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Volkswagen Golf GTI

It’s evolution not revolution for latest hot hatch. Does it still deliver winning blend of pace and driver appeal?

If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. This old adage certainly applies to the styling of the latest MkVI Golf. The base model’s conservative and solid looks have been gently redefined, and the special but subtle changes that distinguish the GTI have been applied with great success again.

The distinctive honeycomb grille gets the same red trim as the 1976 original, while the menacing new headlights and gaping air intake add a hint of aggression. At the back, a discreet spoiler complements the GTI badge, and the re-profiled number plate surround flows into a diffuser-style bumper, which now houses twin exhausts. With its lowered sports suspension, the Volkswagen proves that a hot hatch doesn’t need over-the-top wings to look the part.

The interior is equally attractive: the standard car’s superb ergonomics and class-leading quality are unchanged, while perfectly judged detailing sets the GTI apart. Tartan seats, a chunky leather steering wheel and deep-set dials combine with an excellent driving position to give the cabin a comfortable, special feel. And while it isn’t as flexible as the cavernous Civic, there’s plenty of rear legroom and a decent boot.

On the move, the GTI retains the characteristics we’ve experienced in lesser versions of the new MkVI Golf. The lack of road and wind noise is impressive, making this the most refined hot hatch we’ve ever driven. Yet at the same time, a raspy exhaust note ensures this calm doesn’t come at the expense of character.

The 2.0-litre turbocharged engine has a smooth power delivery that isn’t as sudden as the MINI’s, and is more flexible than the rev-happy Honda. On the track, the more boisterous JCW was quicker in all our tests, but only in our 50-70mph assessment did the gap between the two cars exceed one second. And in the benchmark sprint from 0-60mph, the GTI was only four-tenths behind the MINI.

Find a twisty road, and this deficit against the clock doesn’t really matter. The Golf feels very responsive, and with peak torque delivered at only 1,700rpm, it’s quicker than the Civic.

It’s great in corners, too, displaying the same level of composure as the car it replaces. The optional £705 Adaptive Chassis Control set-up on our model moves the game on even further. With Comfort, Normal and Sport settings, it tunes the dampers, throttle and steering to suit.

The differences are subtle, but Comfort mode delivers a more compliant ride than the MINI or Civic, while Sport stiffens the suspension. The end result is that the other cars struggle to match the Golf’s blend of abilities – body control is superb, the steering is well weighted and accurate, while traction and grip are excellent.

At the test track, the improvements made over the outgoing model are even more apparent. The GTI has better stability at high speed and is more responsive to driver inputs at the limit of grip. Our sole criticism is that the exemplary stability control system can’t be switched off entirely, which will frustrate anyone planning to use their GTI on a circuit.

This will only bother a tiny minority of owners, though, and the appeal of the Golf is that it manages to engage the driver without having the hard edge of the Civic or the more raucous nature of the MINI.

This mix of everyday usability, desirability and performance makes it a great ownership prospect. There’s no doubt that the GTI’s return to form continues. But can it see off its talented rivals in this test?

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In detail: * Price: £22,415 * Engine: 2.0-litre 4cyl * Power: 207bhp * 0-60mph: 6.6 seconds * AE economy: 31.5mpg

Details

Chart position: 1WHY: We want to know if the most famous hot hatch of them all is back where it belongs – at the head of the class.

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