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The Golf GTI

The new generation of GTIs is here, but how is it different to its predecessors? Well, there's the tartan fabric for a start ...

A new Golf GTI? It seems we've only just had the last one, a fine car which reignited the Golf GTI flame after two previous Golf GTI generations of fading embers. GTI Mark Five was a proper hot hatchback with a better blend of pace, practicality and refinement than any rival. And now there's another.

You'll notice that the picture shows a five-door GTI. The obvious rivals have three doors, so the Golf is instantly demonstrating its practical side. But it has the right warpaint, too, this time based around the wide, slender front grille that is the most obvious way of discerning a Golf Mark Six from its immediate ancestor.

From Five to Six has been the smallest generational increment in Golf history. Structural changes are minimal and even the roof is the same. The revamp is mainly cosmetic, designed to make the Golf look and feel more expensive while actually being cheaper to make. So it is with the GTI, but here we see the red grille outline typical of the genre along with five-hole wheels and mock-mesh in the air intakes. The valances are deeper, the side sills gain an aerodynamic twist, and there's a spoiler above the rear window.

Inside there's a throwback to the very first GTI of 1976: seats trimmed in tartan fabric. If this is too sports-jacket for your taste, then leather is also available. A golf-ball gear lever knob, however, is not offered, but the option of a sequential Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) transmission is. All feels very solid and well put together, in typical Golf fashion. But will this latest Golf GTI actually feel any different from the last one?

The previous Golf's 2.0-litre, 200 bhp engine with direct injection and a turbocharger was one of its best features, while the loud roar from the tyres over coarse British tarmacadam was one of its worst. Power rises to 210bhp for the new GTI, and the engine has many detail changes to reduce the CO2 output and make that lovely surge of pulling power available over a yet wider speed range. Another change is the introduction of XDS, Volkswagen's name for an electronic "virtual differential" which goes one better than previous such systems by predicting when it will be needed so it can act more quickly.

Unless something has gone badly wrong in this latest evolution, you just know this will be a terrific car. And it does indeed feel right almost straight away. It makes a deep, muted but powerful growl, it responds crisply to the accelerator even when the turbocharger hasn't had a chance to build up its boost pressure, it has an easy gear change and firm, powerful brakes. It does that Golf GTI thing of exactly matching your mood, so if you want it to be a racy hot hatch it is happy to oblige, but it is equally happy cruising and not assaulting your senses.

The test cars we tried came with optional Adaptive Chassis Control (ACC), whose comfort, normal and sport modes make the suspension's damping firmer, the steering less power-assisted and the accelerator pedal's response keener as you go through the modes. ACC fine-tunes the GTI's mood-matching ability, but in practice it's fine nearly all the time if left in the normal mode. The ride is supple enough to cope with the UK's pock-marked surfaces, firm enough to make you feel involved in the process of fine directional control and, yes, the road roar is reduced. It's the way a Golf GTI should be.

But then there's the XDS system, similar to the Fiat Group's Torque Transfer Control. If the front wheel on the inside of a bend is starting to spin away its power, it will then lightly brake to divert the power to the outside front wheel. This helps pull the car's nose around the curve and stops it drifting outwards. Such systems have been around for a while, but this one begins to apply the brake even before the wheel starts to lose grip.

It works very well. True, you can't power out of a corner with quite the ferocity possible in the new Focus RS, whose clever, expensive, purely mechanical differential ensures there's no car-slowing braking at all. But the way the front wheels faithfully follow every steering command, the way the Golf feels nailed to the road yet ready to change direction in an instant, is thoroughly uplifting.

Would it be even more fun with the DSG paddle-shift gearbox? Some might think so, but for me the novelty wears off in five minutes and I just feel deprived of a major control interface. The new Golf GTI's terrific driving dynamics are emphatically best enjoyed with the regular six-speed manual. And you'll save yourself £1,305. It will cost from £22,410.