From £25,84510
A new Golf tops the range: the GTI Clubsport S. It's a limited-run, lightened, 306bhp hot hatchback that its maker says is the fastest front-driver of all

What is it?

This car is capable of lapping the Nürburgring Nordschleife quicker than any other front-wheel-drive production car - something of a modern theme. It’s called the Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport S, a limited-run hot hatchback that’s 1.5sec quicker than a Honda Civic Type R around das Nürburgring, if such things are important to you - and they are to at least four car manufacturers in recent times: Renault, Seat, Honda and now Volkswagen.

The GTI Clubsport S, then, follows the GTI Clubsport, which itself sits above the regular Golf GTI and was built to celebrate the Golf GTI’s 40th anniversary. The Clubsport has 261bhp most of the time and an extra 25bhp available on overboost. The S obtains rather more from the same 2.0-litre engine, driving 306bhp through the front wheels, which is apparently the kind of boost you need to keep pace with a Civic Type R on a long race track.

But probably the more significant gains, when it comes to that lap time around that circuit – 7min 49.21sec, if you’re counting – are in the chassis, aerodynamics and interior. 

Firstly, the rear seats have been discarded, making the Clubsport S a two-door two-seater. Throwing out some sound deadening and making the front subframe from aluminium instead of steel reduces weight by a further 30kg. 

There’s an aero package shared with the Clubsport that, instead of lift at both ends, gives downforce at both ends – and rather more at the back than the front, which would make the car give up grip at the front earlier than at the back. So the front hub carriers are new and different geometry compensates for the balance shift by adding front-end grip, so the car corners faster and understeers less. Meanwhile, the engine mounts are stiffer than those of the regular Golf, to give better responses, presumably at a cost to some of the Golf’s fabled refinement. Like the aero pack, though, the regular Clubsport gets these.

Then there’s what I suspect is the most important thing for this lap time: a chassis set up for the place. There are adaptive dampers as standard, with soft and firm modes, as well as firmer bushes front and rear, while geometry changes give less toe-in and more negative camber. Finally, there are sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres specifically designed for this car. 

Everything’s developed with the Nordschleife lap time in mind - which, if you come here often, might be important to you. If you don’t? “Nürburgring Schmürburgring,” you might think. “Given the base price is £35,000(ish) and I live in the UK, where it’s often cold and wet and there’s a lot of traffic around, I’d be better off with a cheaper, almost as powerful, four-wheel-drive Golf R.”

What's it like?

The Clubsport S is very different from the regular Clubsport we drove a few weeks ago, which is itself a long way removed from the regular GTI. The S immediately feels more urgent and responsive, which is in part down to the power but is largely due to the lower weight and the stiffer bushing – and, let’s not forget, the tyres – which increase steering response and sharpen the whole car’s demeanour.

Around the Nürburgring, it’s pretty astonishing for a front-drive hatchback. Not in terms of rip-your-face-off fun and excitement – a Renault Mégane RS is still the boss there – but for sheer ground-covering pace and ability, little will touch it.

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The Clubsport S has different drive modes. Stick it into Individual rather than Comfort or Sport and it gives you the ideal ’Ring set-up, which means soft dampers but angry everything else. So you can attack kerbs and it absorbs the impact gracefully, which is key to nabbing valuable microseconds around here – and is likely to also prove quite handy down, say, the Fosse Way.

While doing this, the steering remains remarkably uncorrupted – more so than, I think, a Renault Mégane RS Trophy-R. It’s the Renault, though, rather than the Civic Type R, which is the more pertinent comparison for me. I like the Civic, but it’s so straightforward and brutal. The Golf has a more subtle side to it, a real deftness and approachability to its chassis. It’s still a Golf, after all. 

The engine is fine. It revs cleanly through to a 6800rpm redline, and the six-speed manual gearbox is mostly light and slick. (A DSG dual-clutch auto would be 20kg heavier and therefore isn’t offered; air-con is a no-cost option that robs a couple of horsepower and adds 15-20kg.) The handling balance is still biased moderately towards understeer – because it's a Golf – but the electronics and an electronically controlled limited-slip differential mean that, on the power, front-end slip is impeccably controlled. 

The changes to the suspension bushes and geometry are aimed at increasing lateral grip considerably – which is what you need if you’re going to set a lap time, obviously – but it also improves steering precision and response. VW says there’s no downside to this on the road, that it doesn’t give more steering or chassis corruption over camber changes and such-like, but unfortunately, for a while, we’ll have to take Volkswagen's word for that, because our drive was on the circuit only. 

Should I buy one?

There are plenty of good reasons why you'd want a Clubsport S. For starters, given that fewer cars are coming to the UK than Volkswagen UK has dealers, even if you buy one and don’t like it, I don’t imagine you’ll lose any money on it. Some cars are like that, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to find that the Clubsport S is one of them. 

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And so to the final question: four and a half or five stars? Because it’s one or the other. I’m torn here, dear reader, so I’ll share what I’m thinking. There’s the fact that a Ford Focus RS has astonishing cornering abilities, but I’ll bet the Clubsport S is faster around most circuits, certainly feels more agile and has a fine, if subtle, sense of occasion. 

Then there’s the soon-outgoing Renault Mégane RS, in whatever its most recent guises are. They’re the best-handling and steering front-driven cars of the past decade or more, although that's coupled with a generally awkward driving position and gearshift to take the shine off things. But still, the Mégane is genuinely exciting in a way the Golf just isn’t designed to be.

And then there’s the other notable rival, the real problem car, which undercuts the Clubsport S by a sizeable sum, is just as easy to drive quickly and is probably 90% as rewarding. It’s called the Volkswagen Golf R, a car that has wormed itself so deeply into our affections that it’s the hot hatchback, simply, that most Autocar writers would buy if they had proper jobs. 

On a track, though, the Clubsport S is more fun again. It’ll wear out its consumables less quickly, and it’s faster, and yet it still does all those Golfy things that VWs do so well. And, in fairness, that’s exactly what Volkswagen was aiming for. So let’s call it five on a great first showing and be prepared to knock a bit off if it disappoints on the road. My hunch is that it won’t.

Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport S

Price: £35,000 (est); Engine 4 cyls, 1948cc, turbo, petrol; Power 306bhp at 5800-6500rpm; Torque 284lb ft at 1850-5700rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Kerb weight 1360kg; Top speed 164mph; 0-62mph 5.8sec; Economy 38.2mpg (combined, est); CO2/tax band 172g/km, 31% (est)

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

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Add a comment…
pauld101 7 June 2016

Have they stopped the undertrays falling off Golfs, yet?

No, they haven't.
Stinky cars.
bomb 7 June 2016

Autocar wrote:

Autocar wrote:

I don’t imagine you’ll lose any money on it

The desirable wonder-hatch of the moment it may be, but you will lose money on this car. Maybe not for the first 6 months but you will lose. It is, after all, a Golf. A Focus RS will keep its value better.

Cobnapint 7 June 2016

306 bhp...

through the front wheels...? Hard work for the traction control system on a wet Fosse Way. Needs 4wd to make the most of the engine.