It was decided: I needed a cheap, hopefully reliable car, one to keep in the garage and dust off for motorway blasts to Purple Parking every month or so.
Much as the old Merc 300 CE did me proud, it wasn’t quite ideal for this. Add in the fact two children means limited time for the rolling restoration I had planned, and… well, 18 months on, it’s soon to go on eBay.
So, to a replacement. I first started looking over Christmas, assuming I’d easily be able to get a nice smoker for around a grand. Even have the luxury of picking and choosing while everyone was eating mince pies, I thought.
Whoa – that 3 Series is actually mouldy
Oh, how I was mistaken. The horrors I saw were enough to put me off car buying for life (well, a good six weeks). Overpriced, underprepared and worn smooth, they were a motley crew of bangers alright. The E46 3 Series with a wholly mouldy interior? The Peugeot 407 that felt held together by sandwich bag ties? Awful, awful cars.
So I changed tack. Moved away from budget secondhand car dealers and onto eBay. Honed in my search to that old Aucock favourite, the Volkswagen Golf. Then did a deal over email with a mate who was selling his wife’s old Mk4 GTI.
I picked it up last Friday, with much anticipation. This is despite me reading forums, reminding me of the scorn most view the Mk4 2.0 GTI with. No, it’s not a ‘real’ GTI (VW called it Golf Sport in Europe). Yes, the engine is hardly swimming in power (115hp!). No, it doesn’t even have the proper GTI suspension fitted to the 1.8T.
I read it all – page after page of ‘don’t buy, don’t buy’. So I bought. And the drive home justified my decision admirably.
The forums say I’m a fool
The car itself: it looked great. All Mk4s do, even the tired ones, but this was especially pretty to its new owner’s eyes, because of the sweet and apparently quite rare colour, Canyon Red. Proper five-spoke alloys too, plus the smoked rear lights that mark out the GTI models at a distance. Lovely.
It had been stood for a little while, so was a bit musty inside. But the black and red seats looked great, the dash was tidy and the five-door practicality was something I appreciated almost from the off. With ISOFIX and AC, it was ideal.
The proof, of course, would be in the driving home (100 miles, ‘n all: I don’t do things by halves). The engine started sweetly: good. The gearbox felt snappier than I was expecting: good. The clutch bite was high: yikes (forums later confirmed they’re all like that, apparently). And as we rolled away, I was transported back a decade.
Golf GTI flashback
See, I’d been here before. Eons ago, I bought a Mk2 Golf GTI on eBay, again sight unseen. This was really cheap, half the price of this one (and this one ain’t expensive) but for a reason – it too had been stood, even longer than this. Once, it had been red; now, it was pink. The brakes were gritty. The battery was shot. It needed reviving.
It was also in Portishead, 95 miles from home. So I got the train down and drove it back home, after the merest kick of the tyres. Again, nothing like committing yourself.
Know what? It was a peach. I was smiling from the first gearchange into second. It felt solid, sweet, tough – and the low-down, easy torque from the 1.8-litre engine was a genuine surprise. All of which I was again feeling in my new purchase, two marks and umpteen car changes on. 115hp it may meekly have, but it also has 129lb ft of torque, delivered quickly and without turbo softness: when a car’s done 175,000 miles, this is the sort of stuff you drive with, rather than seeking high-rev thrills.
And so a thoroughly cheery drive home ensued. I soaked in the brilliant blue and red dials. The sports seats made me feel good. And as for the ride and handling, yes it proved soft and squidgy, but nothing a new set of springs and dampers can’t ultimately fix – and while I wait, there’s a nice plush ride to dampen away the nation’s motorways.
It’s the Golf GTI fans love to hate. It’s perhaps not the obvious choice for motorway crunching, either. But by the time I was home, the trip was showing 39mpg, I knew I’d spent half what a TDI would cost me and sitting in my email was a half-price insurance policy too.
Altogether, it’s just the job. And I already like it so much, you’ll be hearing plenty more of it soon…