Group Test
Golf War

The VW Golf was King GTi not so long ago, but the third generation model returns to the class it created to face its stiffest test ever. Can it overthrow the superb Fiat Tipo 16V, the premier fast hatch, and see off the storming new Nissan Sunny GTi? John Barker reports.

Having invented the GTi with the Golf back in the 1970s, VW ruled the class for a decade. The Golf remained the definitive fast hatch until the late 1980s when `imitators’ stopped flattering and started making the running. Now the third generation GTi is here and its task is not simply to better the Mk2 but re-establish VW as the leader of the pack. To succeed it will have to despatch the superb Fiat Tipo 16V, a formidable adversary that fought and won the fast hatch crown in our recent eight-hatch test (PC, February 1992).

Intent on doing the same is the new Nissan Sunny GTi, which looks just like its capable and stimulating rally-bred sister, the turbocharged 4wd GTi-R. Power isn’t all, but the Nissan seems better equipped than the VW to overthrow the 148bhp Fiat. It’s true that Tipo’s closest rivals in our recent test were the least powerful, but none had less than 130bhp. The Nissan weighs in with 143bhp from its normally aspirated 2-litre twin-cam but the Golf gives just 115bhp from its eight-valve 2-litre.

If you’re thinking that the 16-valve Golf would be a better choice we’d agree, but that model is still some months away and, anyhow, the 8V is a direct competitor on price: the five-door here costs £14,426 (the three-door is exactly £14,000), compared with £13,949 for the Tipo and £14,950 for the Sunny.

The third generation Golf continues the evolutionary theme set by the Mk2, using developments of the running gear and chassis of its predecessor and becoming more rounded, bigger and heavier. Photographs don’t do it justice; on the move, light and shade playing on its subtle lines, it looks like a saloon version of the Corrado coupe. By comparison, the Sunny, which shares a very similar rear end, looks unfinished, a less refined design. But, boy, does it move.

At the track the Nissan proved itself the quickest of fast hatches, catapulting to 60mph in just 7.2 seconds and on to the more representative quarter-mile in a class-leading 15.6 seconds. The Golf falls the wrong side of the times set by the Tipo which, recording 7.9 and 16.3 seconds for the same disciplines, is a mid to low field runner in the class. The Golf does no better than 9.7 and 17.5 seconds, times that a Rover Metro GTi can beat.

The Golf’s lack of muscle is evident in the top speed and flexibility tests, too. Flat out, the VW recorded 117mph, 10mph down on the Fiat and a division down on the 130mph Nissan. In the all-important in-gear tests, which indicate overtaking ability, the Golf is similarly lacklustre; 30-50mph in fourth takes 8.3 seconds, a second longer than the Tipo and a full two seconds longer than the storming Sunny. It’s the same story in fifth, the Sunny despatching the 50-70mph increment in 9.3 seconds, ahead of the Tipo on 10.1 (whose time is amongst the slowest in the class), with the Golf some way behind on 11.9.

Tipo's smooth, powerful and vocal 16-valver oozes character.
The Tipo proves that performance forms only a part of a champion hatch’s portfolio but, unlike the Fiat, the Golf doesn’t make gains elsewhere to offset its relative sluggishness. There isn’t a fast hatch engine made outside Italy with as much character as the Tipo’s 2-litre twin-cam. The balancer shaft ‘four’ delivers its urge with an intoxicating exhaust rasp and flat-four Alfa-esque thrum. By comparison the Golf’s motor simply slogs away to the 6400rpm limiter in undistinguished repmobile fashion. There’s more character to the Nissan’s twin-cam, which impresses with its remarkably strong and consistent delivery right up to 7500rpm, but it’s an engine you find yourself admiring more than enjoying.

The VW’s gearing doesn’t help its cause, there being a large jump in the ratios between second and third. On a sinuous B road, second is often too low and third too high. It’s an error that the other makers have avoided, though the Fiat’s bulk and slightly peaky power delivery allow the lighter Nissan to stretch out a lead when a series of corners demands instant response.

In terms of shift quality all three cars gearboxes are positive but none is perfect. The VW’s much modified change action is lighter, less bumpy but a little loose, and is occasionally reluctant to slot into second in a hurry. The Nissan’s is tighter and crisper but finding fifth can be troublesome, while the Fiat’s is similarly awkward at times, although it’s allied to easily the best weighted, most positive clutch action.

There’s no pay-off at the fuel pumps for the poor-performing Golf, the Tipo just pipping it with 27.3mpg (Golf 27.2, Sunny 26.4). All three cars are catalyst equipped.

What made the Golf GTi such a delight in previous incarnations was the unflappable poise and precision of its chassis. The Mk3 ought to be even better, its familiar suspension set-up of MacPherson struts, wishbones and anti-roll bar at the front and struts, torsion beam and anti- roll bar at the rear benefiting from the passive rear-steer suspension bushing of the Passat and Corrado. These bushes allow the rear axle to shift slightly under cornering loads, pointing the rear wheels in the same direction as the fronts for greater stability and neater cornering.

