Sitting inside the Mk I, it's obvious that the experience will be completely different. It's basic, spartan, old-fashioned. Yet it's also apparent that Volkswagen has tried to imbue the Mk V with the same sort of vibe. The tartan seat covers, the sense of space, the no-nonsense ergonomics-they set the newest model apart from its Mk III and IV forebears; they both conspired to turn the GTI's cabin into a luxurious environment, completely at odds with the original's simplicity.
Twist the key and the 1.6-liter engine fires into a gruff idle, sounding much nicer than the latest model's FSI unit, which tends to sound like a diesel at standstill. Blip the throttle and the sonic pleasures increase. However, engaging first gear and setting off for the horizon opens up the generation gap. No power assistance for the steering makes for hard work at low speeds. But there is a fortunate trade-off once the pace picks up: communication and that elusive driver involvement thing.
The old GTI is light, another quality sorely lacking in today's crop of gadget- and safety equipment-laden motors. Its lightness makes it nimble and the car connects with the driver in a way that no contemporary (this side of a 911 GT3) can touch. Throw it into a tight corner and the thing turns in with a smattering of understeer and a pretty dramatic lean (compared to modern GTIs with their finely-tuned suspensions). It's easily as much fun as the new car, but there's another, more hidden benefit: there's no need to be driving at breakneck speed to get the same feel, the same smiles. This hot hatch is socially responsible.
So, has Volkswagen recaptured the joie de vivre of the original GTI with the Mk V? There are certainly enough visual similarities in the form of the red-bordered grille, the similar GTI badging, the utilitarian upholstery and the less luxurious appointments. But they mean nothing once on the move, where it counts.
The Mk I is an undisputed classic. It has a charm that's immediately obvious and its simplicity makes it easy to live with. The GTI essence made it through to the Mk II, but after that, things got a little muddy. Marks III and IV were (and Volkswagen admits as much) disappointing. The Mk V is a belter and a daily driver to boot. Yes, the fun factor is sky-high again. The old spirit is alive and kicking once more.
It's no easy task to re-interpret a legend, which the original GTI certainly is, a bona fide legend. Cars can no longer be as simple as they once were because of customer demands, legislation, emissions controls and aerodynamics; those days are over. But Volkswagen has grasped the nettle and brought the GTI smack into the 21st century, reviving the precious magic that sparked our enthusiasm 30 or so years ago.