I have to confess that I was never a big fan of the original 1975 VW Golf GTi.
Although it was quick, it wasn't THAT quick - there was faster machinery around. And it didn't handle THAT well - under extreme conditions it had a nasty habit of lifting a rear wheel high in the air.
And the brakes were, quite frankly, poor, with a cross-over mechanism used to convert from the original left-hand drive design to RHD which made the brakes feel uncertain and slow to operate.
Luckily for Volkswagen, however, my feelings were not shared by a wide section of the SA motoring enthusiast market, who flocked to the 1.8-litre mini car in their hordes, to the point where the GTi soon achieved a strong cult following.
Since then the GTi has become an icon, the hot hatch to beat. And although it hasn't always been the fastest hatch around, by and large it's been the most popular.
Which brings us to the latest, and dare I say, the greatest, GTI (note how the I has now become uppercase!).
In my opinion, the 147 kW VW Golf GTI is no longer a "hot hatch".
That title implies a degree of "souped up special" or "robot-dicer" that doesn't do justice to the product Volkswagen is about to put onto the market.
Instead we should look at the "GT" part of the GTI title - the original Italian "Gran Tourismo".
This indicates a "grand touring" car, one with long legs, great high speed cruising ability, safe as houses handling, and brakes to match - the ability to tackle continents, not just the short distance between traffic lights.
In short, Volkswagen has introduced its most sophisticated GTI to date, and we expect it to go head-on not just against its traditional foe, the Opel Astra GSi, but the sportier offerings at the lower end of the BMW and Mercedes ranges, as well as Alfa Romeo, and of course, Renault's hot Megane Sport.
The VW designers have gone out of their way to ensure that no-one can mistake the new GTI for anything other than what it is - the flagship of the Golf 5 range.
Viewed from the front it looks like no other Golf in the lineup, with a completely new radiator
grille with honeycomb inserts, locked into a two-piece design that is contained in its own U-shaped frame to give the impression of a large and aggressive air intake system.
The number plate separates the two halves of the grille, while on the outside of the U, beneach the "bumper," are further grilles that contain the front fog lights.
Naturally the suspension is lower on the GTI than on other Golf models - by 15 mm - adding to the aggressive stance, and the wheels are chunky and solid, 7.5J x17 inch alloys with "telephone dial" holes that come standard with 225/45 x 17 rubber. There's also an extra-cost option of 18 inch wheels.
Look through the holes, and you'll see BIG brakes - 312 mm vented discs at the front, complete with bright red calipers that hint at another German sporting car...
To finish things off, there's a big GTI badge at the front, and darkened bezels on the quad headlights.
Of course, lots of work has been done at the back, too, to ensure the sports theme continues.
There's a bigger roof spoiler for increased aerodynamic downforce, while twin exhaust pipes tell you exactly which Golf you're looking at.
The new GTI gets special treatment in keeping with its price tag - R240 000 for the 6-speed manual, and R253 500 for the DSG direct shift twin clutch automatic/semi auto gearbox.
Most noticeable when you open the doors is the smell of leather, and two stunningly-designed sports seats with big side squabs.
The driver's seat is adjustable for height as well as reach, and has electrically-operated lumbar support adjustment, while the contoured leather-rimmed steering wheel can also be adjusted for height and reach.
The sporting look continues right down to feet level, with drilled aluminium pedals, and there are also aluminium inserts on the dashboard and in the door panels.
Instrumentation is unique to the GTI, with a speedo reading to 300 km/h. The speedometer and rev counter dials are lined with chrome.
Both manual and DSG gear knobs are also aluminium-clad.
Engine and performance
The GTI is fitted with a 2-litre FSI direct injection motor, similar to that on the ordinary "cooking" Golf 5, but with power boosted to 147 kW (at 5 700 r/min) by the addition of a turbo-charger.
However, out-and-out power doesn't tell the whole story - driving quickly, especially between gears, is all about torque, and the GTI has 280 Nm available, in a wide band between 1 800 r/min and 5 000 r/min.
The transverse-mounted four-cylinder engine is linked to either a 6-speed manual gearbox or the revolutionary DSG gearbox, the latter giving clutchless gearchanges either manually, or fully automatically, depending on the driver's choice.
And remarkably, it's the DSG which provides the fastest acceleration, VW claiming 6.9 seconds for the zero to 100 km/h sprint compared to 7.2 seconds for the manual. Top speed in both cases is 235 km/h.
Despite the high performance, the GTI offers overall petrol consumption of only 7.9 litres/100 km. Fuel tank capacity is 55 litres.
Safety is of a high order, with ABS brakes with electric brake force distribution, as well as brake assist. There's also ASR anti-skid control and ESP electronic stability programme.
There are six airbags, and the car gets a full Euro NCAP five-star rating.
On the road
Volkswagen hired the Phakisa Raceway near Welkom to show off the GTI, with access to both the in-field race track as well as the big outside oval, plus a drag strip for good measure.
We also had a 20 km road drive to test the car in ordinary conditions - not long, but enough to show off its awesome mid-range overtaking flexibility.
What's it like? As I said right up front, this isn't a harsh and hairy rip-snorter.
From the first push on the accelerator the power comes in smoothly and quickly - so quick in fact that you will soon find yourself going much faster than you probably want to be, necessitating a short jab on the brakes to bring things down to a more legal level.
On the racetrack this wasn't a problem, with the tight corners on Phakisa ensuring we kept speeds down and decent.
However on the big oval it was another question, and a couple of times I got a big scare when I realised I was entering the top of the banking on the wrong side of 210 km/h before swooping down and around, the ASC light fluttering on the dashboard like the pounding of a frightened sparrow's heart.
The GTI is a seriously quick car, with huge mid-range grunt reminiscent of a big six cylinder's, and this enables you to exit corners that much faster.
Handling has been beefed up by the inclusion of bigger anti-roll bars back and front, as well as by the wider tyres, and stickability is huge, albeit with some understeer on the really tight corners, as to be expected from a fast front-driver.
Yet for all that there's nothing frantic about the GTI. It's cool and calm even when you are hotting up, and I was surprised to note how little degradation there was of the tyres and brakes even after several hours of hard driving in a wide variety of hands.
And then going back to the airport it showed its other side, a sophisticant of note with great comfort quality, a quiet ride, yet the ready urge of a wild-eyed stallion when the driver demands it.
The manual gearbox is smooth and well-ratioed, while the DSG is everything we have found before on VW's Audi partners, a model of how gearboxes should be, and can be.
The GTI was a bit flat with Golf 3, and a bit fat with Golf 4. However, Golf 5 shows it as a leaner and meaner machine, with superb performance and handling coupled with an element of finesse that will take it into a new market segment.
Volkswagen expects to sell about 200 cars a month in the initial stages, tapering down to a steady 150; however, I think they're going to have to up manufacturing volumes to meet local demand - not to mention the 7 000 a year they will be exporting to right-hand drive markets.
That latter piece of information tells you everything you need to know about the car's quality, and the faith Volkswagen AG has in South African manufacture.
But if you don't believe me, go and have a look for yourself...