`The Tipo feels like the Golf ought to: firmly sprung and superbly damped, yet very progressive'
This Mk3 Golf certainly feels different to previous GTis, its power-assisted rack and pinion steering being much lighter and its chassis giving less of the impression that the front end is doing all the work. There’s grip aplenty from the 195/50 VR15 Continental Super Contacts and, in the dry at least, hustling the Golf through a series of fast kinks shows the chassis to be agile and unnervous. However, the steering is too light and denuded of feedback compared with the Tipo’s, although wet grip is good. Damping that is just a little soft and wallowy further erodes the driver’s confidence when pressing on.

The Tipo feels like the Golf ought to: firmly sprung and superbly damped, decisive yet very progressive. Perhaps the Golf would feel like this if it were fitted with the optional ‘Plus’ suspension pack. Quite why VW is marketing a sports handling kit for its GTi is curious in itself, but it seems it might address most of our criticisms, promising firmer, more direct steering, ‘matched spring damper rates’ and gas-filled dampers at the rear.

Front View
Tipo's fine handling show up deficiencies of the other two.
It takes a fine handler such as the Tipo to show up the deficiencies in other cars, and in this company the Sunny, too, pales in comparison. Its steering simply isn’t positive enough around the straight ahead; it feels as if there is too much lateral compliance at the front. This impression is reinforced by the weave that sets in when full acceleration is used in the lower gears, and the Sunny’s slightly inaccurate feel through turns at speed. It’s more firmly sprung than the Golf, to the detriment of low speed comfort, but displays good composure when you want it. Overall, neither Sunny nor Golf turn in a dynamic performance to trouble the Tipo or the three cars that filled the runners up places in our eight car test: the Citroen ZX Volcane, Renault 19 16V and Peugeot 309 GTi.

The Golf, Sunny and Tipo share similar braking systems with ventilated discs at the front, solid discs astern, and all work superbly through well-weighted, progressive pedals. However, the Nissan justifies its higher basic price by having antilock as standard.

Tipo's excellent optional Recaro seats give superb support.
Assessing interiors, the Golf at last starts to gain ground on the other pair. The care and refinement evident in VW’s exterior is carried through to the cabin which follows the ‘organic’ theme popular with many manufacturers at present. The dashboard and door casings are a blend of smooth curves, and there’s a sense of style lacking in the others. The Tipo’s facia employs plenty of plastic, though the quality and finish is a class up from typical Japanese standards.

GTi pointers are few in all three, the Tipo being most up-front with its drilled metal throttle pedal, red-banded Momo leather steering wheel and extensive range of gauges with red needles. The Sunny has a chunky, height-adjustable leather-trimmed wheel, too, but the Golf makes do with an ordinary-looking and fixed three-spoke affair.

Although the Tipo’s church-pew driving position feels a little odd at first, it works as well as any once you’re used to it, the excellent (optional) Recaro seats keeping the driver firmly in place. More tuning opportunities are offered to the Sunny driver, the cushion of its more subtle sports seats offering fore and aft height adjustment, but the Golf’s firm seats, and the Tipo’s, are slightly more supportive.

Side View
Tipo's styling is a little unhappy, but interior space good.
Least space is provided by the Sunny which, to compound the problem for those with families, is only available with three doors. The take-it-or-leave-it five-door Tipo is much more spacious, and the Golf runs it as close as any other rival. Like the Sunny, however, the Golf’s reversing vision is seriously impaired by the lack of a rear quarter light such as the Tipo has.

Although the Tipos characterful engine is encouragingly vocal when extended, at a cruise it is remarkably quiet. This, combined with very low levels of wind and road noise and an almost total absence of bump-thump, gives the Fiat a decisive win in the refinement stakes. In the Golf, wind noise is much more noticeable and, as in the Sunny, tyre roar filters through to the occupants.

You’ll have guessed by now that neither Golf nor Sunny has the talent to oust the Tipo from its throne. The Sunny is quick enough and well built but it leaves no lasting impression, save for the consistent and strong delivery of its twin-cam engine. This feels every bit as lusty and responsive as the venerable Vauxhall 2-litre 16-valver, but like the Astra GSi, though to a lessor degree, the Sunny’s chassis fails to exploit this asset.

More disappointing is the Mk3 Golf’s performance. If it were badged as a 2.0 GL, it would all add up: the ordinary performance, the consistent but hardly sparkling power delivery, and the agreeable but slightly woolly handling. As a GTi, and one from the company that invented the genre, the latest Golf simply doesn’t convince. It’s certainly stylish, inside and out, even though those fog and driving lamps set into the front apron are just blanks.

Although the prospect of putting your own money into a Fiat rather than a Volkswagen holds less appeal, if you’re talking fast hatches the Tipo is streets ahead. The 8V Golf will never appeal to those who seek performance first, and until its chassis is sharpened up (perhaps by fitting the ‘Plus’ suspension pack as standard) it won’t justify its GTi tag.


