I'm fairly used to cars I drive being oogled when they are fancy and tarted up. The Volkswagen GTi is neither fancy nor tarted up. You might expect it should be. I did. It is a so-called performance car and it costs enough.
To look at, it isn't that much different from the mainstream Golf. Yes it had red-painted brake callipers and two chrome tailpipes, special side sills, a diffuser and smoked LED rear lights but nothing ostentatiously eye-catching.
Yet as I drove through Dublin, Kildare, Laois and glorious Kilkenny I was surprised at the number of people who drew alongside, gave the thumbs up; or at lights let their windows down to ask about it. Strange.
I thought about it and came to this conclusion. It must be the GTi badging. People would look, pass no remarks, cop the GTi badging, open their eyes wider and then start pointing and doing the thumbs up act. Curious what makes people sit up and take notice.
A few tried to tempt me into a race, dodging in behind me, pulling alongside shouting 'come on, come on'. I left them for dead at the lights a few times. Point made. This clips it from the lights to 100kmh in 6.5 seconds, which is quick but not mad. It is the way it does so that sets it apart. It doesn't paw the ground and roar. It just gets to 100kmh in a curiously quiet way. But it is good fun.
The same sort of deceptively laid-back theme stretches into the cabin. Apart from trademark GTi marks such as the red double-stitch on door panels, seats etc, Tartan sport seats and bits of subdued bling here and there (aluminium inserts), this is low-key.
Not only did it zip from a standing start, it had impressive mid-range pull. In fourth/fifth gear its response was superb – ask a couple of young lands in a Wicklow reg Civic. Dust in their eyes stuff.
But swing it on to an ould bog road with as many twists, turns and unevenness on it as a late-night Dáil debate and you sense you are driving a different animal. Now you get the sports suspension (car also 15mm lower) giving you the energy of speed without the penalty of losing grip or control. It has this electronic differential lock XDS that adds considerably to the way it manages corners in particular. This is its wow factor.
All together, the power and the means of dispensing it cultivate the bit of magic that has made the GTi the icon it has become.
This one is far more subtle, less obviously rampaging than the previous couple or three. Yet it covers ground with extraordinary ease, be it in straight-line speed or bumps-a-daisy.
Back in the real world you can drive it to work, the supermarket, the children's weekend sports and not flutter a feather. The only real clue is the GTi badge. It is a badge of honour, no doubt.
You'll gather I liked it – but not everything suited me. The Tartan seats were not what I wanted. I wanted firm, broader seats. These were a bit spongy and not nearly as comfortable as many a rival and less expensive mainstream motor. Mine had manual lumbar support. It was moderate.
And the cabin could, in all honesty, have been spruced up a bit more. It's not dull but it sure wasn't inspiring. However, it has to be said Volkswagen has done a wonderful job of keeping switches, dials and implements to an uncluttered, efficient minimum.
You could argue it is understated; I'm arguing it is too low-key.
I can't say that about its performance. That 2-litre engine just kept on finding more for me all the way to the red line.
Most of the young people who oogled me – sorry the car – either knew a lot more about the car than I did or had heard their dad, uncle, older brother or sister talk about the Golf GTi. Otherwise, how do you explain the reception I got?
My fervent hope is that they can afford one here in the not-too-distant future. That will be a sign we have returned to economic well-being. Only this time around can we copy the GTi – do the business without going mad and showing off?
Volkswagen Golf GTI
* Volkswagen Golf GTi five-door, 2-litre, 4 cylinder, 1,984cc (turbocharged direct petrol injection), 220bhp, six-speed manual gearbox, 6l\100km; 139 g/km, road tax €280, 0-100kmh in 6.5 seconds; top speed 246kmh.
* Standard equipment includes: air con, cruise control, 17-inch 'Brooklyn' alloys, all sorts of airbags, electric windows, 5.8-inch touchscreen Radio Composition Media (MP3, CD player, eight speakers, AUX-IN, SD card slot), 'Clark' cloth, Bluetooth connectivity, daytime running lights, rain sensor, electronic parking brake, height adjustable/removable luggage floor, multi-function display, Start/Stop system, space saver steel spare wheel and driver fatigue alert.
* Price from €34,570 on the road (OTR) for three-door; €35,520 for five-door. Prices DO include delivery and related charges of €750.