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1997 Volkswagen GTI REVIEW

Edmunds.com logo Edmunds.com 4/6/2017

Con: Some controls and symbols difficult to decipher, staid styling, underpowered four-cylinder engine.

Pro: Excellent road manners, roomy interior, fun to drive, speedy VR6.

What’s New: For 1997, the GTI VR6 gets new alloy wheels and a revised suspension that has been lowered by 10mm and includes stiffer shock absorbers, springs and stabilizer bars. Meanwhile, the 115-horsepower inline four that powers the base GTI is fitted with a new cylinder head for smoother power delivery. A cargo area light is now standard in the base model, and both models get a new high-mounted center brake light and open-door warning reflectors for all doors. Late in the 1997 model year, Volkswagen offers a limited run of the GTI VR6 Driver's Edition, which comes with a special set of seven-spoke alloys; an even lower, stiffer suspension with progressive antiroll bars; red brake calipers; chrome-tipped exhaust pipes; special cloth upholstery and floor mats; silver-faced gauges; a round aluminum/rubber shift knob; red stitching on the leather-wraps for the steering wheel, hand brake and shift boot and deluxe door sill covers embossed with the "GTI" name.

Review: The GTI is a descendant of the wonder car that started the pocket rocket trend almost two decades ago -- the Volkswagen Rabbit GTI. The first GTIs were fun to drive and inexpensive to buy, but unfortunately, costly to maintain and repair. Nevertheless, this sporty hatchback earned a loyal niche of fans, who claimed that once you found a good VW mechanic, you could reap the benefits of an exclusive club. To date, we haven't heard many horror stories about maintenance costs involving the GTI, the performance version of the third-generation VW Golf, and the overall staff consensus is that this would be a rewarding car to own and drive.

Volkswagen sells the GTI in two trim levels -- base and VR6. The base hatchback is powered by the familiar 2.0-liter inline four that manages 115 horsepower and 122 pound-feet of torque at 3,200 rpm. A five-speed manual is standard, and a four-speed automatic is optional. Fuel economy isn't great for a lightly powered hatchback -- the GTI is rated at 23 mpg city/30 mpg highway with a manual and 22/28 with an automatic.

The GTI VR6 is powered by its namesake 172-horsepower 2.8-liter VR6, a compact, narrow-angle V6 that Volkswagen's engineers created for smaller engine bays. Power delivery from the VR6 is smooth with a flat powerband. A five-speed manual gearbox is mandatory with the VR6; fuel economy is rated at 19/26.

Standard features in the four-cylinder GTI include four-wheel antilock disc brakes, dual front airbags, air conditioning, an eight-speaker cassette stereo, sport seats with height-adjustment for the driver, height adjustable seatbelts in the front, ALR/ELR seatbelts for more secure child seat installation, power locks, an alarm system, power moonroof, 14-inch alloy wheels, foglights and a rear window wiper and defroster. The options list includes the aforementioned automatic transmission as well as a CD changer.

Step up to the GTI VR6, and you'll get traction control, a sport-tuned suspension (with a beefier front stabilizer bar and gas shock absorbers in the rear), 15-inch alloys with P205/50R15 tires, cruise control, a trip computer, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and power windows and mirrors. The CD changer is also optional on the VR6 model, as are leather seating surfaces.

Late in the 1997 model year, a few lucky buyers will be able to get their hands on a more deluxe version of the GTI VR6, as Volkswagen offers a limited production run of the Driver's Edition. These special GTIs include all the standard equipment on the regular VR6, along with a special set of seven-spoke alloy wheels; an even lower, stiffer suspension with progressive anti-sway bars; red brake calipers; chrome-tipped exhaust pipes; special cloth upholstery and floor mats; silver-faced gauges; a round aluminum/rubber shift knob; red stitching on the leather-wraps for the steering wheel, hand brake and shift boot and deluxe door sill covers embossed with the "GTI" name.

Endowed with communicative suspension and steering setups and strong brakes, the GTI holds its own when two-lane roads turn twisty, especially in VR6 form. But as most enthusiasts know, the GTI is softer than other sport coupes and hatchbacks on the market. While this may not please those who demand all-out performance, anyone who needs a comfortable daily driver will appreciate the GTI's more subdued demeanor. Additionally, the benefits of driving a hatchback are immediately apparent when it's time to load groceries or luggage: with the rear seats in use, the GTI provides 17 cubic feet of cargo space, and you can fold down the 60/40 rear seat for a total capacity of 41 cubic feet.

Though solidly constructed, the GTI doesn't have quite the reliability record of competitors like the Acura Integra, Honda Prelude and Toyota Celica, so Volkswagen is offering a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty to ease concerns. Besides that, the GTI offers a lot of standard content compared to the competition -- next to BMW's 318ti hatchback, the GTI VR6 is a bargain. So in your search for an entertaining yet practical car, you should definitely put the GTI on your test drive list.

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