Used car buying guide: VW Golf GTI Mk3
1 June 2021 - autocar
You won’t find a cheaper route into Golf GTI ownership than a Mk3 – and there are still plenty around priced from £1000 up
Our quick survey of three leading used car classified sites finds that the most expensive Mk1 and Mk2 Golf GTIs are being advertised for up to £24,000. In contrast, the most expensive Mk3, a 2.0-litre 16v Japanese import with 36,000 miles, is £8995, and most cars of this generation are around £1500.
What’s the Mk3’s problem? After all, it’s a Golf GTI and it’s almost 30 years old (launched in 1992, replaced by the Mk4 in 1997). Ergo, it’s a modern classic for which people should be queuing around the block.
Unfortunately, almost from launch, the Mk3 was dismissed as the unsuccessful follow-up to its brilliant predecessors. Heavy, underpowered and dull, said the critics. Its cause wasn’t helped by the arrival, towards the end of its life, by sharper rivals such as the Peugeot 306 GTi-6. Launched in 1996, this model was powered by a 2.0-litre engine producing 165bhp compared with the Golf 2.0 GTI 16v’s 148bhp. What’s more, it had a close-ratio six-speed gearbox, whereas the Golf had only five gears. In short, the 306 GTi-6 appeared to have caught the Golf GTI napping.
GTi-6 survivors are rare today, but there are plenty of Golf GTI Mk3s in a range of conditions and at reasonable prices. Happily, the model appears to have dodged the curse of the modern classic and its inflated price, which is why now is a good time to ignore the naysayers and discover the Golf GTI Mk3 for yourself.
Its story begins in 1992 with the launch of the 2.0-litre 8v model. With just 113bhp to its name, it took a lazy 9.6sec to do 0-62mph. On a more positive note, standard equipment included alloy wheels, a colourcoded grille, black wheel-arch spats, a rear spoiler and twin tailpipes. Inside were sports seats, split folding rear seats, power windows and a height-adjustable sports steering wheel. At least in the showroom, the new model was everything a GTI buyer could wish for, but away from the potted palms there were grumblings about its lack of fizz. Accordingly, Volkswagen added the 148bhp 2.0-litre 16v engine to the line-up the following year. This brought the GTI’s 0-62mph sprint down to a sportier eight seconds. In addition to its discreet ‘16v’ badge, the new model had traction control, a bee-sting aerial and a brake wear indicator. This was more like it
In 1996, the GTI’s 20th anniversary was celebrated with the launch of a couple of limited-edition versions: the Anniversary and Colour Concept with Recaro seats coloured to match the body. The following year, the eight-valve engine was dropped from the range. Today, eight-valve Mk3s dominate the small ads. Of course, the 16v is the better car and the one to have, but at this distance we’d argue that condition should be your guiding star. After all, you want to be ready when the market turns and finally decides that, you know what, maybe the Mk3 wasn’t so bad after all.
How to get one in your garage
An owner's view
Andrew Ferguson: “I’ve owned my Mk3 eight-valve for a few years and get the feeling interest is rising in the model. It’s why I’ve dry-stored it for the past couple of years, bringing it out only occasionally for a drive and to keep everything moving. It’s a reliable car but I’ve spent around £800 on it in the past three years, either getting it through MOTs or just keeping it sweet. With 113bhp, it’s definitely no Porsche but its appeal lies not in its performance, or lack of it, but in the feel of the controls and in the way it steers and handles. Being a Golf, it always polishes up well and the interior is smart and tough. It just gets better with age.”
Engine: Check the oil level and for emulsified oil and water around the filler neck. Be sure to start the engine from cold and check any tappet noises fade out as the temperature rises. Make sure the exhaust isn’t blowing. Wayward idling on a 148bhp model is likely to be a fault with the idle stabilisation valve.
Gearbox: Listen for worn bearings (common) and noisy synchros. Also for a click when engaging reverse, which, if left, can become an annoying crunch. Check the clutch bite point and that it isn’t slipping because a faulty self-adjusting cable can cause premature wear.
Suspension: A fresh MOT should reveal any serious problems with bushes, dampers and springs. Suspension struts often fail at around 80,000 miles. If the rear end feels lively in corners, suspect worn rear axle bushes.
Brakes: Check the discs for scoring and pads for depth. Ensure the ABS check light goes out after you start the engine. A seized handbrake is common, especially on a car that has been left standing for extended periods.
Body: Look for rust around the windscreen, tailgate, sills, rear door hinge faces, front wings, wheel arches and suspension turrets. The doors are heavy so check they’re not sagging on their hinges.
Interior: Be sure it all works, including electric windows (the regulators fail), and all the check lights glow on start-up.
Also worth knowing
Don’t sweat about parts availability. Pretty much everything is available from suppliers such as Volkswagen Classic Parts and Heritage Parts Centre. So you’ve little to fear from buying a modified Mk3 (at a knockdown price) and returning it to its original state, which is the market’s preference.
How much to spend
£1000-£1499: Mainly 113bhp eight-valve cars with high mileages and in need of serious TLC.
£1500-£1999: More 113bhp cars in better condition and some project 148bhp cars.
£2000-£2999: Nicer 148bhp cars with fresh MOTs. Take your pick of tidy 113bhp cars.
£3000-£4999: The finest 113bhp cars, plus some good 148bhp cars.
£5000-£8000: The best 148bhp cars but be careful: this money will buy a very nice Mk5.
One we found
VW Golf GTI 2.0 16V 5dr, 1997/R, 122k miles, £2500: This ‘barn find’ GTI has a fresh MOT and has been treated to a long list of new parts, including a cambelt and auxiliary belts, radiator, air-con radiator, rear window regulator, plugs and filters and a tail-light seal. Comes with spare brake discs and, strangely, spare seats.