As Mk2 Golfs have risen in value, attention has naturally turned to its generally less-loved successor. With cars changing hands for as little as a few hundred pounds, the third-generation Golf makes plenty of sense – as long as you know how to sort the nuggets from the nails. Here’s our VW Golf Mk3 buying guide.
A roomy retro daily driver
While the Mk3 Golf is less of a driver’s car than either the Mk1 or Mk2, there are still lots of positives – like the fact that it is a roomy and refined daily that still costs buttons to buy. And while some may feel this Golf has lost its edge there are plenty of ways to tighten up the ride and add a few more horses as Mk3 Golf parts are readily available.
With a reputation for being bombproof, the Mk3 is great to work on at home and what you lose in raw chuck-ability you gain in terms of safety and overall comfort. The key though, as always, is to buy a good car in the first place so you don’t blow your budget playing catch up with a list of repair jobs in the first few months of ownership.
The mid-nineties VW Vento (VW Jetta 3 in the US) was the saloon version of the Mk3 Golf. They are few and far between in the UK now. Their values are typically less than the hatchback unless it has the VR6 engine, in which case there is an argument to pay a premium for its rarity. The Vento much like the Jetta before it was designed with rectangular headlamps, which offers a slightly different face to the front of the vehicle.
Golf Mk3 Engine Options
One of the best things about the Mk3 Golf is that it came with a far greater choice of engines than either of the early models. Initially, there was a ‘poverty-spec’ 1.4-litre, a slightly more adequate 1.6-litre and also several 1.8-litre versions including the 90bhp Driver. The GTI once again came in both 8v and 16v guises, only this time the block has been enlarged to 2.0-litres. Arguably the pick of the bunch is the bahn-storming VR6, fitted with a 2.8-litre V6. For those shopping with fuel economy in mind, the Mk3 was also treated to a naturally aspirated and turbocharged version of VW’s 1.9-litre diesel.
What to look for under the bonnet
The four-pot petrol engines are strong and reliable if looked after, so quiz the owner about maintenance and ask to see the history file. A classic sign of neglect is ‘filler cap mayo’ which almost certainly points to head gasket troubles. A dirty engine isn’t a worry, but pools of oil or signs of leakage should cause some concern. The 1.4-litre engine works hardest out of all the Mk3 range, so it really is crucial that previous owners have kept on top of servicing. For all models, you’ll want to know when the Golf Mk3 cambelt was last changed, then back this up with a visual inspection if you can. Make sure that the GTI idle is smooth; if it runs rough then the Mk3 Golf idle stabilisation valve is likely to be at fault. The 8v item is available quite cheaply, the 16v is a far more costly genuine-only replacement.
What to check on a Golf VR6 Engine
The VR6 engine has a pair of timing chains rather than a cambelt so any rattle should be viewed with suspicion. We offer a VR6 Timing chain kit, but unless you are a seasoned mechanic you’ll probably want to enlist the help of a professional to install them. Listen out for a tinny noise which seems to be coming from the driver’s side as you accelerate, this generally means a tensioner is on its way out and it’s time to get both the tensioners and chains replaced. Golf Mk3 Coil packs are prime candidates for causing flat spots or misfires, the good news is we sell these and many other ignition parts for Mk3 Golf.
Buying a Golf Mk3 Diesel
When it comes to buying a Golf Mk3 with as diesel engine aim for a Turbo model if you can. The non-turbocharged examples produce a measly 64bhp, which feels a little lacklustre in this heavy hatchback. They tend to be pretty bulletproof though, so problems should be few and far between.
Golf Mk3 Gearboxes
Manual gearboxes are fairly reliable, but worn bearings can be an issue on the high milers. Gearboxes fitted to the 16v GTI and the VR6 are a lot more durable than the others, but even on these, you’ll need to keep an ear out for any uncharacteristic noises, whines or failing synchromesh. As with all manual transmission cars, if the clutch pedal has no bite, or slips when pulling away on a hill you could be in for a relatively big bill, in comparison to the cars purchase price. On the plus side, if you are handy with the spanners, you could contemplate fitting a Golf Mk3 clutch kit yourself.
The 4WD Golf Mk3
A quick mention in case you stumble across a Golf Mk3 Syncro. These cars were more popular in Europe than the UK, but are now fairly sought after. Fitted with 4 wheel drive, they are a great winter hack, but also a fantastic base for a big power build. Alongside their rarity also comes the lack of parts availability, so bear that in mind should you discover a Syncro with ‘just a few bits missing.’
Golf Mk3 Suspension
Mk3 Golf suspension struts have a habit of failing around 80,000-miles, so check the service book and give the front end a couple of pushes to see how they react. If the car has been lowered ask as to the method, and the previous owners choice of Golf Mk3 suspension kit. Cheap Mk3 Golf coilovers will visually improve things, but won’t do the handling much good if they have been wound right down and thrown on without any kind of geometric alignment afterwards.
If the tail end feels a little too lively around bends then the Mk3 Golf rear axle bushes could be at fault. It’s a good idea to have all the bushes checked anyway as replacing deteriorated examples will vastly improve handling, making your Mk3 feel tighter and far more willing in the corners. A Mk3 Golf GTI with decent bushes, even on standard suspension can be a real pleasure to drive.
