Picking the used car buying sweet spot from a long-established model range is a tough call. Buyers looking to get ahead of the curve will naturally gravitate to performance variants, if there are any. In the case of the Volkswagen Golf - a range that has seemingly been around since the dawn of time - that meant the GTI.
Well, to start with anyway. Mk1 and Mk2 Golf GTIs epitomised the ideal balance of performance and everyday usability, but the investment ship on those has long since sailed. The GTI version of the Mk3 Golf arrived in 1992 with all the glamour and excitement of a wet cod being unceremoniously thrown onto a marble slab. Performance had been sacrificed on the altar of fleet manager acceptability.
Although any old car will eventually appreciate in value if the badge is powerful enough, the Mk3 GTI simply wasn't perceived as worthy of the name. Nor was the Mk4, for that matter. We had to wait for the near-200hp Mk5 to come along before some vestige of respectability was brought back to this once-proud three-letter combo.
But there is a performance Mk3 Golf, and it's called the VR6. PHers have always loved a good six, and Volkswagen's narrow-angle 2.8 vee certainly fell into that category. The VR was actually an inline vee, in that it squeezed two offset banks of three cylinders into a single head, reducing top-end weight and complication. You only needed two camshafts instead of four. This chain-driven unit produced 174hp and 173lb ft, which was enough to take the sub-1,200kg VR6 through the 0-60mph dash in 7.4 seconds and on to 140mph.
Though the Mk3 Golf was on sale from 1992, you can still find low mileage Mk3 VR6s. They won't be cheap though. Without trying too hard, as that's not in his nature, Shed found three attractive examples: a '94 M-reg 69,000-miler in mulberry, a 44,000-miler in green, and a Japanese export 29,000-miler in black (but also with an auto box). They were all in the £6k-£6.5k bracket.
At the other end of the spectrum, Shed unearthed a 77k-mile auto import with a small dent to the nearside front wing, a hole in the driver's seat, a speck of rust on the rear panel and a longish but easily fixable list of advisories, at offers on £1,550.
Despite the VR6's rarity (skip to the end if you want to know just how rare) you'll still find a decent selection of cars between those two extremes. They'll be leggier propositions than the £6k cars mentioned above, but at around £3,500 they can be judiciously enjoyed while still keeping half an eye on future values. Shed reckons these mid-priced cars make perfect sense if you can be persuaded that VR6s will take higher mileages.
Will they, though? This Shed Buying Guide ought to help you decide.
Bodywork & Interior
The first thing to say, as Shed always does, is that we're talking about old cars here. The newest Mk3 VR6s will be over 20 years old, so set your expectations accordingly. Old things break, and all the more so on performance variants.
And if metal is involved, which it often tends to be with cars, rust will be a feature. This is most definitely the case with the Mk3 Golf, neglected examples of which will have corrosion in the arches, door bottoms and sills. Also check the front valance behind the bumper and spoiler, the bottom edge of the rear window, the meeting points of the front wings and the sills, and the bonnet (the leading edge and underneath).
As stated, VR6s are sporty cars. Without wishing to stereotype, this could lay them more open to crash damage and dodgy repairs. If the inner front wings and the two vertical seams at each side of the rear panel above the rear bumper are anything other than straight and rust free, start stroking your chin in a thoughtful manner. The back panel above the spare wheel should have a model information VAG sticker. If it's not there, increase your chin-stroking speed exponentially, because that might mean the rear end has been rebuilt following a smash.
Moving inside the car, bolsters on cloth VR6 seats are often ripped or holed. Luckily most UK VR6s will have leather seats, and heated ones at that, a great thing at the time and still now if you suffer from a chilly undercarriage as Shed does. The elements are in both the seat and the backrest. If the under-seat relays are working correctly there should be a discernible click as you turn them on. If you get that click but no sensation of warmth or cosiness, the heater element may have conked out. That's not unusual. You might have to live with it too because they're not really designed to be replaced.
The heater matrix isn't in the interior, but it certainly affects the interior environment, so now's the time to mention that this component is a well-known weakness on VR6s. Damp footwells are a clue of failure, though that could also be down to blown inner door membranes. If the heater fan isn't working on all four settings or the ventilation direction function doesn't seem to be working, you could be looking at more expense.
