Payne: Pocket rocket's progress, 1984 VW Rabbit GTI vs. 2020 Jetta GLI
The modern car is a technological wonder. Quiet, connected and smooth, it’s the rolling equivalent of a soothing, electronic pop song.
But sometimes I get nostalgic for a raspy rocker with a string guitar.
I was reminded of that feeling as I flogged a 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI around the hills of Oakland County this summer. The Rabbit GTI (and its sedan stablemate Jetta GLI) are the 1980s ancestors of the all-new Golf GTI/Jetta GLI — performance versions of the German brand’s entry-level hatchback/sedan.
I had a chance to compare 36 years of progress when I tested a roomy, high-tech 2020 Jetta GLI recently as well. It’s not a hatchback, but the GLI sedan is otherwise the 2020 Golf GTI’s twin making it suitable for this week’s comparo. It shares the Golf GTI’s 228-horsepower engine, chassis and suspension, giving them serious punch over the base 147-horse Jetta/Golf.
The ’84 Rabbit GTI, of course, was the original pocket rocket, coming to our shores in 1983. The second generation of the car adopted the Golf name in 1986.
The 1984 GTI was the first car I ever owned. It was a hoot. And a revelation.
Taking a compact car and stuffing it with a performance engine, the Rabbit GTI was the automotive equivalent of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It was affordable, seated four — yet could instantly transform into a Tasmanian Devil picking on luxury cars twice its price. The V-dub inspired a revolution of pocket rocket including the Mazda3 Speed, Ford Focus ST and Honda Civic Si.
Getting behind the wheel of the ol’ ’84 with its hot red interior (VW keeps it in its Virginia heritage collection, occasionally letting it off its chain to play with journalists) brought the memories rushing back.
The Rabbit GTI was my post-college daily driver. I flogged it for hours from my Charleston, West Virginia, home to court the future Mrs. Payne in St. Louis. On the odd weekend, I would ring its neck at a local autocross. We bonded.
We even shared some hillbilly DNA, as Rabbit (and sibling Jetta) body stampings were made in Charleston before shipment to Westmoreland, Pennsylvania, for assembly. The Pennsylvania factory — which punched out VWs from 1978-87 — was the first modern foreign “transplant” in the USA, to be followed by Honda and others.
The ’84 GTI still felt relevant. It was the second historic VW I’d driven this year — a 1964 Beetle.
But the Bug felt like a museum piece, like an old-fashioned typewriter. For sure, the Rabbit GTI lacked the technological wizardry that makes the Jetta so much more livable today. But I didn’t feel like I'd be blown off the road by a passing Chevy Suburban as I did in the (72 mph top speed) Beetle.
Not that the Rabbit GTI was a Brink’s armored truck.
Tipping the scales at just 2,100 pounds, it is remarkably lighter than its 3,200-pound Jetta GLI and Golf GTI successors. Credit that difference not just to more technology, safety systems and sound insulation, but to simple dimensions. The Jetta GLI wheelbase is 105 inches compared to the 95-inch Rabbit.
Today’s compact cars have gotten fatter, just like its drivers.
I had to stuffed into the Rabbit while the Jetta was a Barcalounger by comparison. But that also means the Rabbit felt whip-quick. Its 90-horsepower 1.8-liter four-banger seems puny by today’s standards, but so does its one-ton weight.
With an intuitive 5-speed manual, the GTI was a treat to drive fast. Adding to the fun was a bratty engine note that rewarded hard driving. The GTI is a VW icon, its square shape and red highlights as recognizable as the Beetle’s bulbous profile and round headlights. I got more than a few thumbs-up from motorheads as I sped around town.
Four decades on, the current Jetta GLI has a more establishment feel.
In addition to its size, Jetta is loaded with safety and tech features that would have seemed out of a sci-fi novel in 1984: blind-spot assist, auto rain-sense wipers, anti-lock brakes, automatic windows, rear camera, automatic headlights, push-button start, heated seats and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity are standard for just $26,890. As is a 10-color, LED ambient lighting system that changes depending on which Drive Mode you're in (Eco, Normal or Sport).
Yes, the 21st-century car is a marvel of electronic advances. But Jetta GLI is hardly a numbing experience. Ford may have dropped out of the pocket-rocket race when it ditched the Focus, but the Honda Civic Si and Hyundai Veloster N are serious segment challengers. Jetta GLI (and brother GTI) are up to the challenge.
GLI’s 228 horsepower is 150% more than my ol’ Rabbit GTI, more than making up for its increased heft. Power-to-weight ratio in the Jetta is 1:12 compared to Rabbit’s 1:23. Combine that with a whopping 258-pound feet of torque, and the turbocharged, 2.0-liter Jetta GLI flat-out goes.
A limited-slip differential up front assures stability, so I could really keep my foot on this beast out of corners.
Establishment it may be (check out the conservative black interior), but GLI is true to the GTI’s original mission as a driver’s car. In addition to the expected power, Jetta GLI has a manual transmission option. The shifter is one of the best in the business with its notchy throws. It even adds a sixth gear over the ’84 model, enabling 32 mpg highway compared to the Rabbit’s 26 mpg.
Readers of this column know my preference is for the hot-hatch GTI (just as in 1984) over the GLI sedan — but the GLI’s $1,800 cheaper sticker price can’t be ignored.
When I sold my Rabbit GTI in the early ’90s it was starting to rust along the rocker panels. Modern, galvanized steel steeds like the Jetta are better protected, adding to the GLI’s more robust feel. And yet. ...
There was no denying the GTI’s personality. Like a favorite raspy rocker’s soundtrack, the loud GTI left me with a lot of memories.
That’s the challenge of selling modern cars in the electronic age. Jetta GLI has its predecessor’s performance appeal, but will you remember it in 30 years?
1984 VW Rabbit GTI
Vehicle type: Front-wheel drive, five-passenger, compact hatchback
Price: $8,350 ($21,232 in 2020 dollars, adjusted for inflation)
Powerplant: 1.8-liter, inline 4-cylinder
Power: 90 horsepower, 105 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Performance: 0-60 mph, 9.7 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 104 mph
Weight: 2,100 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/26 highway/23 combined
Highs: Quick handling; bratty exhaust note
Lows: Tight cabin; loud interior
Overall: 3 stars
2020 VW Jetta GLI
Vehicle type: Front-wheel drive, five-passenger, compact sedan
Price: $26,890, including $895 destination charge
Powerplant: 2.0-liter, inline turbo-4
Power: 228 horsepower, 258 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.8 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 126 mph
Weight: 3,225 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 25 mpg city/32 highway/28 combined
Highs: Roomy interior; gobs of torque
Lows: Sleepy exterior; lacks personality
Overall: 3 stars
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.