Can we call the Golf GTI a classic? In all its iterations – and there have been seven – the Golf has never exactly set the design world on fire. Intended from the outset as a replacement for the cultish yet also wildly successful Beetle, the Golf has always been of its time, rather than out of it. The very first car, styled with sharp-edged clarity by the darling of the era, Giorgetto Giugiaro, set a high benchmark that the company never really managed to get over. In the four decades that followed the little Golf grew up, leaving compact, affordable motoring to other models in the Volkswagen range.
Along the way, an image slowly assembled and took shape in the eyes of the company, the marketing folk and the general public; the Golf was the smart choice for the smart consumer. Buy a Golf, we are still told, and you are quietly buffing your self-esteem. For this is a quality object that doesn’t scream ‘look at me’, at a premium price that says ‘quality’ not quirks.
This image has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, for with each successive generation the Golf got more and more efficient, its hatchback body almost utterly without unnecessary adornment, and every component, switch and handle honed to perform faultlessly, time and time again. If functionalism is your fetish, the Golf is the ultimate object of desire.
That said, VW have known from the outset that adding a little dash of sauce to the dish pays dividends. The very first Golf GTI debuted in June 1976, effectively creating a genre of swift, small cars with a pace and dynamism that belied their quotidian origins.
Today’s GTI is, therefore, all things to all people. We’d go so far as to say it’s the quintessential all-rounder; a high performance car that’s also totally practical. There’s a welcome absence of designer ego or excess in every facet of this machine. The most extravagant a Golf can get is the plaid cloth upholstery – mimicking the original – and even that is tasteful and muted.
To drive, the GTI rarely puts a foot wrong. Other cars might be a little more involving, but you tend to pay for that in terms of profile; VW is content simply to flash a little red trim on the bodywork and not give in to over-sized spoilers or swoopy bodywork. Even on the ‘Performance’ model we drove, there's a level-headedness on display that we'll have to put down to the arrival of maturity. It's hard to disagree with the Golf's rational image, even if the GTI has more than enough verve to make your automotive anonymity an entertaining one.