  Fiat Tipo 16V     Nissan Sunny 2.0     Volkswagen Golf GTi  
0-30mph 3.0 2.9 3.3
0-40mph 4.0 4.1 5.1
0-50mph 5.9 5.5 7.2
0-60mph 7.9 7.2 9.7
0-70mph 10.2 9.4 13.2
0-80mph 13.4 12.2 17.9
0-90mph 17.4 15.4 23.9
0-100mph 22.2 20.2 32.3
0-110mph - 26.9 -
Standing 1/4mile (sec/mph) 16.3/87 15.6/91 17.5/80
Averaged top speed (mph) 127 130 117
30-50mph 7.3 6.3 8.3
40-60mph 7.7 6.3 8.2
60-70mph 7.5 6.3 8.5
60-80mph 7.4 6.3 9.3
70-90mph 7.8 6.6 11.5
80-100mph 8.5 7.9 14.9
90-110mph - 11.0 -
30-50mph 10.1 8.9 11.0
40-60mph 9.8 9.1 10.8
50-70mph 10.1 9.3 11.9
60-80mph 11.5 10.1 12.9
70-90mph 11.8 11.0 15.3
80-100mph 12.7 12.2 -
Overall fuel cons (mpg) 23.9 26.4 27.2
Touring mpg(from Govt figs) 28.3 32.1 33.9
Track conditions Damp Dry Dry
Temperature (C) 11 7 7
Wind speed (mph) 10 16 16
Atmospheric pressure (mbar) 1011 750 750

SPECIFICATION Fiat Tipo 16V Nissan Sunny GTI VW Golf GTI Mk3
ENGINE Four-cylinder, in-line, transverse Four-cylinder, in-line, transverse Four-cylinder, in-line, transverse
DISPLACEMENT 1995cc 1998cc 1984cc
BORE x STROKE 84.0mm x 90.0mm 86.0mm x 86.0mm 82.5mm x 92.8mm
RATIO 10.5 to 1 10.0 to 1 10.4 to 1
FUEL AND IGNITION Electronic multipoint fuel injection and ignition Electronic multi-point fuel injection and ignition Digifant multipoint fuel injection, electronic ignition
CYLINDER BLOCK Cast iron Aluminium alloy Cast iron
CYLINDER HEAD Aluminium alloy, dohc, four valves per cylinder Aluminium alloy, dohc, four valves per cylinder Aluminium alloy, sohc, two valves per cylinder
MAX POWER (DIN) 148bhp @6250rpm 141bhp @6400rpm 115bhp @5400rpm
MAX TORQUE (DIN) 131lb ft @5000rpm 109lb ft @4800rpm 122lb ft @3200rpm
GEARBOX Five-speed manual Five-speed manual Five-speed manual


1st 3.55 4th 1.16
2nd 2.27 5th 0.94
3rd 1.54 Reverse 3.91
1st 3.06 4th 0.97
2nd 1.83 5th 0.76
3rd 1.29 Reverse 3.15
1st 3.45 4th 0.97
2nd 1.94 5th 0.81
3rd 1.29 Reverse n/a

SPEED PER 1000rpm, TOP

3.562 to 1
4.18 to 1
3.67 to 1
22.1 mph
FRONT SUSPENSION Independent by MacPherson struts, lower wishbones, coil springs and anti-roll bar Independent by MacPherson struts, coil springs, transverse links and anti-roll bar Independent by MacPherson stiuts, lower wishbones, coil springs and anti-roll bar
REAR SUSPENSION Independent by struts, trailing arms and anti-roll bar Independent by struts, coil springs with parallel links and anti-roll bar Independent by struts, torsion beam, trailing arms, anti-roll bar


Rack and pinion, power assisted Rack and pinion, power assisted Rack and pinion, power assisted
BRAKES Front vented discs, rear discs Front vented discs, rear discs.
Front vented discs, rear discs.
Anti-lock optional

6J x 15in cast alloy

6J x l4in alloy

6J x 15in alloy


185/55 VR15 Pirelli P600

195/55 VR14 Bridgestone

195/50 VR15 Continental

WHEELBASE 99.9in 95.7in 97.5in
TURNING CIRCLE 33.8ft 34.lft 36.1ft
FUEL TANK CAPACITY 12.1 gal/55 litres 11 gal/50 litres
12.1 gal/55 litres
UNLADEN WEIGHT 2767lb 2159lb 2203lb
TEST WEIGHT  3097lb 2489lb 2533lb
POWER TO WEIGHT RATIO (TEST WEIGHT) 107bhp/ton 127bhp/ton 102bhp/ton
BASIC PRICE £13,949 £14,950 £14,426
PRICE AS TESTED £15,492 £14,950 £n/a
OPTIONAL EXTRAS FITTED TO TEST CAR Anti-lock brakes £948, Recaro front seats £595 None Electric sunroof £n/a

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