I last piloted a Volkswagen Golf GTI back in 2007 and it was proof indeed that the engineers at Wolfsburg are still hitting all the right marks with their legendary hot hatch. It was fast, slick, powerful and suitably attention-grabbing. The version I had tested was a sexy black two-door with red brake calipers and, when I was stopped at a red light in a Bur Dubai traffic jam, a passing man enthusiastically took out his camera. I had to tell my somewhat self-absorbed passenger that he was snapping the car and not her. The Mark 5 was such an attractive car, the man with the camera probably wouldn't have noticed if Charlize Theron was driving with Heidi Klum in the passenger seat.
The latest incarnation, the Mark 6, has similar good looks with a more aggressive grille and bold alloy wheels. My GTI was dark gun-metal grey - or Carbon Steel Grey, to use the name in brochure - again with the red brake calipers peeking out. While I would have preferred a two-door to the four-door I was testing, it is still a seriously stylish hatch. The base-model Golf appears to have been designed on a lazy day with the creative types reserving all their energies for the much-loved GTI.
Inside, the attention to detail is a joy and it really earns its Dh125,000 price tag - red stitching on the black leather of the gear shifter and steering wheel, metal pedals, intuitive AC and audio, stylised racing-type seats that manage to be comfortable and sporty, and a surprising amount of room in the back and the boot. If you didn't want to give up driving a performance car once the kids have come along, the four-door would be a good compromise - there is enough room for a baby seat in the back and a pram folded in the spacious boot, excellent traction control (Vee-Dub's very well-engineered electronic stabilisation programme, or ESP) and the solid feel of a front-wheel drive to keep a nervous partner or grandparent happy. Fuel economy is recession-friendly - driving from Dubai to Abu Dhabi and back again, along with sundry buzzing around town, used less than three-quarters of a tank of petrol. The excellent reversing camera and parking sensors are additional Captain Sensible features which may help convince significant others that a GTI is not just a car for the young, free and single.
But there are also enough thrills to be had with 210hp from the 2.0L turbo under the hood, and it is pretty obvious that hours and hours have been spent making sure plenty of involving noises are produced. Taking off from the lights - and leaving your fellow motorists wondering where you've gone - creates a satisfying howl. The six-speed gearbox shifts quickly but audibly in automatic mode. When you put the car into manual mode and shift either with the gear selector or using the light-as-a-feather paddle shifters, evocative sighs and growls add to the fun. This gearbox is one of the best compromises on the market between the fun and control of a manual and the convenience of an automatic transmission. The gear changes feel sure and, if you like to pretend you're in a Grand Prix, Volkswagen's paddle shifters are ergonomically pleasing.
The electronic differential lock function has been extended and is now called "electronic differential lock XDS". Basically, the XDS kicks in during fast cornering and applies brake pressure from the ESP to the inner front wheel and is meant to reduce understeer. However, as is often the case with a front wheel drive, understeer can never be eliminated altogether. If you do enjoy throwing it around corners, you probably won't lose control of the car, thanks to the ESP and XDS, but you may well be aware of a hint of understeer.
Still, when you are blazing down the highway and overtaking everything in sight, your main concerns will be not getting caught by the speed camera, or having your passenger hide silently behind a newspaper before asking you to please slow down. It's hard to drive the GTI in a sensible fashion, although it is not quite as barking mad as Volkswagen's other tremendous hot hatch, the R32, which offers 240hp, a V6 engine and the guarantee of a permanent maniacal leer while at the wheel. The GTI isn't quite that silly, but there is still enough going on under the bonnet and the option of being involved in the gear changes to make it a pleasure to drive. It has both style and substance, a rarity in an era where many segments in the market are populated with interchangeable yawn-mobiles. The GTI isn't cheap - if you want a cheap hatchback, buy a Toyota Yaris or a Nissan Tiida. But those two serviceable snore-fests won't be the cars you'll look back on fondly when you're old, grey and it's time to hand in your licence.
You can be assured though that the GTI will be the motor that makes you muse to your nursing home chums: "I loved that car". This is true of all the GTIs since 1975 and, thankfully, the tradition is continuing, albeit with added luxuries. firstname.lastname@example.org