Kids of the 1980s go a little weak at the knees when seeing the letters GTI, so synonymous with that decade’s hot hatches. But even more exciting is how these nippy runabouts are now hugely desirable and being tipped as the next big thing in the world of classic car investments.
South Africans old enough to have sported mullets, worn leg warmers à la Jane Fonda or frequented Bella Napoli in Hillbrow will remember the VW offering fondly, but only those that paged through the international journals would know of the Peugeot’s giant-killing attributes.
When introduced locally in January 1983 Volkswagen’s Golf GTi cost R11 475. Pristine original examples have recently traded at over ten times this amount. And if you look to the UK for inspiration, top show-winning finds sit in the region of £14 000. The Peugeot is no different, with an unrestored vehicle with less than 8 000 miles on the clock reaching £30 938 at a recent auction.
But we are car people and not investors so this is not really the highlight of having a GTi or GTI from either manufacturer though. The best part is getting behind the wheel and exploring two of the leaders in the race as far as practicality, performance and driving enjoyment. The difficulty is finding either version in unmodified and unbutchered format. After all, the ‘90s and 2000s were not kind to these cars, with the built-in fun factor seeing them as favourites with many boy racers trying their hand at ‘tchooning’ for added performance. This often resulted in garish paint, odd aerodynamic appendages and late night excursions backwards through an unsuspecting garden wall.
We will start with the Golf GTi. Some of you might jump at the use of a lower case ‘i’ when taking about the VW. But hear me out. It’s true that modern day hot hatches from the firm are badged as GTI and if you look at the originals from overseas, they too sport GTI lettering. But here in sunny South Africa we tend to do things differently and the nameplate stuck on the rear clearly states ‘GTi’ – perhaps to make it obvious to the onlookers that this new machine was fuel injected and one step up the ladder from the 1.6-litre carburettor-fed Golf GT (2-door) or GTS (5-door).
So not only did the SA cars differ in the badge department – they also differed in the body format with only a 5-door version sold, while the rest of the world would think of a GTI as being a 2-door. Also, the overseas car had a racy red grille surround and flashy side striping but we dumped those in favour of a classier, plain aesthetic. What VWSA did add to the GTi mix were chrome inserts in the bumpers, tailgate spoiler, black rear window surround and some 5.5J alloys sat over vented disc brakes at the front and drums at the rear.
Inside the cabin this business-like attitude continued, with pin-striped Donegal seating replacing the wide, longitudinal banded versions found elsewhere (and in our GT and GTS models). It did retain the golf ball-inspired gear knob to select the 5 forward cogs and a little nod to the sporting was added in the form of a Wolfsburg aluminium 3-spoke steering wheel and a trio of centre consol-mounted gauges for oil pressure, volts and oil/water temperature.
Under the hood South Africa only ever saw a 1.8 motor while the international market had a 1.6 for most of the production span, only upping the capacity to 1.8 late in the lifecycle – just as the all-new Golf II GTI was being readied for launch. It was a gem of a motor: essentially a 1.6 bored out an extra 1.5mm in diameter and stroked by 6.4mm to give a capacity of 1781cc. Without the restrictive emission controls that were placed on GTIs abroad it is said that the local 1.8 was the best performing engine in any VW GTi at the time – the numbers read 82kW at 5200rpm and 153Nm of torque at 3 500rpm.
Thanks to a close-ratio box the Golf GTi delivered test figures to 100km/h in 9.3 seconds. Highway cruising at 120km/h was reasonably peaceful with fifth gear being a true fifth, not the more common overdrive ratio, and pulled all the way to a maximum speed of 182km/h.
Off the bat sales impressed with 2 991 units selling in 1983 – this despite it being almost R2 000 more than a R9 860 Golf 1600 GTS. By 1984 the bigger Golf II was launched and the early 8 valve 1800 GTI stole potential Golf I GTi sales, leaving the boxy classic with only 357 units on the sales charts. For 1985, its final year, just 22 Golf I GTis hit the road, despite the drop from the 1984 price tag of R14 100 to R13 245. By contrast 2 262 Golf II GTIs sold the same year, and they cost a cool R18 135.
