There was a time when the obvious choice for an affordable project car was a MK2 VW GTI. It was fun to drive, relatively quick for its time, and aftermarket tuning parts were not only plentiful but affordable. Building a MK2 today is a labor of love and a buster of bank accounts. There are still aftermarket parts available, but the factory replacement parts have become a genuine challenge to find. Pricing is the final blow that takes the MK2 out of consideration as an affordable, easy project. Enthusiasts have to decide between a rough car for a few thousand dollars that will quickly eat up anywhere from four to five times the original purchase price in bodywork alone, or buying a nice, clean car at the price of something newer, faster, and more financially sensible. The obvious answer is to look toward the MK2's younger, bigger, faster sibling, the 1999-2005 MK4 Golf, more specifically a GTI.
You may have heard some bad things about MK4s: window regulators that would leave your windows stuck in the door, usually during a rainstorm; ignition coils and MAF sensors that had a tendency to fail or even the more generic vacuum leak complaint. In the early days of the MK4, those were legitimate complaints. I think some were over-blown because of VW's notoriously bad dealer service centers, but believe me when I say, most of the big problems have been ironed out at this point—with the car, not the dealers. Now, a well-maintained GTI is just as reliable as any other car more than a decade old.
We are starting this project with the intention of demonstrating the potential in the MK4 GTI to be a relatively straightforward project for either younger enthusiasts looking at building their first car or even a more experienced enthusiast looking for an affordable weekend toy. We won't be building a 700hp track car nor will it be an air-suspension equipped, giant-stereo-filling-the-trunk show car. Instead, we will combine some of the best modern technology along with some retro touches you might expect in that dream MK2 project. All the while trying to keep an eye on the budget and the car's usability for hauling kids, groceries, furniture, whatever; it's still a GTI after all.
What you see here is a 2004 MK4 GTI 1.8t with cloth interior, sunroof, and roughly 125,000 miles on the odometer. It has a five-speed manual, but the car started life with the tiptronic automatic (more on that later). It has some existing modifications and already received a couple of quick things from us, in order to get the project rolling.
The 1.8t that debuted in the MK4 was a real revelation for VW enthusiasts. Suddenly, bolt-on tuning products could easily net gains that were unimaginable in the naturally aspirated days. Software alone could get you 30 hp or more. This car, being built after 2002, has an AWP 1.8t, which was rated at 180 hp from the factory and used a K03 Sport Turbo. The Sport Turbo was slightly larger than the original K03 used on earlier 150hp cars and allowed for greater tuning potential. If you can, I would suggest buying the newest MK4 possible for starting your own project. It is worth noting that both the 337 and Anniversary Edition GTIs were equipped with a six-speed manual transmission, and while those cars do command a premium, the extra gear and stronger transmission might be worth the higher price of admission.
When we started our project, our car had a broken clutch, multiple vacuum and boost leaks, and tires that had seen better days. The clutch that was used with the transmission swap was literally broken. The springs in the clutch disc had exploded and some of the pieces were trapped between the disc and the pressure plate, meaning the car wouldn't drive. This was the obvious first issue to address. We want to add power to our GTI, but as stated, we aren't going crazy. Black Forest Industries suggested one of its Stage 2 kits, which includes a pressure plate, carbon-Kevlar clutch disc, along with a 4140 forged steel flywheel. It is recommended for aggressive street use and even track duty in cars making around 300 lb-ft of torque. The kit includes everything you need, even the alignment tool. Install was handled at Eurocode Tuning down the street in Torrance, California. The clutch engagement is as smooth as factory with no shuttering or chattering. The clutch pedal effort is significantly heavier than factory; maybe three to four times the force is required to push in the clutch pedal. In most situations, it isn't really an issue, however, there are times when I am on the freeway in stop-and-go traffic when I do wish for a lighter pedal.
