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Some readers might be wondering why I’ve not got around to driving the current Volkswagen Golf GTI — a vehicle that’s been on our roads for at least five years — until now. Others might query why, when generally these pages are devoted to Ferraris, Lambos, McLarens and Rollers, I’m stooping so low as to drive a humble People’s Car.

To the former, I’d simply say that the fallow period between New Year and the spate of launches triggered by the Geneva Motor Show in early March offers an ideal opportunity to catch up on the cars we’d always wanted to play with but for one reason or another had never quite managed to. And to the latter, I’d argue that the Golf — and in particular the blue-chip GTI variant — has rightly become such an icon among automobiles since its introduction some 45 years ago that it would be remiss for me to ignore it.

Photography: Christiaan Hart

Now well into its seventh generation (the mid-life 7.5 iteration appeared a couple of years back), VW’s first properly modern car was so perfectly judged on its launch in the mid-’70s that it kick-started a trend and was then adopted as the yardstick by which all other such vehicles were judged. Although self-evidently sharing the same lineage, today’s Golf is a vastly different beast, longer by around half a metre, more than half a tonne heavier and in every respect way more sophisticated. And yet nothing has really changed. VW’s top-seller is still the small family car that everyone wants to buy and every other manufacturer is trying desperately to bury.

Just as the Golf came to define the practical small saloon, its performance-oriented GTI sibling — which arrived in 1975 boasting a 110bhp, fuel-injected engine (at the time almost unheard of in small cars), cracking handling and grip to match — immediately became the poster child for a new class of automobile: the hot hatchback. Since then, and in spite of piling on the pounds, the addition of rear doors and some fierce competition, the GTI has held on as the gold standard for pocket rockets, partly for its dynamic qualities but as much because it’s evolved into a premium piece of kit — one of the few cars, in fact, that can convincingly straddle the polar opposites of mass and class.

The Golf GTI Classic whose key I’ve been handed does exactly that. Although I could likely draw its shape from memory, it nonetheless oozes distinction and desirability, from the Deep Black Pearl — a darkly lustrous metallic paint that under blue skies displays a rich oceanic undertone — in which it’s wrapped and the red pinstripe that underlines the front lights and grille, to the pair of chrome-tipped pipes that peep out from beneath the rear bumper, the scarlet brake calipers and the racy 18-inch five-spoke alloys on which it sits.

Swinging open the driver’s door only reinforces that impression, for it reveals a cabin that’s head and shoulders above anything its competition can match, with the possible exception of the Audi A3 (a close relative anyway) and the new Mercedes A-class. Like the exterior, it’s the product of years of carefully considered development: Well and thoughtfully equipped (it’s loaded with tech that includes a fully digital cockpit), sober, subtle and beautifully made from quality materials, and comfortable not only because it is, well, extremely comfy, but also because it all works with such reassuring familiarity. Absent, however, are the tartan seat inserts that have been a GTI signature from the outset; instead, the posh black leather covering the nicely supportive sports chairs (electrically operated on the driver’s side, but with levers and ratchets for the less fortunate front passenger) is enlivened by smart red piping.

And then, of course, there’s the engine which, now turbocharged and enlarged to 2 litres, produces more than twice the horsepower of the original and, with 350Nm from just 1,500rpm, a wallop of torque that’s hefty enough to send this warmed-over Golf scampering to 100km/h in less than 6.5 seconds. Although that’s pretty quick — don’t forget it took the fabled Lamborghini Miura five tenths longer to reach the metric ton — several hot hatches are a good deal faster, among them VW’s own Golf R, which slices almost two seconds from the GTI’s time. That said, when talking cars it’s often as much about the “how” as the “what”.

Asian customers, unlike those in Europe, aren’t offered a choice of gearboxes. Here, we’re forced either to like VW’s dual-clutch direct-shift box or to lump it, and though for more involvement I’d prefer a six-speed manual, the DSG is clearly the smart option for urban motoring. No matter: The Golf offers such a sparkling drive that the absence of a stick shift hardly dims the shine, and that’s partly because the gearbox trade- off means that sports suspension with adaptive dampers and progressive steering come as standard equipment, offering the opportunity to customise chassis settings as well as those for engine and transmission.

Rather than fully weaponising the GTI right across the drive-mode menu, however, the key is to select those settings that best suit the car’s character — which after a short acquaintance is revealed to be compact grand tourer rather than rip-snorting racer. And that means going softer with the chassis and harder just about everywhere else. Thus fettled, the Veedub impresses enormously: fleet- and sure-footed, smooth, comfortable and — aside from the pleasantly tuneful four-pot motor rumbling away up front — even commendably quiet.

You can by all means fling the front-drive Golf down twisty roads while flipping up and down through the DSG, in which case you’ll be constrained less by grip, body control or braking power — all of which are plentiful — but rather by the need for a little more communication from the helm. That said, however, you’d need to be either mad or utterly inept to wrong-foot this most capable and forgiving of machines.

For me, though, the greatest satisfaction with the GTI is gained not with tyre-smoking antics with steering wheel, brakes and accelerator, but with a smooth and restrained approach that maintains rapid momentum by channeling the 2-litre’s deep reservoir of torque and the chassis’ innate balance. Take that route and you discover this VW’s optimal spot is sweet indeed — a place, moreover, where you’re happy to be for hours on end.

I haven’t yet mentioned luggage, which is a subject I don’t usually care a hoot about, assuming there’s space enough in most motor cars for a medium-size case and a couple of bags (in fact, I’d quite happily set out on a cross-continental drive in a car with no boot at all, accoutring myself Jack Reacher-style along the way, i.e., buying cheap new threads each day and binning the ones I’d been wearing). But as well as being quick, comfortable and extremely likeable, the GTI is supposed to be practical — and as I’m doing my very best to steer you away from the compact SUV you think you need but 100-percent do not, there’s one more thing I have to do.

I’m picking up a mate at our city’s most prestigious golf club. The question is: Can I fit his gear in the boot without folding the rear seats?

After a few moments’ squashing and squidging, the answer is a qualified yes: You can get a set of golf clubs in the back of a Golf, though you’ll have to take the woods out of the bag first and wedge them in diagonally. So that’s another key box ticked on the covetability checklist.

As for the car itself, I’m as smitten as I was when I first plonked my backside on the driver’s seat of a VW Golf way back in 1979. Then, I thought it was the best small car I’d ever driven; now, after two days with the current GTI, I’m thinking that it may well be the only automobile you’ll ever really need.

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Jon Wall
A Hong Kong resident for more than 30 years, Jon has worked on publications devoted to culture, travel and lifestyle, as well as a short stint in daily newspapers, since the late ‘70s. He loves travel, literature, jazz, wine, aircraft and, especially, motor cars – and has occasionally been known to knock together a reasonably edible meal.