There are quite a lot of electrically driven parts in a VR6 - windows, mirrors, central locking. Check that they all work and that the alarm goes off with the ignition key as well as via the alarm fob. The MFA information doodah shouldn't flash: nor should it reset itself after ignition switch-off. If it does, the car's mileage may have been tampered with. Sunroofs are only any good if they tilt and slide, so give that a whirl while you're in there.
Engine & Transmission
Bombproof is a greatly overused word in used car world, but not by Shed, who knows the truth. Still, the VR6 unit is strong as long as you look after it. Principally that means diligent attention to the oil. Use proper stuff and change it regularly. Watch hard for leaks after a drive, and for any signs of mayo. The coolant gauge should register 70 degrees pretty quickly and stay there. The needle shouldn't go past vertical.
Any sign of blue smoke from a cold start suggests bore wear, which means either new piston rings, new pistons, or in the worst-case scenario a new block. If you think you can smell burning oil, don't worry too much as it might be nothing more than a cracked crankcase breather pipe, a cheap and easy fix.
One potentially more expensive VR6 weakness nowadays is the feature that made it attractive when it was new: its chain-driven top end. Rattling at idle from the right (gearbox) side of the motor points to worn tensioners and/or guides. This usually seems to happen at around the 100k mark. There'll be a fair chunk of labour to add to the £200-ish cost of parts. A switched-on mechanic might suggest replacing the clutch while he or she is in there.
Golf fuel pumps from this era like to make themselves heard. A wobbly bottom pulley on the water pump is telling you that the pump is worn. The standard exhaust system is quite weighty and sits near to the back axle. If it clonks over bumps, a new set of rubbers might sort it.
The 02A transmission's gearshift is an acquired taste. Many love it. Shed remembers driving one of these in period and thinking that he'd accidentally stumbled across Mrs Shed's long-lost knitting kit. It operates with a collection of balance weights and cables. If these get out of adjustment you will experience gear selection problems. Some say that the clutch forks can rub against the flywheel, causing an annoying rattle.
Suspension & Steering
Any pulling to the side will merit investigation, as will any suspension knock. Dampers can leak, and rust or some other unwelcome intrusion on the rear shock top spring plate check can close the necessary gap between the plate and the bodywork. Most VR6s will have had aftermarket coilovers fitted by now, though ironically perhaps not all of the lower-mileage cars.
Wheels, Tyres & Brakes
These are all consumable items, so all the normal wear-related stuff applies here, with a few supplementary notes of caution about uneven tyre wear, warped brake disks and arch fouling.
Few owners of old Golfs won't have experienced the annoying sight of the ABS light coming on. Unsavoury characters get around this by removing the bulb. If they haven't, and the light is always on, it's a question of establishing which of various suspects could be causing it. If you're lucky it will be dirty or blown ABS sensors, a bust ABS control unit, a failed brake pedal sensor, or low brake fluid. Anything else could be harder and more expensive to sort.
Rear brake calipers are known to seize, but this is hardly VR6-specific.
So, after reading all that, are you a potential VR6 buyer? It might be a canny move. Today there are only around 850 Mk 3 VR6s on UK roads. Just over 500 of them are 'straight' VR6s, and just under 250 are leathery and airconned Highlines, which only came in black or Purple Violet Pearl (usually referred to as 'mulberry'). They had slightly different VR6 badges, six-spoke alloys, a wooden gearknob and black interior pillar trims, and should be marked as Highlines on the V5. The remainder of the 850 are import autos.
VR6 numbers are still dropping, but the rate of the annual reduction has slowed right up over the last couple of years. That's almost always the precursor of laid-up cars coming out from under tarps to undergo restorations. You'll know that's happening when the number of cars registered starts to increase and the values start to go up. We could be reaching that point very soon.
As an aside, you might want to note that Volkswagen did a Vento VR6. This saloon version of the Golf was not the best-looking car ever made, but it offered bags of space with pretty much the same performance as the Golf Vwith 99k miles and a hopeful looking £3,500 price tag. When you factor in the Vento's rarity - there are only 14 of these VR6s left in the UK - and the quirk factor, could this be the surprise sweet spot we were wondering about at the start of this story? As Shed knows only too well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.