Volkswagen 1,4i (2004) Driving Impression

Com 2004

In the modern motoring game 20 years is the equivalent of a good few human lifetimes. There’s almost nothing that lasts that long. Entirely new brands can be established in such a time period, and automotive empires can crumble down. Trusty family pooches are born and die of old age in fewer years. It says much of designer Giugiaro’s genius, then, that one of his creations has achieved such longevity. The original Golf still soldiers on in South Africa, selling thousands of units every year. Importantly, it must be added that there are no “issues” forcing the Volkswagen Citi Golf down South Africans’ throats. It’s not particularly cheap. And there is plenty of competition from the likes of Toyota and Opel. No, its continued success is simply down to its inherent appeal. It’s a cool product, very much due to its classic status. So it’s therefore entirely understandable that Volkswagen South Africa has stuck it out for so long with this car. In fact, it has done more than “sticking it out”. It has evolved the product to a point where even German visitors from Volkswagen’s head office are amazed by it…

Volkswagen Citi 20 years young

Of course, a big part of the Citi’s enduring appeal is its unmistakeable exterior styling. For the latest round of upgrades, Volkswagen has limited itself to changing the front door windows, moving the door mirrors further forward, and a new rear wiper (now sprouting from the window itself). Consequently, the Volkswagen Citi Golf now looks more modern to passers-by, but when quizzed, they’re hard-pressed to answer why this is the case… Some did, however, remark that the car has lost some of its “spunk”. Gone are the days of “red, yellow, blue… not green”. Instead, we have upmarket metallic finishes and smart 15-inch alloy wheels.

Open the doors and let onlookers peer inside, however, and they may just fall on their backs… Here Volkswagen South Africa has really flexed its local product development muscle, raided the VW Group parts bin, and come up with a thoroughly modern and stylish facia that fits so well it may just as well have been done by Giugiaro himself. It’s a very impressive achievement, indeed.

The instrument binnacle is thoroughly modern and features two neat analogue dials and a digital odometer and clock. The centre section of the facia houses a very neatly integrated audio system and three rotary controls replace the very dated sliding-type units used previously. Even the indicator stalks are things of wonder, featuring as they do soft-touch, triple-blink, lane-change indication, similar to what you’ll find on much more expensive cars. Overall, the new facia is superbly well-integrated and lifts the ambience of the Citi interior beyond its rivals. It even makes the car feel more spacious.

Sadly, it is not. Things are acceptable in the front, where the superbly padded seats will keep driver and front passenger happy, but rear legroom is certainly tight and the backrest rather upright. Open the tailgate and you’re transported back to the ‘70s – the loading sill is very high and the boot fairly shallow.

On the go

Powering the revised Volkswagen Citi is the marque’s 1,4-litre fuel-injected engine that delivers 62 kW and 118 Nm. These outputs are competitive with other vehicles in this class and, combined with the Citi’s low weight (less than a tonne), gives spirited performance. Volkswagen claims a 0-100 km/h time of 12,5 seconds, but the Volkswagen Citi feels faster than that because it’s a bit noisy – the engine note is rather raspy. The outdated aerodynamics also have an effect on the fuel consumption, with a figure of around 9 litres/100 km being most realistic.

When it comes to the basic structure of the Volkswagen Citi, however, it is more difficult to effect sweeping changes. As such, the Citi’s underpinnings are very much as before, and this has a strong influence on its on-road behaviour. By modern standards it is rather narrow and high. Steering is unassisted rack-and-pinion and it uses drum brakes at the rear. If this sounds like a recipe for a dynamic disaster to you, you’d have a point, but nevertheless the Volkswagen Citi is quite a bundle of fun to pilot. Yes, the steering is very heavy at parking speeds and the low-speed ride is bumpy, but push the Citi to higher velocities and it actually gets better. The 195/50 tyres give good grip, which is a plus in most circumstances, too.

Volkswagen Citi - Verdict

Only many years from now will Volkswagen South Africa’s achievement with this upgrade of the Citi be properly recognised. In a globalised world, “re-engineering” a product to this extent will become increasingly rare, and the Volkswagen Citi may well be the last of the South African “specials”. Although this particular model is named .com in recognition of the era in which it competes right now, the Volkswagen Citi actually provides a fun driving experience, because it is thoroughly analogue in nature in a depressingly digital world. It’s a blast from the past.

We like:

  • Classic styling
  • Iconic status
  • New facia design
  • Fun to drive
  • Cheap to run
We don’t like:
  • Rear leg-room
  • Heavy steering when parking
  • Low-speed ride
Fast facts

Engine: 1,4-litre, four-cylinder, petrol

Power: 62 kW @ 5 500 rpm

Torque: 118 N.m @ 4 500 rpm

Transmission: Five-speed manual

Wheels: 15-inch alloy

Top speed: 173 km/h

0-100 km/h: 12,5 seconds

Fuel economy:  9,3 litres/100 km


Also consider:

  • Opel Corsa Lite Sport: Much more modern than the Citi and similarly “desirable”. It’s only a three-door though, and boot space in particular is lacking. The engine gives it peppy performance and good fuel economy.
  • Toyota Tazz 130 Sport: Can’t match the Citi in the “cool” stakes, but does offer more space. The 1,3-litre engine is underpowered though, and performance lethargic. The Sport sticker is entirely unjustified.
  • Fiat Palio 1,2 EL: The Fiat’s engine is underpowered by comparison, leading to poor performance. It’s not even very economical. But its woes don’t stop there. Build quality goes a long way in justifying the poor reputation Italian cars have in this regard. One to avoid.