Good: peerless image, brilliant to drive, beautifully made
Not so good: standard specification could be a little better
The Golf GTI and I share a birthday. Back in 1986 (ok, ok, it was 1976, I admit it), when Volkswagen invented the GTI class with the faster version of the first ever Golf, it couldn't have known how seminal a moment it was. Plenty of other great hot hatches have come and gone in the intervening decades, but few can truly be called 'iconic', as the Golf can.
Nonetheless, Volkswagen doesn't trade solely on this car's image; it's a fabulous thing by any measure, as was every iteration of the GTI since the Mark V. This latest model, based on the acclaimed Mark VII Golf, continues the theme of adding everyday usability to a car that enthusiasts will get very excited about driving. I am one such enthusiast and I took the GTI out at every opportunity in my time with the car. Trips to the shop for milk have never taken so long. Or involved the Wicklow Mountains...
But along with the engaging dynamics (I waffled on about that a little more at the international launch of the Golf GTI here) this car really works well on Irish roads. Sure, it's sporty and firm, but not to the point where it's uncomfortable. Indeed, chassis aside, the interior is somewhere you'll want to spend time. We'll gloss over the fact that the GTI has more equipment as standard in most other markets, as the base model still feels special. That's thanks to a gorgeous (to look at and to hold) leather-rimmed steering wheel, deep (yet cushy) sports seats with the characteristic tartan-like pattern and a smattering of other GTI-specific touches. The top of the gear level looks a little like a golf ball and there's a latest-gen touch-screen infotainment system to play with.
Effectively, if your budget allows, there are few compromises when choosing a GTI version of the Golf over a normal one. It's virtually as comfortable, has the same amount of space, is beautifully put together and, depending on the colour you go for, relatively subtle to look at. As good as it is to drive, it's not quite as sharp as the Mégane Renaultsport, though it's far more useable every day (and we all know which will hold their value better). The Focus ST feels old-hat and uncouth in comparison, plus the Golf is cheaper to tax and run in general.
Indeed, the new GTI is so efficient that it makes the equally-new GTD model all but irrelevant - especially as the latter is more expensive to buy. It turns out that the Golf GTI's closest competitor comes from Skoda, in the form of the Octavia RS. Tough choice to have to make. Now, when's my birthday again?