The jury may still be out on the Mk8, but most commentators would adjudge the 1991 Mk3 to be the poorest articulation of the qualities that made the Golf into an automotive phenomenon over the past five decades.
The 1974 Volkswagen Golf Mk1 was a simply brilliant car. In retrospect, however, it appears to be something of an outlier in the eight-generation history of the model. When one thinks of Volkswagen’s C-segment stalwart, the characteristics that come immediately to mind are the high quality of its design, engineering(1) and build, its sober, timeless styling that eschews fads and fashion, good (but not outstanding) dynamics and most importantly, the quiet self-confidence, perhaps even bordering on smugness, it instils in its owners. Golf ownership says: “I could have spent more, but why would I?”
Unburdened by any of this later baggage, the Golf Mk1 was more Italianate than Germanic in character, with its sharp Giugiaro styling, lightweight construction, and peppy and eager (if noisy) engines, to the extent that nobody would have been surprised if it had emerged as Fiat’s hatchback replacement for the 128(2). It also shared another less desirable Italian characteristic, a propensity to rust almost as enthusiastically as any contemporary from Fiat, Lancia or Alfa Romeo.
The 1983 Golf Mk2 was actually the first ‘real’ Golf as defined above. Bigger and heavier than its predecessor, it was styled in-house under Herbert Schäfer and replaced the crisp lines of the Mk1 with a fuller style that had rather more visual (and physical) heft. The Golf had left its fashion-conscious adolescent years behind and was now becoming more mature, as were many of its customers.
Volkswagen attempted to repeat this evolutionary step with the Golf Mk3, launched in August 1991(3). The car actually gained less in size and weight over the Mk2 than that model had over the 1974 original. However, the styling, credited to J Mays, was considerably softer and more organic, following the trend in early 1990’s automotive fashion.
It still retained the Golf’s familiar profile, with its hallmark wide C-pillars and upright tailgate. Volkswagen claimed improved aerodynamics (a Cd of 0.30) and crash protection for the new body, and the car was fitted with dual front airbags for the first time. Another innovation was the use of water-based paint, but this would prove rather soft and fragile and it caused an issue with premature corrosion.
Softer was an adjective that could equally be applied to the new model’s dynamics. It drove with noticeably less precision than the Mk2 and felt somewhat baggy in the words of one reviewer. Moreover, the hewn-from-solid quality of the Mk2 was gone, replaced with a perceptible body flex(4) that was accompanied by squeaks and rattles from various items of interior trim. This raised suspicions that Volkswagen had undertaken some surreptitious cost-cutting on its new model.
The entry-level versions of the Mk3 were also rather dowdy looking, with large integrated but unpainted textured grey plastic bumpers and steel wheels with small hub caps. Inside, the dashboard was a cliff-face of black plastic, with a mix of a smooth satin finish or an unconvincing grained elephant hide approximation to leather. Performance was pretty pedestrian too. Fitted with the base 1.4 litre 59 bhp (44 kW) engine, the Mk3 took 15.9 seconds to reach 60 mph (97 km/h) and had a top speed of 98 mph (157 km/h).
The underwhelming nature of the new Golf would not have surprised at least one industry watcher, Car Magazine‘s Georg Kacher. In the August 1989 edition of the magazine, Kacher reported as follows:
“While the current Golf Mk2 continues to sell well, its replacement has recently clinicked so poorly that the car must again undergo detail changes. Even internally, project A3 [Golf Mk3] is causing controversy. While some managers hope that the latest front and rear end revisions will make all the difference to the allegedly rather plump and homespun styling, others suggest shortening the lifespan of the A3 and replacing it earlier with the more progressive A4 [Golf Mk4].”
Notwithstanding its shortcomings, the Golf Mk3 won the 1992 European Car of the Year Award, ahead of the Opel Astra F and Citroen ZX, becoming the first Volkswagen to do so since the award was established in 1964. A Variant five-door estate joined the three and five-door hatchback models in early 1993, the first time such a model featured in the Golf range. In late 1994, a new convertible version replaced the long-running 1980 Golf Mk1 Cabrio.
In reality, most Golf owners were unlikely to notice the deterioration in its dynamic abilities. Those who drove the GTI version did, however, notice its lacklustre performance. Despite the engine being enlarged to 2.0 litres and producing 115 bhp (86 kW), 0 to 60 mph (97 km/h) took a leisurely 8.7 seconds, and the top speed was just 124 mph (200 km/h). The culprit was the car’s additional weight, which reduced the power to weight ratio to 113 bhp/ton from its predecessor’s 133 bhp/ton.
For those who wanted stronger performance, there was the new VR6 version, fitted with Volkswagen’s innovative narrow-angle 2.8 litre V6 engine. This featured a 15° angle between the offset banks of cylinders, which shared a single cylinder head. The engine was also offered in the contemporary Corrado and Passat B3 models.
The VR6 was something of a Q-car, with only discreet chrome badging and unique alloy wheels to distinguish it from lesser versions. It was fundamentally different in character to the GTI, being best suited to covering long motorway distances at high speed in relaxed comfort. In contrast, the traditional hot hatch was most at home on twisting, sinuous B-roads, even if the Mk3 GTI no longer excelled here.
Car Magazine ran a Golf VR6 for a long-term test and found it be fragile and unreliable. The magazine summed up its opinion of the car on one of its most memorable and infamous covers, for the April 1994 edition. Needless to remark, Volkswagen was not pleased.
In January 1993, Volkswagen introduced a 16-valve version of the GTI 2.0 litre engine producing 150 bhp, which reduced the 0 to 60mph (97 km/h) time to 8.0 seconds and increased the top speed to 134 mph (216 km/h). This brought the performance back into line with its peers, but the handling was still foolproof rather than engaging, perhaps even more so, as the GTI 16V received the VR6’s traction control, which worked with the standard ABS to prevent wheelspin.
The Golf Mk3 had a relatively short production life of just six years before being superseded by the Mk4 model in 1998(5). It sold well, with a total of around 4.83 million examples finding buyers, averaging slightly more annual sales than its predecessors. However, it was quickly eclipsed by its crisp and handsome successor, which featured an interior that set a new benchmark for quality in its class.
Today the Golf Mk1 and Mk2, especially in GTI form, are fondly remembered, but the Mk3 registers barely a flicker of interest. It was by no means a terrible car, but despite the existence of models like the VR6 and GTI 16V, it was just a bit ordinary and dull, and that is how it made many owners feel.
(1) So resilient and enduring is the Golf’s image that it seems largely immune to diesel emissions scandals, concerns around fragile, overstressed small-capacity turbocharged engines, twin-clutch gearbox maladies, and Volkswagen’s generally mediocre performance in reliability surveys.
(2) Conversely, Fiat’s eventual 128 replacement, the 1978 Ritmo, was much more French than Italian in character, with its soft suspension and pliant ride.
(3) Early quality control issues, followed by strikes at Volkswagen’s plant in Peubla, Mexico, delayed the Mk3 Golf’s US launch until spring 1994.
(4) Counter-intuitively, the body-flex was more perceptible in the three-door model.
(5) The Golf Mk3 Cabriolet was given an Mk4 style nose and revised tail, and continued in production alongside the Mk4 range.