The original GTI isn't exactly powerful by the lofty standards expected from even the smallest cars today. But three decades ago, it redefined how a little hatchback should drive; with a firm emphasis on fun-the overriding quality that appealed to so many loyal owners.
While we could have gone for a rip-snorting R32, it seemed prudent to look at the 'base' Mk V GTI, as this is where the original's DNA should be most evident. Volkswagen has really been homing in on the alleged similarities between the latest model and its groundbreaking great, great granddaddy. Let's see if there's any truth to it.
At first, our reactions to the Mk V were mixed. This might have been unfair, but we were expecting to be hit immediately between the eyes by a four-wheeled funbag. It's well screwed together, quite nice looking and easy on the wallet when it comes to thirst, but something is missing. Perhaps it's the fun factor.
One thing's for sure, the new one whips the Mk I's butt on the performance front. The old-timer can't keep up, whether it's in a straight line or on fabulous, undulating twists. But then that's exactly as it should be after years of refinement and progress.
Speed doesn't necessarily translate into fun, though. Driver involvement is something woefully absent from a huge number of modern cars. Our initial fear was that the latest GTI was as remote from its pilot as George Dubya is from reality.
Wrong. It's a hoot, but it really needs to be driven hard to get the best from it. This particular car is fitted with VW's much-lauded DSG transmission and this can, if you let it, keep you at arm's length. Start using the paddles behind the exquisite-feeling steering wheel, though, and the thing comes alive. Head into a tight corner, drop a couple of gears and the engine responds with a delicious-sounding yelp, ready to gun the car to the next turn. Want control? This is it, only without having to use your left foot.
When driving hard on challenging roads, the GTI's stability control (known in the UK as ESP) is particularly good. It never feels like a nanny-state controlled experiment; it simply corrects errors and gets on with the job by hauling the car out of ridiculously fast cornering maneuvers without admonishment. The latest Golf GTI, despite earlier misgivings, is epic fun. But is it as much fun as the original?
Disregard the performance aspect for a moment because, with a 2.0-liter, turbocharged engine under the Mk V's hood, it wouldn't be a fair contest. Instead, let's go for driver involvement and the amount of smiles-per-mile behind the wheel. This, if owners of early GTIs are to be believed, is where the old-timer stands a fighting chance.