Twin Test: Volkswagen Golf GTI II v BMW 325i E30

2014 / 2015 Drive-My

30 years of the yuppie favourites. Twin Test: Golf GTI v BMW 325i. Two yuppie icons, both launched in the UK 30 years ago and both now firmly established as classics. The GTi generation. The Mk2 Golf GTI and BMW 325i summed up the ’80s perfectly. We try to choose between them. Words: Paul Wager. Pics: Matt Woods.

If ever a decade could be summed up in just three letters, it’s the ‘GTI’ tag that embodies the spirit of the ’80s, the initials used on everything from bikes to razors to aftershaves. The original GTI may have appeared as early as the late ’70s but it was the Mk2 version launched in the UK in 1985 which soon became a staple of the yuppie lifestyle, usually to be spotted in the familiar Mars Red with matching red-rimmed glasses and braces. The combination of practicality, the appeal of the German badge and the car’s lively performance saw its market share steadily increase in the UK.

Whereas the Mk1 had very little competition, the Mk2 faced sterner opposition in the shape of BMW’s 3-Series, which back in the early ’80s was just starting to surf the wave of popularity that would see it end up in the dominant position it enjoys today.

BMW did things very differently by dropping a 171 bhp 2.5-litre straight six engine into the 3-Series, launching the resulting 325i in 1985, the same year as the Mk2 GTI became available in the UK. Rear-driven and available initially only as a saloon or convertible, the BMW lacked the hatchback versatility of the Golf but clever marketing by BMW allowed it to capitalise on its rear-drive handling and performance with the ‘Ultimate Driving Machine’ tag and ultimately the 325i and GTI ended up appealing to similar buyers despite the BMW being priced some way above the VW.

How then do they compare as classics today now that the earliest examples of each are celebrating their 30th birthdays?


Volkswagen Golf GTI II

The MkI may have the cult following, but the Mk2 was technically better in every respect. Weighing in at just 90 kg more than the original, it was fractionally slower to 60 mph, but top speed was up from 113 mph to 119 mph, while it boasted improved bodyshell rigidity and interior space. Oh and better brakes too, VW having finally realised that having the pedal box on the right and the master cylinder on the left was never going to win any prizes with British road testers. The second-generation Golf was launched in 1983, but the GTI version didn’t arrive in the UK until 1985, essentially employing the same mechanical package as its predecessor. The transverse 1781cc single-cam EA827 four-cylinder remained, complete with Bosch’s K-Jetronic fuel injection, with revised exhaust system seeing the power output up from 110 bhp to 112 bhp. More usefully, torque was up by 14 lb ft to 115 lb ft, now produced at 3000 rpm, some 2000 rpm lower than the original 1600 GTI and still 500 rpm below the MkI 1800. The result was a car that just felt more refined and ‘grown up’, creating an even more capable all-rounder, as rapid across country as it was comfortable on the motorway. Underneath was found the same chassis set-up as the Mk1, a well-proven combination of front MacPherson struts and semi-independent rear torsion beam axle. Stiffened and uprated over the regular Golfs, the Mk2 GTI retained the characteristic Golf tendency to lift an inside wheel under hard cornering, but was tuned to provide failsafe understeer at the limit. The result was a car that felt precise and nimble, yet was easy to get the best out of – easier for example than the Peugeot GTI’s, with their famously snappy rear end.

 Volkswagen Golf GTI II - test

A skinny front bumper early GTI is definitely the purists choice. And very nice it looks, too.


Inside, the dashboard and other trim fittings had taken a step up in quality, although many detail parts were carried over and the stereo was now at the top of the dash, to the delight of smash-and-grab thieves.

Speaking of which, you wouldn’t have enjoyed much Duran Duran in your factory-issue GTI, Volkswagen at this time being famously mean with their standard spec, to the point where cars came with a plastic storage box instead of a radio and wind-up windows as standard – both items standard-fi t on the much cheaper Escort XR3i. In fact the early MkII GTI’s even came on standard steel rims rather than the alloy wheels standard on the outgoing Mk1.

What you did get was a set of striped seats, a four-spoke ‘GTI’ steering wheel, the elegantly simple stalk-operated ‘MFA’ trip computer, deckchair striped seat upholstery and that famous golf ball gearknob.

You also got a very well made car that, to be fair, was the equal of the contemporary BMW 3-Series. Even the haters of the air-cooled cars would grudgingly admit that Volkswagen had cemented its reputation on the quality of its products and the Mk2 built on that, simple proof being the numbers still in everyday use.

