Good: security and stability at speed, standard equipment, classy demeanour, refinement.
Not so good: too smooth and civilised to stand out as one of the great driver's cars.
Parrrp. That seemingly compulsory sound made by any recent performance car of note. The DSG-equipped Golf GTI features it when you pull the right paddle to engage the next gear, sometimes noticeably so. You can play around with throttle openings and gears to your heart's content; it's always there. As these noises go, it's refined; not as loud as a Ford Focus RS's, nor as organic as the volley of bangs produced by the last-gen Renault Megane RS Trophy on the overrun. It's deliberate, there to remind you that you're in a fast Golf. But that noise almost tells you all you need to know about the Golf GTI. You can picture the Wolfsburg engineers spending hours upon hours on the calibration of that noise until it was just so, the rough edges ironed out, leaving a crisp tone that most buyers would be satisfied with. In a way, it's a metaphor for the car as a whole.
Could that be interpreted as disparaging? Possibly, although it's not meant to be. Lest we forget, Volkswagen brought the hot hatch concept to the masses way back in 1976, popularising a formula that has stood the test of time admirably. Take a regular hatchback, endow it with some more power, beef up chassis and brakes to suit, tart up the exterior and interior and voila, watch the petrolheads flock to your showrooms. The Mk1 and Mk2 iterations of the Golf GTI are now regarded as classics, the flabby and soulless Mk3 and Mk4 are best ignored, while the Mk5 and subsequent versions restored a lot of the old magic without compromising on refinement and practicality. The sheer amount of five-door GTIs on our roads is testament to that. On that basis, you can forgive Volkswagen for massaging the outgoing Mk7 GTI very gently for its mid-life revision. If it ain't broke...
So, what has changed? Visually, very little. The eagle-eyed among you will note some mild modifications like the LED lamps front and rear, the moving of the radar module from the lower bumper to behind the VW badge and slight differences to the bumpers. It's still a classy and understated-looking bit of kit, especially in the Iridium Grey paint of our test car (a €1,257 option), the red highlight underscoring the grille and headlights the only real rear-mirror marker of the car's prowess. The wheels look a little lost in the arches unless one of the 19-inch options are specified, but the smaller rims bring their own advantages in terms of ride quality and compliance.
Inside, the updates seen on the rest of the Golf range feature, including the infuriating deletion of hard buttons for the central infotainment screen. How is this progress? Otherwise, it's as pleasant and as comfortable as its cooking siblings, the Active Info display being a particular highlight, as well as a raft of new assistance features.
This is a GTI of course, so now we're taking it for a drive. Not a pootle to the shops or a slog to work, because we all know that it can do the humdrum stuff just fine. It's a Golf, after all. No, this will be a proper dawn raid, no destination, just driving for the sake of driving. Few cars truly justify a 5am alarm clock and the semi-conscious, bleary-eyed trudging around the house that follows prior to caffeine taking hold, but is the Golf one of those elite?
It pains me to say it after three hours of avoiding sleepy sheep and chasing the sunrise, but it's not. It's too polished for that. While some of the iconic hot hatches compromise on ride quality, refinement and other everyday stuff like back seats or a radio in the quest for true involvement, the Golf does not. The pre-facelift Clubsport and Clubsport S versions are still the cars to have if you want your Golf GTI to provide real driving pleasure. The regular GTI gives you 90 per cent, sometimes a little more, but you never fully feel at one with the car and the road.
Why is that? It's hard to pinpoint, as this car is so competent in every regard. Grip is exemplary, the balance neutral and composed, the now-230hp engine (245hp with the Performance Pack option) gutsy and responsive, the steering feel and feedback noticeably improved over regular Golfs. Maybe it's the DSG gearbox (manuals are always that bit more engaging), maybe it's the slightly disjointed front-end on tighter turns, maybe it's the somewhat overbearing stability control. Whatever it is, the spark that marks a true classic isn't there.
Am I being too harsh? Objectively, the Golf GTI is the perfect everyday performance car. It ticks all the usual boxes, and for quality and refinement it's streets ahead of much of the opposition. Want to embark on a long motorway road trip and feel refreshed and relaxed upon arrival? No problem. Want to carry big pace on twisty roads cross-country? No problem. It's all things to most people. The aforementioned Performance Pack with its uprated differential, brakes and power output may do more satisfy the keenest of drivers, but we've yet to try it on Irish roads. Experience tells us that there's more left in this package, and a Clubsport-esque run out edition could be just the ticket.