The Golf GTI was unveiled in Frankfurt 34 years ago this month. If the ordinary Golf saved VW — ailing because Beetle sales were in long-term decline — then the GTI was the icing that made millions more want the cake. Planned as a limited edition of 5,000, it has gone on to sell 1.7 million worldwide (217,214 in the UK). Its effects spread well beyond itself. It wasn’t only that there were numerous buyers for the fashionable sporty version of what might otherwise have been seen as a humdrum hatchback (unpromisingly called ‘Rabbit’ in the US), but that the existence of this fashionable extra cast a glow of desire across the entire range. Celebrities such as the late Douglas Adams were given them on extended loan so that they could be seen in them. (I once had a lift in his but not with him and not, I fear, because my presence added a spark plug to its sales.)
And they weren’t just toys. They set the pattern for the sporty hatch, the car that every other manufacturer tried and usually failed to beat. The Mk1 GTI gave you sports car performance (113mph, 0–62mph in 9 seconds and markedly better handling than most contemporary sports cars) with 35.2 urban MPG, four genuine seats and — something you couldn’t take for granted in the Seventies — reliability.
The Mk1 begat the Mk11 and so on, and now we’re into the sixth generation of this biblical breed. The one I tested for a week was the latest diesel equivalent of the GTI, the 2.0-litre GTD — and, yes, in these days when diesels can win Le Mans, it does make sense to talk of equivalence, even if it doesn’t have quite the performance of its petrol sister. The GTD produces 170PS and 258lbs ft via a six-speed manual or DSG gearbox, achieving 0–62 in 8.1 seconds, 138mph, 53.3 combined MPG and emissions of 139g/km. The GTI yields 148mph, 7.2 seconds, 37.6 combined and 178g/km. You get to know a car over 900 miles and, believe me, those speed differences sound greater than they feel; prod that common rail TDI and you leave the back of your scalp imprinted on the headrest. And the car stays glued to the road.
Golfs were never cheap, especially the GTI and now its diesel sibling. The Mk6 starts at £13,585, with the GTD ranging from £21,850–£23,745 according to specification. I suspect a lack of cheapness is one reason for the marque’s success; this classiest of classy cars always felt well made and solid compared with its rivals, and still does. It’s all about value for money — we’ll pay more if we feel we’re really getting more — and the GTD does not disappoint. Performance, handling, comfort, rear headroom and quality of materials are all of a standard to make you feel better for having driven it. With a six-speed box, the dashboard gear indicator is no bad thing; neither — since it’s a habit no longer taught to new drivers — is the fact that you have to put the clutch in to start.
As always, it’s possible to niggle — windscreen reflections can be distracting, to the sides as well as the front, the A-pillars are thick, the spare is a temporary and the car is longer and lower than lesser Golfs, which means care over speed humps and filling in the craters in your front drive. But that’s about it; with its variably weighted electro-mechanical power steering, its stability and brake-assist programmes, this car does all that Golfs have ever done, only better. You won’t go wrong with it.