Back in 1975 Volkswagen unveiled a stiffly-sprung fuel-injected version of its new Golf hatchback with a signature red stripe on the grille, tartan-trimmed sports seats and a jokey golf-ball gearknob. Would this ‘uber-Golf’, the GTI, sell? Volkswagen wasn’t really sure, and committed to making only a few thousand so that the GTI was eligible for the production car classes of racing and rallying. But sell it did, in spectacular numbers, and the GTI has been more or less a fixture in the Golf range ever since.

The GTI version of the latest seventh-generation Golf is a much more grown up car. This latest version is powered by a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine delivering 220PS, twice as much as the original GTI (and there’s the option of 10PS more, together with bigger brakes and an electric limited-slip diff). Drive is taken through either a six-speed manual gearbox – the original GTI made do with just four ratios – or Volkswagen’s excellent twin-clutch DSG transmission.

Inside there are nods to the original GTI in the tartan seat trim – a little more sober in its colour scheme than in ’75 – and a clever red trim line on the doors which glows at night. There’s plenty of space for passengers and the odds and ends that inevitably need a home in the cabin of a family car, plus all the usual adaptability of a hatchback with folding rear seats. But the Golf GTI is more than just a family hatch – underneath all that practicality is the heart of a sports car.

You can feel it on the road. Just like the GTIs of old this car grips well, changes direction neatly and handles even tight S-bends without losing its composure. But the modern GTI is altogether more sophisticated than its early forebears: the ride is comfortable, it cruises quietly, and the engine is flexible enough to deliver great performance without masses of effort. It’s quicker than it feels, which is a testament to its refined and effortless character.

Over the years the Golf GTI has evolved into something quite different from the car that amazed so many people in the 1970s. If you want your sports car with a raw edge to it look elsewhere, but if what you’re after is supremely confident and efficient performance, with the practicality and adaptability to take whatever you throw at it, the grown up Golf GTI could be just the car you need.