It's been around for a fair while now the Volkswagen Golf GTI – nearly 40 years, in fact – and it's been credited with the invention of the hot hatchback class. We won’t get into that debate, but there's no doubting that the hot Golf has carved a distinct niche for itself.
However, it doesn’t have the class to itself any more and the competition is stronger – and faster –than ever before. There are even exceptionally strong rivals from within the Volkswagen Group, with the SEAT Leon Cupra and Skoda Octavia vRS both offering similar – if not better – performance than the Golf, for less money and with more space and/or equipment.
Elsewhere, rivals like the Ford Focus ST offer more performance and more equipment for a much lower asking price than the Golf, while the Renault Megane Renaultsport and Honda Civic Type R are more track-focused, hardcore propositions.
That's not to say the GTI is slow, however. You can have it with a choice of three different power outputs. The regular GTI is available with either 217 or 227bhp (the latter is called the Performance Pack), while you can also go for the racier (and pricier) Clubsport model, which packs a 286bhp punch. All are powered by Volkswagen's 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine in various states of tune. Non-Clubsport models will do the 0-62mph sprint in just 6.5 seconds, while the racier model takes 5.9 seconds.
Impressive as these figures are, they’re matched by surprisingly low running costs. The standard GTI manages around 47mpg when fitted with the six-speed manual gearbox. This equates to CO2 emissions of 139g/km, a number that results in a £130 annual tax bill. If you choose the six-speed dual-clutch automatic box, however, you’ll only get around 44mpg and CO2 emissions of 145g/km, which means a tax bill hike to £145 a year.
The manual Clubsport will manage about 40mpg, with a tax bill of £185 a year thanks to CO2 emissions of 162g/km. Choosing the automatic gearbox doesn’t have much of an effect on the Clubsport's running costs: fuel economy remains around the same and, despite lower CO2 emissions, you’ll still pay the same in tax every year.
All versions of the GTI are good to drive, too, although the standard model isn’t anywhere near as exciting as the Clubsport. Steering is responsive, accurate and direct and body lean is well controlled in corners. Despite this, the suspension is well sorted enough to keep the car riding comfortably. If you go for the Performance Pack, you get slightly firmer suspension as well as a trick front differential, which improves cornering and acceleration by sending power to whichever wheel has the most grip.
Clubsport models have their suspension tweaked even further to help with agility and high-performance driving, although Volkswagen has still managed to keep it riding comfortably.
Marking the GTI out from the standard Golf are 18-inch alloys, a deeper front bumper with red styling decals and a subtle roof spoiler, while the Clubsport model gets an even beefier body kit. Inside, there are some superb touches like the classic tartan upholstery and the textured ‘Golf Ball’ gearknob.
Despite the GTI's performance-car status, practicality shouldn’t be an issue. You can have it with either three or five doors, while interior and boot space are unchanged compared to the standard Golf hatchback, meaning this remains a classy and easy-to-live-with everyday car.
It comes pretty well equipped, too, with sat nav and Volkswagen's 6.5-inch colour touchscreen infotainment system, plus an additional information screen sitting between the speedometer and rev counter. DAB radio is standard, as are Bluetooth, automatic lights, parking sensors front and rear, as well as adaptive cruise control. You also get automatic windscreen wipers plus keyless entry and go.
Safety won’t be an issue – Euro NCAP awarded the Golf the full five stars and it comes with a whole host of safety equipment. Owners seem to like it, too: it placed 30th out of 200 cars in our 2015 Driver Power customer satisfaction survey.