Every time I drive a Mk1 Golf, I’m struck by how lively the cars feel after 30 years and it’s the same with the MkII. The shape may lack the delicate lines of the original and it looks altogether more chunky, but a kerb weight of 920 kg is incredibly light by modern standards – the current GTI weighs in at well over 1200 kg. The car in our photos – currently in stock at Fast Classics in Surrey – is an example of the Mk2 in its heyday, with the advantage of Volkswagen’s own version of Bosch’s electronic L-Jetronic injection, dubbed Digifant, that was used from 1987. It also predates the big bumpers that appeared from 1989 onwards and are something of a Holy Grail for Mk2 fans, but do spoil the lines of the original shape. It’s also one of the most original Mk2’s you’ll find, with a string of concours trophies to its credit and an interesting spec that includes power steering and those unusual headlight washers. Oh and a mere 51,500 miles showing which on a Mk2 Golf of any description is barely run-in.

The impression of quality is evident from the first squeeze of the door pull, the catch needing strong fingers to release, in sharp contrast to the door handles of the XR3i tht so often snapped off in the owner’s hand. The trademark ‘thunk’ as the door shuts will be familiar to Beetle drivers, but elsewhere it’s all surprisingly modern. The fuel injection means the engine fi res immediately, while the gearshift is notchy but positive. On the move, the GTI motor feels willing without needing to be thrashed to give its best, which neatly avoids the slightly boomy period at around 4000 rpm. Drive it briskly and the GTI emits the trademark rasp that will be familiar to anyone who started driving in the ’80s, with the electronic injection giving the car a slight edge over the older analogue K-Jetronic.

The early MkII GTI’s came without power steering which does make them hard work to parallel park, but it lightens up appreciably at anything above walking speed and the Golf has a crisp, responsive feel from its rack-and-pinion set-up that the BMW’s steering box lacks. This example comes with what was a £532 option of power steering and it’s a good system that still provides plenty of feedback. The chassis throws no surprises at the driver, with the set-up being biased towards safe understeer, making the GTI a predictable handler. In the wet this translates to a distinct advantage over the old-school rear-drive layout of the BMW that can so easily catch out the unwary even at lower speeds. And in the snow… well, there’s simply no contest.

Throw in the practicality of the hatchback and it’s easy to see why the Golf GTI enjoyed such success in its Mk2 form. Many’s the GTI owner though who hankered after trading up to the BMW 325i… but was it really such a step up?


BMW 325i E30

When it added six-cylinder power to the 3-Series back in 1977 with the launch of the 320i, BMW single-handedly created a new segment of the market by combining a compact bodyshell, four-seat practicality and sports car performance… a recipe that sounds very much like that which made the GTI so successful. The following year the six-cylinder theme was expanded with the addition of the 323i, its 2.3-litre engine knocking out a revvy 143 bhp on the same K-Jetronic injection as the Golf.

Back then the Golf was still a 110 bhp 1.6-litre with a standard four-speed box, but as time passed, the two models came closer together in the market. In 1982, the 3-Series entered its second generation to become what BMW fans know as the ‘E30’ and its styling both inside and out was modernised for the ’80s. Six-cylinder power was a well established part of the range by then and although the car launched with the 2.3-litre as the range topper, it was replaced in 1985 with the new 325i. As the name suggests, this was a 2.5-litre version of the engine that, although less rev-happy than the older 323i unit, was good for 171 bhp and offered 163 lb ft at 4300 rpm. In the small 3-Series shell this made for quite a potent package, with its front-engine and rear-drive layout giving it real appeal for potential buyers who fancied themselves as being a bit handy behind the wheel, no doubt encouraged by all the ‘Ultimate Driving Machine’ marketing and the success of the M3 on track.

BMW 325i E30 Cabrio - road test

These days both VW and BMW are masters of the niche market but back in the mid-’80s the 3-Series lost more than a few sales to VW as a result of its three-box saloon body that simply wasn’t as handy for owners evolving from yuppies to young families. A four-door model had been added in 1983 and the Touring estate – created originally as a private project by a BMW employee before catching the eye of management – arrived in 1988. This created another unique market for BMW, that of the ‘lifestyle’ estate, offering slightly improved practicality over the saloon, if not washing machine-lugging load space, but it was a good deal more expensive than the GTI. And of course an estate car, even if it does have a 171 bhp straight six, makes a very different statement from a sporty two-door hatch.

