BY JONATHAN CROUCH
Replacing the original Golf was a tough task for the post-1984 Mark II second generation version. However, it established itself as a more-than worthy successor. There were many variations on the theme, including the ultra-successful GTI, which lifted the standards of the original car even higher. The whole range enjoyed enormous success and helped give Volkswagen the image it still enjoys of quality, solidity and reliability. The third generation Mark III Golf had a tougher time of it, even though it was undeniably a superior car, larger, safer - but heavier. The Golf range has always seemed to be in a state of renewal, yet the same basic engines and body shapes tend to stay constant. Volkswagen continually changed the trim level names, often using golfing terms such as Driver and Ryder - to prove that it had a sense of humour perhaps. Even the Mark IV model, launched in 1998, didn't look radically different from its predecessor but steady sales soon showed buyers were quite happy with that approach. Such is the size of the range and the quality of Golfs on offer, that the used buyer is almost spoilt for choice.
Models Covered: Second generation Golf MKII - 1984-1992: (1.1 three and five-door [basic] / 1.3 three and five-door [C, Ryder, CL, Formel E ] / 1.6 three and five-door [Driver, Ryder, CL, GL] / 1.6 diesel and turbo diesel three and five-door [C, CD, CL, CL Turbo, GTD] / 1.8 three and five-door [Driver, GL, GTI, 16v GTI, Synchro, Rallye, Rallye SE] 1.8 Convertible [Clipper, GTI, GTI Sportline, GTI Rivage] ) Third generation Golf MKIII - 1992-April 1998: (1.4 three and five-door [L, CL] / 1.6 three and five-door [CL] / 1.8 three and five-door Hatchback, Cabriolet, Estate [CL, Driver, GL, L] / 2.0 three and five-door Hatchback, Cabriolet, Estate [GTi, GTi 16v, Avantgarde, GL] / 2.8 6cy three and five-door Hatchback [VR6, VR6 Highline] / 1.9TD & TDi three and five-door Hatchback, Estate [CL, GL])
The replacement for Volkswagen's long-lived original Golf arrived here in Mark II second generation form in March 1984. Both three and five-door body styles were available from the start. Engines were either 1.1, 1.3, 1.6, 1.8 GTI or 1.6-litre diesel and trim levels were either basic, C, Formel E, CL or GL. In June 1985, the CL turbo diesel was introduced, followed by the 1.8-litre Clipper Convertible in April 1987. There was an across the range facelift for the 1987 August sales rush. This consisted of a new grille, elimination of the quarter-light window in the front doors and windscreen wipers changed over to a 'proper' right-hand-drive pattern. In October 1988, a four-wheel drive model was released, the Synchro 1.8, though it was not very successful. The diesel engine changed over to a new generation 1.6-litre 'umwelt' design in January 1990. A year later the base model of the Golf range became the Ryder with a 1.3-litre engine as standard. The new Mark III Golf was released in February 1992. Buyers could choose between 1.4, 1.8 and 2.0-litre engines (the 2.0-litre for the GTi). There was also a superb 2.8-litre six-cylinder VR6 flagship. A 1.6-litre engine and a GTi 16v variant followed in 1993 along with Cabriolets, while Estates were added in 1994. The all-new fourth generation Golf was launched in the UK in the Spring of 1998 with new normally aspirated and turbocharged 1.8-litre GTi variants and five-cylinder VR5 models heading up the line-up. The Cabriolet range was revised a few months later with a MKIV look that hid MKIII mechanicals.
What You Get
A car that is built to last, good to drive and offers safe and solid motoring for not too much money. The GTIs offer a civilised alternative to many other hot hatches and are usually worth more second-hand than most rivals. You're paying for the Volkswagen name and reputation to some extent, but don't forget that though a Golf costs a bit more than some rivals, it will equally be worth more and probably be in better condition when the time comes for you to sell it on.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
The Golf has a strong reputation for reliability, but it still has a few areas that need to be checked carefully. One is the manual gearbox in high-mileage cars. These can have worn bearings which need expensive repairs - if there's a lot of noise from the gearbox, get it checked. Corrosion is rare on a Golf, which speaks volumes for Volkswagen's rust-proofing methods and the quality of the steel it uses. A GTi with rust should scream "badly repaired accident damage" at you. Steer well clear, as a bent chassis will probably have caused mis-aligned panels and subsequent corrosion. With Mk IV cars, consider the premium you are paying and ask yourself whether a used SEAT or Skoda, which share similar Volkswagen Group underpinnings, may be better value.
(approx based on a 1994 Golf 1.4 ex Vat) An exhaust system is about £65. A clutch assembly will be around £70 and a new catalyst will be around £60. An alternator should be close to £50. Brake pads front and rear are about £25 and £23, respectively. A replacement headlamp is close to £65. A windscreen should be in the region of £90. Major and minor services are around £75 and £35 respectively.
On the Road
The GTI and GTI 16v almost need to be thought of as different cars altogether, such is the difference in performance and handling. Not that the other Golfs are poor in these areas, it's just that the sporty models were so well engineered for a particularly demanding group of buyers. Grip is strong, handling superb and some even say the replacement Mark III was much the inferior car for the enthusiast driver. The rest of the range are all good handlers too, though buyers of these cars tended to worry less about that and more about price, fuel economy and reliability. Volkswagen understood the needs of its buyers better than many manufacturers and whichever model interests you, it will have been designed to be easy to drive, instantly familiar and very easy to live with. The post-1992 Mark III third generation Golf was much safer - but much heavier. This means that the base 1.4-litre models can feel under-powered. Similar comments apply to the Mk IV entry-level models but the 1.8s (especially the turbo GTi) and two-litre models are lively enough. For the ultimate in smooth Golfing, try the unusual V5.
If only every used car was a Volkswagen? Possibly... The Golf is certainly a very sensible buy, if not a particularly cheap one. Still, when the time comes to sell on, chances are it'll still be in sound condition and have retained a lot of what you paid for it.