The Golf GTI has always had a bit of a problem. It’s nothing to do with its performance, or quality, or usability, or style – those things are unimpeachable elements of its character. It may not be the original hot hatch, but it’s the one that unarguably made the formula what it is. No, the problem is the name: GTI. Nowadays it’s just a cultural trope, we don’t give it any thought; GTI equals hot hatch, and has done for decades. But really it doesn’t make sense – the letters stand for Grand Touring Injection (or Gran Turismo Iniezione, tomayto tomarto), and it’s those first two letters that jar. A true-blue gran turismo is the type of car you’d jump into outside the RAC building on Pall Mall, hare down to Monaco at unlikely speeds, and step out in Casino Square with an unruffled shirt and not even a hint of lower back pain. An Aston Martin DB9, perhaps, or a Bentley Continental. And that’s just not what hot hatches are about. They’re for tearing up B-roads as if your hair’s on fire, cocking a rear wheel at every given opportunity, before picking the kids up from school and sensibly trundling down to Sainsbury’s for the weekly shop. And then, let’s be honest, heading back out to those B-roads once the kids are in bed. But you wouldn’t choose, say, a Mk2 Golf GTI as a primary weapon-of-choice for trans-continental manoeuvres. There are better tools for the job.
However, back in 1988, Volkswagen had an epiphany. What if they could take the perennially popular Golf GTI platform and reinvent it as a proper Grand Tourer? A muscular engine, a cosseting ride, premium interior appointments… a luxurious take on the formula?
And so the Corrado came to pass. Corporate capriciousness somewhat blew the gambit by refusing to glue a GT or GTI badge to it, but that’s its true spirit. There were a few different engine options on offer: at launch, there was a very Golf-like 1.8-litre 16v, or a supercharged 8v 1.8 for the G60 model, and then in 1992 came a 2.0-litre 16v and, most excitingly, a 2.9-litre VR6. It’s this last one that we’re most interested in here, as it’s the engine which really fulfils the gran turismo ethos. A needlessly big motor, creamy-smooth, perfect for shimmering through Europe on a torque-rich wave of swank.
Now, it’s important to note that the Corrado VR6 retailed at over £23,500, which was quite a lot more than a Golf GTI. Around 50% more in fact, and to justify this price-point it would never have been enough for Volkswagen to simply drop a great engine in and drape a slinky new body over the top. No, to justify its existence, the Corrado had to be posh. And it was. Buyers with a penchant for option-box ticking found themselves enjoying air-con, electric windows, heated electric mirrors, a leather steering wheel, cruise control, a trip computer, a posh stereo, ABS, a sunroof, leather seats, heated washer nozzles… and the cherry on this sumptuous cake was the speed-reactive rear spoiler, programmed to rise at 70mph as a natty party piece (and quickly re-engineered by VW’s eggheads to deploy at 45mph instead, after UK buyers suggested that they didn’t particularly desire a red-flag to the traffic police to point out when they were ‘making progress’). The addition of the VR6 was vital for sparking lively debates at Le Bar Américain: ‘of course it’s not an actual V6, count the cylinder heads’, ‘yes it is, the banks sit 15° adrift from one another’ and so forth. And because it was such a hulking brute of a powerplant, the Corrado needed re-engineering to accept it – the front track was wider, so the wings needed to be broader too, and the G60’s OE Bilsteins weren’t up to the task so beefier Konis were drafted in. Most importantly of all, it had a muscular bonnet bulge. Because that sort of thing impresses the valets at the Hôtel de Paris, and you really want your fancy motor to be parked out front where everybody can see it, don’t you?
The VR6 we’re lucky enough to play with today, owned by serial Corrado tinkerer Barrie Jones, is arguably the perfect example of the breed: factory-standard, and not pampered. Not tatty by any means (impressively tidy, in fact), but at the same time clearly in regular use and very much not a garage queen. This is an owner unafraid to get his rare and appreciating youngtimer dirty; it was bought to be driven and enjoyed, and that’s precisely what it’s used for.
Easing into the sumptuously-stuffed driver’s seat, it’s immediately obvious that Volkswagen’s late ’80s product planners were onto something. Whereas a Mk2 Golf is a bright vision of clarity with its slim pillars and low beltline, the Corrado feels more like sitting in a private members’ club on a dark winter’s evening – it shrinks around you, cosy and warm. It’s pleasingly selfish, everything on the dash is pointing at the driver, and the stubby gearlever is little more than a hand-span away from the chunky, small-diameter steering wheel. The scene feels set for a pan-European blast (even if we are just playing about in the Hampshire countryside), and with a twist of the key, the fantasy is complete. Yes, you can feel the subtle but insistent throbbing of a big-capacity engine. Yes, there’s a buttery-smooth squidge as you slide the gear-lever home. Yes, this is – elementally-speaking – what it would feel like in an Aston or a Bentley. The Golf has indeed evolved into a GT.
It’s not all engineering artifice for the sake of smoke-and-mirrors either. Aiming that snub snout toward the leafy blue yonder, it’s clear that the substance matches the style; if you’ve perused the specs before setting off then you’ll be aware of the 6.7-second 0-62mph time, but that doesn’t tell the whole story – this isn’t just about point-to-point pace, but a relentless surging power delivery like a surfer tube-riding an endless barrel wave.
The sound of the VR6 is what seems to enthuse owners most, a basso profundo symphony like an ocean liner’s engine room, but what really astounds here is the torque. There’s just so much of it. A peak of 181lb.ft at 4,200rpm may sound modest by today’s standards, but the band is so fat and readily deployable, you basically only need two gears most of the time – 2nd is good for some way beyond 60mph, and 3rd gear keeps you in the post-4,000rpm sweet-spot for mile after mile of sweeping B-road mischief. Of course, these hijinks aren’t the purpose of a GT (and sure, the long-legged 5th ratio allows supremely relaxing motorway cruising), but it’s thoroughly life-affirming to discover that Volkswagen engineered the big-banger Corrado to be as playful as it is relaxing. This, in fact, is the biggest surprise the VR6-spec coupe offers: it’s so easy to get hung up on the fact that it’s a bona fide gran turismo, you almost forget that it’s also a raucous horizon-hunting hot hatch disguised as a sports car. The short-throw gearshift and feelsome steering are perfect for country lanes, while the comfy armchairs and laid-back vibe soothe you down the A-roads. This, in the most logical sense, is a true GTI. Maybe not in name or tradition, but certainly in pedantry.