Home » Endangered Species Hatchbacks: 1981 Dodge Colt vs 1984 VW Rabbit

Endangered Species Hatchbacks: 1981 Dodge Colt vs 1984 VW Rabbit

Sbsd 6 11 2024
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Welcome back! Today we’re back to our normal routine of inexpensive cars in questionable condition with a couple of hatchbacks that used to be everywhere but are getting pretty rare now. Which one is worth fixing up? That will be up to you.

Yesterday, we spent quite a bit more imaginary money than usual, looking at a couple of Fords with historic ties to the late great Parnelli Jones. Both of them were six cylinders with three-speed sticks, so there was nothing for you to do but choose a body style.

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The Mustang won by quite a good margin, probably because it was considerably cheaper. Even when it comes to fake money, sometimes it’s hard to open up the purse strings. I’d take the Mustang as well. I really like those early Broncos, but so does everyone, and at this point owning one would be more like stewardship than enjoyment. I’d rather have the more common Mustang.

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All right. Let’s come back down to Earth a bit, and look at two economy-minded cars from the Reagan years. We’ve got one captive import, built in Japan but sold under a US nameplate, and one car built in America by a German company. Let’s see which one has stood the test of time.

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1981 Dodge Colt – $3,800

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.4 liter overhead cam inline 4, dual-range four-speed manual, FWD

Location: Sacramento, CA

Odometer reading: 90,000 miles

Operational status: Starts and runs but won’t idle

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Chrysler got into the captive import game in the US early on, with a two-pronged attack in 1971. Plymouth dealers sold the Cricket, a rebadged version of the British-built Hillman Avenger, while Dodge received the Colt, based on the Mitsubishi Colt Galant. The Colt sold well, the Cricket didn’t, and Chrysler went on to offer captive import Mitsubishis for decades.

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In 1979, Mitsubishi succumbed to the inevitable and joined Fiat, Volkswagen, and others in making its new Mirage small car front-wheel-drive. The Colt nameplate was moved over to the Mirage, where it would remain until being discontinued in 1995. This generation of Colt is powered by a 1.4 liter four, backed by a very strange transmission: Mitsubishi’s “Super Shift” transmission, colloquially known as the Twin Stick. It’s a typical four-speed manual, but with a two-speed final drive. It has two shift levers: One standard H-pattern four-speed lever, and one for the final drive which only moves backward and forward.

The two ranges are labeled “P” and “E,” for Power and Economy. I briefly owned a twin-stick Colt, and I can tell you from experience that you never used the Economy range around town because if you did, the thing couldn’t get out of its own way. I just left it in Power until I got to the freeway. This arrangement did have another party trick up its sleeve: Two reverse gears. And I bet there isn’t a single owner of one of these who didn’t try backing up and shifting ranges while in reverse. I know I did.

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The downfall of my Colt was its Mikuni electronic feedback carburetor, and it sounds like this one suffers from similar maladies. The carb is new, the seller says, but something isn’t right; it won’t stay idling unless you keep your foot on the gas. These carbs have about a mile of vacuum lines and a whole mess of sensors, any one of which could cause problems. The best solution might be to take this car out of California, ditch the Mikuni, and install a nice simple Weber carb.

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The fact that it’s in California, however, probably accounts for its remarkably clean condition. It has only 90,000 miles on its odometer, and although it hasn’t been photographed very well, what we can see of it looks really clean and straight. My own Colt, which I owned in Minneapolis in the mid-1990s, didn’t have a single panel left on it without a rust hole. This one is a time capsule, and the novel transmission makes it worth sorting out the carb issues.

1984 Volkswagen Rabbit Wolfsburg Edition – $3,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.7-liter overhead cam inline 4, five-speed manual, FWD

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Location: Sunnyvale, CA

Odometer reading: 151,000 miles

Operational status: Runs and drives, but needs some work

Volkswagen’s Golf Mk1 needs no introduction. This crisp-looking Giugiaro-designed city car picked up where the Beetle left off, and started a whole new era of “People’s Cars.” Here in the US, of course, the first Golf was sold under the friendly moniker “Rabbit.” Starting in the late 1970s, the Rabbit for North America was built in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania. US-built Rabbits are easily distinguishable from their European counterparts by square headlights and much larger taillights, a design decision that I know at least one writer here absolutely despises.

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The Rabbit is powered by a 1.7-liter version of VW’s ubiquitous overhead cam four, in this case powering the front wheels through a five-speed manual gearbox. It’s a stout drivetrain mechanically, but there are some characteristic problems that can arise, namely oil leaks, hard cold-starting, and exhaust noise, which is often caused by a cracked exhaust manifold. The seller says this one leaks oil, sometimes starts hard when cold, and has a noisy exhaust. It also has a worn-out second-gear synchro, making shifting difficult, and an occasional sticky clutch. The seller says the clutch issue is the splines on the input shaft, but I seem to recall having a sticky clutch release cable in one of my early water-cooled VWs, so I’d replace the cable first.

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Inside, it’s a decent but somewhat scruffy and not entirely stock Rabbit. The seats are covered, and the seller isn’t clear about their condition underneath. It has an aftermarket tach installed, with the typical Volkswagen “big-ass clock” installed where a factory tach would go. The radio is missing, and the headliner is toast, so clearly there is some work to be done. But for a forty-year-old economy car, it isn’t bad.

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Outside, it’s a little crispy around the edges; not even a California Rabbit can entirely escape rust. But it has nice snowflake-style wheels, and it’s straight – except for two telltale dents, one on each rocker panel, that are almost certainly the result of the car falling off a set of ramps. Be careful out there when lifting a car up for service, no matter how you do it.

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These two cars represent one of my favorite categories of automobiles: simple, humble little hatchbacks that just get the job done, and offer a little bit of driving fun along the way. Either one would get you a barrage of “wow, I haven’t seen one of those in forever” comments at a car gathering, even if they’re not perfect. And they both do need a little love. Which one is more worthy?

(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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Phil Ventura
Phil Ventura
1 hour ago

i had an old colt, a ex rent-a-car. it was i think 1300cc, with the twin stick. it was a blast to drive, fairly peppy for the time and very reliable. only thing i ever had to replace was the fuel pump, a fifteen minute job. commuted several years in it, running the back roads fast summer and winter. would have driven it forever if number one son hadn’t killed a deer with it. still, they did drive it home from the accident. it was like the old beetle.

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