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 |   |  Legendary - Driving a 1989 VW Rallye Golf
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Legendary - Driving a 1989 VW Rallye Golf

Perfect timing

Jun 22, 2017

It's September 1989; I'm 14 years old sitting on my bedroom floor with R.E.M.'s album Green—the band's best work—echoing off the car-poster-covered walls from a then-cutting-edge Compact Disc player. I'm reading the latest issue of this very magazine, prior to 1991 called VW & Porsche. At the time, the Internet was only used by people even nerdier than myself, so opening the pages of a car magazine revealed actual new information. There it was, on glossy paper, the brand-new Volkswagen Rallye Golf in all its boxed-flared and monochromatic goodness. The smooth integrated bumpers and projector headlamps took the boxy shape of the MK2 years into the future. Then, there was the drivetrain, a supercharged engine and all-wheel drive—the stuff of Gruppe B dreams.

1989 vw rallye golf passenger side front fender Photo 2/14   |   1989 Vw Rallye Golf Passenger Side Front Fender

Spin the wheel of time forward to May 24, 2017. I'm sitting in a Rallye Golf in Austria and I may not be wearing acid washed jeans procrastinating doing Algebra homework, but all the emotions are the same. But this isn't the realization of a kid's daydream; this created a temporal bridge. Almost three decades of life experience has led to this, but it all compressed into nothingness.

1989 vw rallye golf engine Photo 3/14   |   1989 Vw Rallye Golf Engine

I could have driven a number of Rallye Golfs in the past, even in the United States—although it was never officially imported here. Those experiences wouldn't have worked. The road wouldn't have been perfect; some aftermarket shop or owner would have ruined the car a dozen different ways in an effort to "make it theirs." It would have broken the continuity between that 14-year-old's vision and the current reality. This is the way it has to happen.

The door handle opens with the typical MK2 mixture of springy mechanical resistance and a feeling of please don't let this be the time it inevitably breaks. There is a sharp metallic click here that's missing from all of today's cars. The door opens lightly until it hits the detents, which feel abrupt, being before the days of haptic awareness. It smells like a MK2, it smells like my old MK2, a bit like crayons.

1989 vw rallye golf exhaust tip Photo 7/14   |   1989 Vw Rallye Golf Exhaust Tip

Even though I've driven plenty of G60 Corrados, I still don't know exactly what to expect when I turn the key. It grumbles roughly, but in a different way than the Corrados I've driven—I can't put my finger on it. In the months leading up to driving this Rallye, the oldest car I've driven with a manual is my own MK4 with a Diesel Geek short shift kit. The other manuals have all been Porsches and VWs no more than a few years old. The shifter in the Rallye is a mystery box in comparison. The throws are eternal and gear placement indistinct; the First/Second plane is obvious, but trying to slot through the gears sitting still leads me to believe accurately finding the Third/Fourth plane might require meditative transcension not often achieved nine hours out of one's normal time zone.

1989 vw rallye golf front fascia Photo 8/14   |   1989 Vw Rallye Golf Front Fascia

The driver from 1989 would rev it and drop the clutch; this is a car from VW Classic's collection, so in reality I decide on careful movements. The clutch pedal has all the feel I remember from older cars, all the feel that is missing in modern cars that have flow restrictors in the hydraulic system to keep drivers from damaging the driveline. It pulls better than I thought; being supercharged, it doesn't have the low-end torque of my 1.8t MK4 GTI, but get it over 3,000 rpm and it feels as fast if not faster. It sounds a whole lot better as well.

The MK2 is still one of the best driving Golfs; it communicates better than any other model. It feels more developed than the MK1, without losing the simplicity and lightness. Like any Golf, the MK2s feel front heavy, with the likely explanation being that they are. They understeer, but rotate with a quick lift-off. Even with stiff springs and antiroll bars, there is still a decent amount of body roll. The Rallye Golf's viscous driveline balances the car out, not just by putting power to both axles but by adding a couple hundred pounds to the rear and bottom of the car. Although I didn't get the car anywhere near its limits, the basic characteristics still come through. Like every all-wheel-drive VW, you won't ever mistake it for rear-wheel drive; powering out of turns feels like a front driver with tons of grip. This car feels like it has twice the power of my old MK2, a car that did have power-induced understeer. The Rallye Golf, however, just accelerates. With that said, I'm sure on slippery surfaces, power on four-wheel drifts are entirely possible and more than likely, habit forming.

1989 vw rallye golf fender badge Photo 12/14   |   1989 Vw Rallye Golf Fender Badge

The car feels so powerful, I had to investigate. Sure enough, it's equipped with a 16-valve engine. While roughly 5,000 handbuilt Rallye Golfs left the VW Motorsports facility in Brussels with 158hp 1.8L eight-valve engines, there were just two built with 207hp 16-valve engines. That kind of horsepower may not sound like super car numbers today (it's a few shy of a MK7 GTI), but while that MK7 GTI is a little more than 3,200 pounds and the Golf R is another 200 pounds richer, a Rallye Golf is just 2,600 pounds.

1989 vw rallye golf taillight Photo 13/14   |   1989 Vw Rallye Golf Taillight

I only drove the car for half an hour, but on the most perfect Austrian mountain roads you can imagine. It twists through farms and villages, sometimes not much wider than the car. In spots, it was easy to imagine being in an actual rally, while at other times, I had very real fantasies about being a local, living in a chateau and using a Rallye Golf as a daily driver. Perhaps that fantasy is the next stage of this timeline. For better or worse, these cars have shot up in value over the last few years, and deservedly so, BMW built roughly four times as many e30 M3s. With the 25-year rule allowing importation to the United States, it is now possible to get one here—legally. I'm not sure that's how it's supposed to happen, for me at least.

1989 vw rallye golf driver side front view Photo 14/14   |   1989 Vw Rallye Golf Driver Side Front View
Michael Febbo
125 Articles
Legendary - Driving a 1989 VW Rallye Golf
Tech Spec
Base price: $27,000 in 1989
Price as tested: $30,000 will get a decent example imported to the U.S.
Layout: front-engine, AWD, five-seat, two-door hatchback
Engine: 1.8L, 207hp/186-lb-ft, supercharged DOHC 16-valve I-4
Transmission: five-speed manual
Curb weight: 3,200 lb. (mfr.)
Wheelbase: 97.6 in.
Length x width x height: 158.9 x 66.9 x 55.1 in.
Suspension: MacPherson strut (f); multi-link (r)
Brakes: single-piston calipers, 11.0-in. rotors (f); single-piston calipers, 9.4-in. rotors (r)
Wheels & tires: VW Sebring wheels 15x6 (f/r); Continental ContiPerformanceContact 2, 205/50 (f/r)



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