The game has moved, the competition responding to a desire for more hardcore cars, more track focus, and Nurburgring-devouring pace.
VW’s Golf GTI has been around for 33 years and has seen a lot over the decades, meandering through a number of incarnations, some good, some less so.
The MK5 was definitely seen as a return to form but, even with 10bhp more (now 207bhp), it would seem that VW’s latest GTI is either underpowered or doesn’t want to get involved in the hot hatch power struggle.
Although the new 2.0-litre engine sounds similar in spec to the old, this is not the case. It is part of the new EA888 family, a development of the TSI engine, and maximum power comes 200rpm later at 5300rpm, while peak torque is 206lb ft developed from 1700rpm all the way to 5,200rpm. Emissions fall from 189 g/km to 170 g/km and the car will reach 62mph in 6.9 seconds, while the top speed rises to 149mph.
Get inside and the size and style of the cabin is familiar but the dashboard is all-new and the seats are supremely comfortable, working with the excellent adjustable wheel to create the perfect driving position. It’s a new but familiar place, and works well without filling you with awe and wonder. Hopefully the driving experience will throw up a few surprises…
At first it doesn’t, the new car behaving in much the way you would expect. It is refined, this time even more so, thanks to a number of changes to improve aerodynamics and reduce wind noise.
But peeling off from the centre of Nice, where the car was launched, and on to the winding roads heading to St Tropez the first difference becomes obvious. The noise. There may have been a few woeful expressions at Wolfsburg when the GTI’s trademark twin pipes to the left were dropped for one on each side, but who cares?
Sadly this means that VW’s efforts to make the car more fuel efficient (38.7 combined compared to 35.3mpg) is now counteracted by the temptation to drive down the motorway in fourth gear. It may not be as exciting as the whooshes and growls coming out of a Focus RS, but there is something distinctly purposeful about this Golf’s new sound.
Another thing that has been improved is throttle response. VW may have learnt a thing or two from the MINI Cooper by developing a turbocharged engine that has almost no lag, and the Golf responds instantly to throttle input.
The power delivery is linear and the gear ratios are well matched too. Match this willing nature to the tuneful pipes and you can't help but ring the 2.0-litre out for everything it has got.
The adaptive setting is exceptional, giving the GTI superb composure on any surface we encountered. The car refused to become unsettled under braking and body control is excellent. There is also an optional electronic differential which helps reign in torque steer and tighten the line during hard cornering.
If at first the Golf appears to lack sparkle, especially compared to the hardcore nature of the Focus RS, you soon warm to the car. On day two of our test we came across a deserted section of road and learned that working the GTI hard is where it transforms from a refined, comfortable hatchback to something akin to the old school GTI. Finding the speed, not trying to hold it back, is what the car is all about and for the first time the yearning for more power evaporates.
You need to stretch the car and suddenly the modest power makes more sense. Getting the best out of it gives an enormous sense of satisfaction and throws up an engaging side to the GTI you didn’t think existed.
The original Golf GTI from 1976 was designed to be comfortable, practical and fast. This is exactly what the latest Golf GTI delivers in 2009, so while the competition moves on it seems that Volkswagen is sticking successfully to its original niche.