What brakes does the Mk3 Golf have as standard?
The tried and tested front discs and rear drums configuration is fine for the standard models, while the more performance-orientated Mk3s (such as the VR6) have all-round disc brakes and are even simpler to maintain. Note though that the earlier VR6 and 16v GTI models with rear discs have the same Mk2 Golf brake calipers and these don’t like either cold weather or being left standing for long periods as the handbrake can seize.
The GTI and VR6 Mk3s were fitted with ABS as standard, although it did come as an option across the entire range. If yours is fitted with ABS then check the dash light comes on when the car is started and goes out again a few seconds afterwards.
Golf Mk3 Wheels and Tyres
Check the wheels for signs of curb contact, and give the tyres a once over too. New rubber isn’t expensive for the stock wheels, but if they are wearing on the inside or a mix-match of ‘fast-fit-specials’ you’ll begin to paint a picture of the life the car has lived. If the car is rolling on aftermarket alloys then check these the same, but if they aren’t to your taste factor in a set of OEM hoops to better satisfy the style you are after. Non-GTI and VR6 models all had 4/100 PCD, the sportier versions were drilled with 5/100 fitment. Wheels are easily interchangeable across the VW range.
Always ask if the vehicle has locking wheel bolts, and where the key is. You don’t want to discover the locking tool is missing when you’re at the side of the road with a flat.
Where do Mk3 Golfs rust?
Despite being relatively new by Mk1 Golf standards, don’t be surprised to find rust on the Mk3 Golf Bodywork. Areas to check include the tailgate, the metal around the windscreen and where the front wings meet the sills and the wheel arches – those plastic wheel arch trims and side skirts are notorious for holding moisture. Under the bonnet, check the chassis leg under the battery tray as well as the strut towers. Ideally, you’ll want to lift the carpets and check the floors, but if things look crispy on the outside, expect to find more corrosion hidden away when you get the car home. Shiny paint, low, mileage and a full-service history can’t be sold on, so don’t be too shy with your offers if you find rust the seller has neglected to mention. Finally, check the doors close properly. Being on the weighty side means hinges can droop causing the entire door assembly to sag.
Golf Mk3 Interiors: What to watch out for
Worn seat bolsters, shiny steering wheels and bust glovebox hinges are all par for the course inside. Leather trim is nice to have and was offered in a number of options from traditional black and cream through to the vibrant ‘Colour Concept’ and the classy mulberry Highline edition. Cloth Recaro seats are arguably the pick of the bunch mimicking the standard cloth finish but sporting an embroidered logo along with larger bolsters on the fronts, and the rears equipped with a pair of headrests. Take a look upwards too, the headliners don’t yet sag as badly as the Mk2, but are still prone to coming unstuck around the top of the windscreen, under the sun visors and above the rear passengers.
Do Mk3 Golfs suffer from electrical problems?
If the vehicle has been fitted with an aftermarket alarm, have the seller show you that everything works. Make sure the factory immobiliser is behaving itself, along with the previously mentioned ABS dash light. It’s worth noting the airbags can be a bit temperamental, and if the wheel has been swapped out for something more sporty like a MOMO or Nardi version, make sure no warning lights are left on the dash to earn you a fail come MOT time.
The motors and regulators that operate the electric windows can fail so check that they perform on cue. If you’re looking at a Mk3 with a sunroof, check it works and there’s no rust around the opening. Headlamp switches are known to fail but aren’t a huge expense to replace. If the car has Air-Con then fantastic, just give it a test, if it has traditional blowers then ensure all settings are functional.
What to pay for a good VW Golf Mk3
The good news is that Mk3 prices have yet to firm up in the way they have for the Mk1 and more recently the Mk2. Prices start from a few hundred quid, but if you go in at this end of the market be careful you don’t land yourself with a money pit. The majority of non-GTI four-cylinder cars fall into sub-£1000 category depending on condition. Naturally, there’s a greater demand for the twin-cam GTIs than the 8-valves (so expect to pay slightly more), but paying between £1000 and £1500 seems to be fairly reasonable at the moment for roadworthy, though not perfect, examples. One exception though is the 20th Anniversary GTI – VW only made 750 of these.
Unsurprisingly, the VR6s cost the most. That said, we’ve seen one recently for as little as £1395 in the classifieds. Realistically though you will need upwards of £3000 for a decent example that’s been looked after inside and out. You’ll need to pay considerably more than this if you’re after the top-spec black and mulberry VR6 Highline.
Buying a modified Mk3 Golf
As we’ve seen with the older models, VW Golfs with engine swaps and heavy modifications tend not to hold their value so well. A good standard car will, in time be worth more money. Having said that, if you like the modified style or want to go fast and look cool there are some bargains to be had for sure. If you don’t plan on selling it in the future does its market value in comparison to a standard vehicle really matter?
Best of luck in your quest to find your perfect Golf Mk3. Hopefully, our tips above will help you out and save you from buying a shocker.
Ian / Andy