One thing that BMW did do rather better than Volkswagen was the convertible, with BMW offering its elegant factory-built car from the outset. The previous 3-Series had been available as a halfhearted attempt by coachbuilder Baur, retaining the side windows and using a Stag-style rollover hoop, but the E30 was an entirely different animal. The neatly engineered roof disappeared into a stowage compartment when lowered, giving a flat rear profile not unlike the Mercedes SL and with full four-seater capability it was a hit. The Golf convertible on the other hand, constructed for VW by coachbuilder Karmann that had previously produced the Beetle convertible and the Scirocco, was still based on the Mk1 Golf. When launched, it was a neat piece of work but it’s fair to say that even with the Mk2’s mechanical updates, it was beginning to look outdated by the late ’80s and the BMW most definitely had the upper hand in the style stakes.

The E30 in our photos is, as you’ll have spotted, the convertible. In stock at Fast Classics alongside the Golf, like the GTI it’s another low-mileage survivor, having covered just 45,000 with its one owner since delivery in 1991. Like the Mk1 Golf, the BMW convertible carried on after the mainstream model had been replaced, with both the Touring and convertible produced until 1994.

” The neatly engineered roof disappears into a stowage compartment when lowered, giving an attractive, flat rear profile”

The 3-Series offers the same feeling of quality as the Golf and like the VW, the doors feel heavy and the switchgear solid. The cabin does feel rather more sporting than the VW though, with the rear-drive layout giving it a higher central tunnel and the gearlever shorter as a result. This particular example is an automatic, using the four-speed ZF unit complete with a switchable ‘sport’ mode that allows upshifts at higher engine speeds.

The 325i runs Bosch’s Motronic injection, a fully integrated engine management and fuel injection system similar to the VW Digifant and both are more refined than the old K-Jetronic. Fire it up though and there’s a marked difference, with the burble from the twin tailpipes leaving onlookers in no doubt that there are six cylinders under the front.

Jump straight out of the GTI into a 325i and you’ll notice that the steering on the BMW lacks the response of the Golf and is generally lower-geared, even with the standard-fit power assistance, but otherwise the BMW feels equally alive with a similarly brisk feel. The 2.5-litre ‘six’ may not have been as free-revving as the older 323i, but it’s still an eager unit and even by today’s standards a manual 325i saloon is a pretty quick car, with 0-62 mph coming up in 8.3 seconds – very close to the Golf. The convertible carries a 110 kg weight penalty, but they’re still capable of 0-60 mph in 8.7 seconds in manual form, with the automatic managing the sprint in 10.5 seconds.

To drive the BMW quickly is as easy as the Golf, with BMW having tucked the engine right up under the bulkhead in the interests of evening out the weight distribution and like most other production cars, the standard set-up is biased towards understeer when pushed.

To drive it fast rather than quickly though requires a step-up in concentration, and as a former owner of a 325i Touring, I can remember how ragged the cars can be on the limit, especially in the wet. The E30 predates BMW’s sophisticated multi-link Z-axle set-up that didn’t appear in mainstream cars until the 1990 ‘E36’ generation and the semi-trailing arm set-up can be tricky to master.

Not many owners drove the cars hard enough to experience this though and the age of these cars today means they simply don’t get that kind of treatment as pampered classics. The character of the automatic convertible is also a world away from the manual two-door car, with the open 325i being more of a cruiser than a back road scorcher and all the better for it. Top down and four-up, it offers something of the flavour of an XJS or SL and in this form at least, is in a different league from the GTI.


Verdict

Having owned examples of both the 325i and the GTI, I’m torn between the two, and in a straight fight between the GTI hatch and the two-door 325i saloon I’d probably go for the Golf. Open up the range though, and I have such fond memories of my Zinnobar Red 325i Touring that it still gets my vote. As for the convertible… well, if you fancy an R107 Mercedes-Benz SL, but have just realised how prices have risen while you weren’t looking, then the 325i convertible makes a great alternative. What’s more it has a huge aftermarket parts and specialist following to make ownership a trouble-free experience.


BUYING THEM

Volkswagen Golf GTI

Rust protection on the Mk2 was in a different league from the Mk1 and as a result there are still loads running around. You still need to be careful though: inspect the roof, the rear quarters, the inner wings and the scuttle by the base of the screen. Check the arches under the plastic spats too.

