/A was a gti too as it only had 115 hp and its the engine i have in mine eich isnt a gti

01/29/2019 - 11:06 |
0 | 0

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

“GTI” in the Golf IV wasn’t a performance engine option like in literally every other Golf series, but it was just a trim level that could be combined with different engines. This also lead to GTIs Diesel engines (note: not GTDs).

01/29/2019 - 11:20 |
8 | 0

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Meanwhile my base spec one hasn’t broken anything except the door barrel in 2 years

01/29/2019 - 12:16 |
0 | 0

and if that’s not available, the mk4 vr6 24v has 204bhp and is only 0.5 seconds slower 0-60 than the R32

01/29/2019 - 11:34 |
2 | 0
adam thompson

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

A guy at work has the mk4 vr6. I kinda envy him. That exhaust note is wonderful

01/29/2019 - 23:12 |
0 | 0
Daniel Busker

i love the mk4 for what you can do with it, you can get the turbo cars up to 300hp for pocket change. and i always liked the design, the mk5 looks like a minivan

01/29/2019 - 12:30 |
0 | 0

The mk5 looks can be argued back and forth for hours, but before you bash it, drive one on some nice corners. They’re seriously the most fun I’ve ever had in a car, and I’ve owned 18 cars in the last 12 years. Il always recommend mk5 over mk4.

01/29/2019 - 14:09 |
0 | 0

Being an owner of a mk4 i can certainly vouch for “getting the right one”. Ours has been in the family since it was 6 months old. After 17 years and 140k miles it’s still going strong. The only failure that i can recall on it that wasn’t general wear and tear was the brake light switch failing.

Having something badged as a GTI with 113bhp is of course ridiculous. However a fun car to drive doesn’t need to have 3000bhp and more torque than a planet to enjoy. So long as it feeds back information and is predictable i quite often prefer a lower powered car to thrash than a huge turbo nutter car that goes to warp with a brush of the gas pedal.

01/29/2019 - 14:49 |
2 | 0

Slowest car in need for speed underground 1

01/29/2019 - 15:45 |
2 | 2

I love my 2000 mk4 gti,
I added a 3” downpe which makes it respond way better and it’s tuned to 200hp and 310nm.
Adding 17” rs4 wheels transforms the cars look alot too.

01/29/2019 - 18:55 |
0 | 0

But I never thought it was bad😂

01/29/2019 - 19:15 |
0 | 0
Basith Penna-Hakkim

I love the MkIV GTI because of that VR6 engine
I miss V6 hot hatches

01/29/2019 - 19:37 |
0 | 0
Basith Penna-Hakkim

A Jetta front-end swap on a MkIV Golf surprisingly looks so good

01/29/2019 - 19:38 |
0 | 0


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