Once the car was actually driving, we found all the small leaks under the hood. The MK4 is blessed, more accurately cursed, with vacuum and boost lines crisscrossing the engine bay. You can try and chase down every leak and replace the lines one at a time, or do what we did and order a set of silicone hoses from Forge. These are much nicer than the unbelievably expensive factory rubber lines and will probably outlast the factory lines by years. Install is relatively straightforward, although some of the lines did require slight trimming. Forge, based in the U.K., designs all its kits on wrong-hand-drive cars, so our left-hand-drive cars are just slightly different. While we were in there, we also added a Forge diverter valve and even a silicon intake hose, which is good for a few horsepower.
The car was flashed with GIAC software before the project started, so sorting out all the vacuum leaks and adding the DV and intake hose really made the software work. The car is quick, but too surge-y for my tastes. The boost builds quickly then falls off, builds again then falls off again. On really cool mornings, the tiny factory intercooler can just cope with the heat, and it runs smooth, but most of the time the engine is constantly over boosting and feels like it's trying to overuse the small turbo. We will address that in an upcoming project update.
Under the car, we are starting out with a decent suspension setup: H&R Springs and KYB AGX adjustable damping shocks and struts, along with a Eurosport lower tie-bar. The ride height makes me wonder if the springs are actually H&R OE Sport models, which have stiffer rates, but only lower the car about a half an inch. While I would like the car lower for aesthetics, the ride and handling mix is spectacular at the moment. It has never hit the bumpstops, there is plenty of articulation to soak up bumps, and because the front suspension geometry isn't compromised by over-lowering, it turns in and grips well. The bushings have seen better days, so those need attention, and once we add power, we may end up wanting a more aggressive spring and damping setup.
As you can see, we have recently added some TSW Bathurst wheels and Continental DW tires. The stock wheels were OK, but the Goodyear Eagle F1s were finished, not only in tread depth, but they were hard as rocks. The Bathurst is a Rotary Forged wheel and in our 18x8-inch size weighs in at just over 18 pounds. The Continental ExtremeContact DW is one of our favorite tires and has given the car a good mix of grip, ride comfort, and noise. The 35mm offset isn't the most aggressive fitment that fits on a MK4, but there's no rubbing, and it's hard to complain about that.
So what else needs attention on our GTI? Well as previously mentioned, the bushings do. That isn't the only thing, however. We would like to see a little better braking ability, along with better feel. We want to add some power and torque, but we absolutely won't accept any sacrifices in driveability. If anything, we would like to remove some of the laziness associated with the stock 1.8t and get the better response associated with the more modern 2.0t engines. We may look into a limited slip differential, but again, we aren't sure if we want to dive right into a process that might end up costing near the purchase price of the car from the time the transmission comes out of the car and it going back in.
We will also address some convenience issues. Bluetooth, smart phone integration and navigation, and even tire pressure monitoring (TPMS) weren't available during the MK4 days, but are common conveniences now. We will need to investigate if these things and more can be accomplished affordably now.
Lastly, we need to address the aesthetics both inside and out. While our GTI is in great shape for a 12-year-old car with more than 120,000 miles on the clock, it can be better. We have dings, scratches, and scuffs on just about every vertical panel on the car, so those will need to be addressed. The plastic headlights are as white and opaque as any car of this age, and polishing only seems to last for about six weeks before they frost over again. Even right after polishing, the old halogen reflectors just don't throw out the light of modern lights.
Inside, the cloth upholstery is showing what collectors call patina. I call it family-life wear and tear. The soft-touch materials are wearing thin, the seats have a few tears, and the headliner is becoming a bit saggy. Again, all of this sounds expensive, but we will search for some ways to bring the car back to something we don't have to make excuses for.
Those of you who have driven both a MK2 and MK4 know that the newer, bigger car will never deliver the exact experience we're longing for. However, if you have owned a MK2 recently, you probably appreciate our desire for something with just a bit more space, less body corrosion, and most importantly, ease of acquiring parts. Have you tried to get an uncracked dashboard for your MK2 recently? Whether you're a young person looking to get started or an older, more experienced enthusiast, hopefully you will find something you like in this project.