Rapid performance, good handling, sharp looks and that was pretty much it.
Today that is all changed and no better can that be seen than with the Volkswagen Golf, the car that started the whole genre.
Take a look at the German manufacturer’s range and you can have the standard GTI, the brilliant new GTD turbodiesel and now this GTE.
As you might surmise from that final letter, the GTE is a plug-in, petrol-electric hybrid borrowing much of its underpinnings from its sister car, the Audi A3 e-tron.
A crucial element perhaps in the wake of the VW Group’s Dieselgate scandal earlier this year. But while the Audi is tuned towards more eco-loving elements, as its name suggests this Golf GTE is meant as more of a hybrid hot hatch.
That might seem something of an oxymoron, but the immediate power-delivery advantages of electricity mean there are more benefits than you might at first think – more of which later.
Not that you’ll be able to spot those from the outside. The only difference to the GTE’s exterior is a blue strip across the grille and lights, that are usually red on the GTI, and slightly lowered suspension to make it look more aggressive than your everyday Golf.
Under the bonnet is a 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine that is aligned to an 8.7kWh battery, giving the GTE a combined maximum of 204bhp.
The Golf GTE borrows much of its underpinnings from its sister car, the Audi A3 e-tron
Officially it also boasts just 39g/km emissions and 166mpg average fuel economy, although in reality few will match that latter figure.
What matters to more people is that the GTE manages 31 miles on electric power alone and can be recharged from a home wallbox in just two and a quarter hours.
There are also five driving modes that can charge or consolidate the battery’s charge levels and run on electric mode at up to 81mph.
A smartphone app can preset the car’s charging levels and heat or cool the cabin before you even step into it.
But all of this clever trickery isn’t worth a jot if the GTE drives badly.
With only a single five-door bodystyle and in one specification, the Golf may not be to everyone’s tastes, but the driving almost certainly will be.
The simple reason for that is the GTE’s absolute ease of use. You could climb behind the wheel, drive away and not be any wiser about the car’s clever under-bonnet technology or how you were being powered.
Of course, there are some giveaways and the GTE’s silent progression is one.
The Golf’s batteries provide some real mid-range grunt
As those acceleration figures suggest, the Golf GTE isn’t exactly sluggish but what they don’t tell you is the effect of the electric power delivery in the mid-range.
Even the fastest sports cars cannot compete with the immediate grunt on tap, thanks to that battery power, and it really shoves you back into your seat in a way that many might not expect.
Not that it is perfect. Despite all that performance, going round corners is a different matter.
The problem is, those same batteries that give you that immediate shove weigh just under 15 stone and all those extra pounds do blunt the Golf’s usual sharp handling somewhat.
Fair enough, this only really comes to light when you are pressing on, but anyone switching from a GTI or GTD will definitely notice the equivalent extra weight of a rugby player in the back.
That said, it is a small price to pay for what is such a flexible and adaptable car. This is exactly how plug-in hybrids should be, making the technology as easy as possible to adopt on a daily basis and suitable for your needs whenever they might change.
The GTE is a brilliant step in the right direction
The only practical downside is a shallower-thanusual boot to accommodate the batteries.
Keen hot hatch drivers might turn their noses up at the thought of the GTE being presented in such a sporty context, but there is no question it has a worthwhile role to play in VW’s range.
It may not be the sharpest handling hot hatch on the market but it is one of the cleanest and, if you use that electric power wisely, one of the most frugal.
Yes, you need to do your maths to work out its running costs versus the GTD, which is two grand cheaper, but for us this is a brilliant step in the right direction and we applaud VW for offering it.