The Golf is also known for the fuel filler neck rusting, which can allow rust to enter the injection system – a filter change at the best and a new K-Jet metering head at the worst.

The Mk2 did suffer from water leaks even when new, so check under the carpets and inside the boot. The rear hatch can leak and rot around the wiper spindle.

Under the bonnet, there’s a cam belt change to consider, while oil leaks around the cam cover are common and blue smoke on the overrun points to the well known issue of worn valve guides and stem seals. A sloppy shift action can be cured by rebuilding the linkage, with all the parts you’ll need easily available.

BMW 325i

Despite BMW’s reputation for quality, the E30 can rot alarmingly, especially the early examples. Check the front wings where they meet the sill, the front jacking points, the rear of the sills and the inner sill/inner rear arch area as well as the rear arches. Also check around the rear towing eye, the sunroof panel and be on the lookout for a ‘bump’ at the rear of the roof panel signifying rust between the roof skin and sunroof mechanism. Also check the inner wings behind the struts and in the battery tray area. The Sport models will also rot behind the plastic bodykit.

Make sure the ABS light comes on with the ignition and goes out with the engine running as the system must work for an MoT pass. Under the bonnet, like the Golf there’s a cam belt change to consider and leaks from the cam oil seal, oil pressure switch, sump gasket and cam cover are common. On the automatic cars, changing the gearbox fluid can extend the life of the gearbox significantly.

Buying one

Both the cars in our photos are currently to be found in stock with Fast Classics in Bramley, Surrey and both are superb examples of their kind. The Golf is perhaps the more unusual, simply because so few Mk2s have been preserved so well, the Mk1 having gained all the attention until very recently. With a minimal 51,500 miles showing, the GTI is a 1989 example with the later Digifant injected engine, but without the later big colour-coded bumpers and benefits from options including power steering, electric windows, sunroof and central locking as well as a period Blaupunkt stereo and the teardrop alloy wheels.

With a string of concours trophies to its credit, this must be one of the best Mk2 GTI’s left anywhere and as a plus, it’s all original, too. Its three owners have amassed a big history fi le – including the original sales invoice – and it’s yours for £10,995. Not long ago that might have seemed like strong money for a Mk2, but just look at the way the Mk1 values have gone… and then try to find another nice original Mk2… The BMW is a similarly superb low-mileage original, with just 45,000 showing and one family ownership. In Glacier Blue with blue leather, it’s a classy-looking car sitting on the trademark BBS cross-spoke alloys and is immaculate inside and out. Under the bonnet, the engine still bears the factory wax covering which is always a nice indicator of originality. The car has also received a brand new roof which is worth having since the convertible top on these cars is a high-quality affair and expensive to replace. It’s yours for £12,995 and like the Golf, you’ll struggle to find another for sale in similar condition… the E30 fans don’t like to let them go.


BMW 325i E30 Cabrio - road test

 

Leather seats betray the fact that the 325i was aimed at a higher class of customer than the Golf GTI, in period at least. Luckily, prices are much more comparable today. BMW pioneered the ergonomic dashboard layout in the first generation 3-series (E21). Sporty twin pipe exhaust system makes the most of that rorty six-cylinder soundtrack. ‘M20′ straight-six engine also saw service in the 3-series E21, as well as the E12, E28 and E34 5-series’ models. It was also used as the basis for the ‘M21’ diesel engine and the ‘M70’ V12 engine.

THE FACTS: BMW 325i

Engine: 2494cc six

Transmission: Five-speed manual

Max power: 171 bhp @ 5800 rpm

0-62 mph: 8.3 secs

Max speed: 135 mph

Overall length: 4425 mm

Overall weight: 1280 kg


 

 Volkswagen Golf GTI II

An engine bay as clean as this is a rare sight, but with a spot of elbow grease, even the scruffiest of engines can be transformed in appearance. Dash and centre console layout is relatively good, with everything you need falling easily to hand. Golf ball gearknob is one of the most recognisable design elements of any early Golf GTI. Golf GTI interior is a cosy place to spend some time. Driver’s seat bolsters can wear, which provides a bargaining chip when you’re looking to buy.

THE FACTS: VW GOLF GTI II

Engine: 1781cc

Transmission: Five-speed manual

Max power: 112 bhp @ 5500 rpm

0-60 mph: 8.1 secs

Max speed: 119 mph

Overall length: 3980 mm

Overall weight: 920 kg

 


 

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