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Why the Volkswagen GTI Has Always Been the Alternative Choice

volkswagen rabbit gti
Why the VW GTI Has Always Been the AlternativeRoad&Track
volkswagen rabbit gti
Road&Track

Try to find a Gen Xer who doesn’t have a memorable experience in a Volkswagen GTI somewhere in their past. My own involves high-school friend Brian Schmidt firing his dad’s Rabbit GTI into a curving highway off-ramp at an imprudent speed. Utterly powerless from the passenger’s seat, I could feel the black Rabbit pushing toward the ditch at the edge of the ramp, its inside rear tire lifted. Rollover seemed inevitable. But there was precisely enough shoulder pavement for the car to slow sufficiently and regain control. I can’t recall us ever speaking about it. And I imagine his dad never found out. Well, until now, I suppose.

This story originally appeared in Volume 22 of Road & Track.

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For nearly a half-century, the Volkswagen ­Rabbit/Golf GTI has performed a trick even more amazing than not killing Brian and me. Through eight distinct generations, the GTI has been the alternative choice. But as Tom Waits said when he won a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album, “Alternative to what?!” Well, in the Eighties, the rorty little GTI was the anti-Camaro. During those years, the GTI was too small, too underpowered, and not nearly pointy enough to be considered cool in a conventional sense. Perfect for Pixies fans; not so sweet for dedicated Poison listeners. And then, a decade or so later, with the sport-compact-car world flourishing, the GTI was the non-Honda. The outlier.

1983 volkswagen rabbit gti
Road&Track

At least this was true in the U.S. In Europe, the GTI was less the alternative than it was the hot-hatch blueprint for every other carmaker. Because VW was slow to claim rights to the name, manufacturers as diverse as Peugeot and Suzuki (among many others) slapped “GTI” badges on their own hot hatches. Over the years, there were a few direct and noteworthy American competitors—the crude but quick Dodge GLH, for example, and the sublimely well-­balanced Ford Fiesta ST.

1983 volkswagen rabbit gti
Road&Track

But there was always the GTI. It grew bigger and heavier as the years passed, adding power to match its newfound amenities and sophistication. But it rarely strayed from the recipe that made GTIs so enduringly great: playful dynamics, practicality, surprising fuel economy, tartan-­upholstered Europhilic appeal, and a reasonable price. Not only has the GTI outlived its hot-hatch competitors and the Camaro (twice), but it has also outlasted the workaday Golf on which it was based, at least in the U.S.

While crossover quasi-SUVs have taken over the bulk of the market, Volkswagen just announced an updated GTI for 2025. But without a manual-­transmission option for the new model and with a (no doubt heavy) fully electric GTI expected to go on sale in a few years, the GTI might finally lose touch with itself and crash. We’re not counting on it.

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