I suppose a true African competitor to the MkI Golf GTi would be the Ford Escort XR3i or maybe the Opel Kadett 1.8 GTE. Both sported hopped-up, boy racer aesthetics and sprightly performance and at R12 270 and R12 940 respectively, offered more bang for your buck than the Golf. But we are talking GTI/GTi here as the king of the 1980s hatch brigade, and no other moniker would do. So we found one of a handful of Peugeot 205GTIs in South Africa. Yes, we got the bigger saloon 505GTI in 1984 (321 units sold at R24 715) but the only real competitor to Golf when it comes to wearing the GTi crown is the 205 hatch version. It is worth noting that in car segment terms the Golf is one size up on the ladder – and looks it when parked next to the French offering. This becomes more evident when opening the duo’s bonnets: the Golf has loads of space surrounding the motor, while the Peugeot is so tight you see mechanics roll their eyes and prepare for bleeding knuckles at the thought of a cambelt change. Although it looks heftier the Golf actually wins the battle of the scales, weighing in at 838kg against the 1.6 Pug’s 850kg and 880kg (1.9) – this due mainly to the fact that the Volkswagen’s harder-edged body lines added structural rigidity, where the more contoured 205 needed this built in under the skin. The Golf also lacked a front sub-frame and the rudimentary torsion beam rear suspension setup weighed in significantly lower than the individual trailing arm and cross-tube found in the French offering.
In GTI format (Peugeot uses full capitals in the badge) the 205 makes the Golf GTi look very grown up. It has prominent clip-on wheel arch extensions and chunky plastic trim circumnavigating the bodywork. Bright red beadings sit in the bumpers and waistline plastic and in case you hadn’t noticed the sporting pretentions just yet, Peugeot helpfully slapped a bright red ‘GTI’ on the rear and displayed the engine size and ‘GTI’ in red on the wide back pillars. Inside it gets even more in-your-face with red carpets on the floor and lower half of the door panels and not to be outdone, the 3-spoke steering wheel also shows off the ‘GTI’ graphic. Seats in this particular car are from the later 1.9 model, so see semi-leather sides instead of the all-cloth items in the original – of course these were sported up with some red go-faster embellishments too.
So did it go faster? According to manufacturer claims it did in the top speed department, with the 1.6 GTI reaching 190km/h and the 1.9 GTI hitting 206km/h. But the pair straddled the Golf’s 9.3 second 0 to 100 with 9.5 seconds and 7.8 respectively. Peugeot launched the car as a 1.6 but upped some of them to 1.9 in 1986, not by changing the bore like VW but rather lengthening the stroke – catered for by adding a spacer between the bottom of the engine block and sump.
Opinion differs as to which engine derivative is better with the 77kW/132Nm 1.6-litre said to be perkier than the 96kW/165Nm 1.9 unit but not as everyday useable, with the closer ratios found in the 1.6 gearbox needing more stirring to gain the best performance.
Whichever your choice the 205GTI driving experience is one to take in. Climb into the redness and close the door with a tinny acoustic. Crank the key and raspy exhaust bursts into life before settling into a deep drone – no wonder the masses fitted monstrous speakers to hear their latest Madonna tune coming from the tape deck. Clutch action is light and too much throttle will see the front wheels battling to get a grip. Gear change is notchy but slick enough to keep the fast forward motion… and then there is the steering which, although a touch heavy in this non-power assisted version, at slow speed is pin-point accurate. That is a good thing as the Peugeot is famed for snapping direction if the pilot so much as lifts off the loud pedal midway through a corner and the nervy ride means constant input over rougher road surfaces. In reality this over-steering reputation is a little unfounded though, and once put at the back of your mind you can attack the corners with gusto and a wide grin.
The Golf is a different story though, seemingly more grown up and refined. The door makes a more solid thud on closing and the exhaust, if not changed for an aftermarket free-flow, emits a toned-down rumble. The cable-operated clutch action, although not needing a body builder’s leg press, is longer and heavier than the Pug’s and can be smoothly let out to control the front-wheel spin. Gear ratios and the low down torque mean that driving the VW quickly in a straight line is a little less frantic than the 205 and the same goes for the ride, with the softer setup seeing to it that bumps and undulations are soaked up without any driver input. Lots of body roll and resultant gradual weight shift when swapping direction aids in the handling department and makes the Golf very predictable through the twisty bits.
So which one is better? It’s a difficult call. As a daily drive I’d opt for the Golf for the simple reason that it fits in with your requirements at the time of driving – docile when you want it to be and a thriller when that frame of mind takes hold. The 205 however seems to only know one thing – and that is GO-GO-GO, which can get a bit much when you are not in the mood. The Golf is the motoring equivalent of a Labrador: mostly friendly but fierce when the need arises. The Peugeot is a cat: always in charge and IT decides when and what it wants YOU to do.
Whatever your chosen king of the three letter game, be safe in the knowledge that both are brilliant cars and safe bets as future classics. And don’t forget to expand your alphabet to GTE and XR3i, as these too have to start hitting the radar soon.