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Wolfsburg celebrates the GTI’s 40th with its most extreme version yet, eclipsing the power output of the Golf R as a track-oriented special edition

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The seventh-generation Golf GTI left us feeling a touch lukewarm on its introduction in 2012.

It was decent, of course: good looking, well made, capable and brisk, but Volkswagen equipped it with too little horsepower, too high a list price and too anonymous a front differential – and then compounded it all by introducing a four-wheel-drive R model that was plainly superior in every way and for not a whole heap more cash.

The Volkswagen Golf Clubsport S is only a shade of extra pace and grip away from being perfect

In the past six months, though, and to coincide with the GTI’s 40th anniversary, Wolfsburg has sought to rectify the so-so-ness of its most famous performance model line.

First, we’ve had the Clubsport edition – a revised trim level prospect that belatedly put the GTI’s output (albeit in overboosted form) at the same level as the Seat Leon Cupra while tweaking the bodykit volume up a notch or two.

The Seat is a car we like quite a bit – it being a proper Volkswagen Golf-shaped competitor in a front-drive segment where 250bhp is a now modest starting point.

A birthday needs a proper celebration, though. So rather than merrily stopping there, Volkswagen has taken a leaf from Renault’s book, ripped the back seats out of the GTI Clubsport, turned up the EA888 engine’s wick a bit more and duly delivered a Golf GTI capable of ascending to hot hatch heaven: top spot on the front-wheel drive lap time leaderboard at the Nürburgring Nordschleife.

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Dubbed the Clubsport S, the model returns a GTI-badged car to the top of the fast Golf line-up – in every sense.

It is the most powerful road-going Golf yet produced (marginally exceeding the output of even the potent R) and, at £33,995, also the most expensive Golf you can buy.

If you could buy it, of course, because of the 150 examples (of 400 to be built in all) bound for the UK, all have been eagerly snapped up already. That rules the desirability question of a two-seat, hollowed-out Golf GTI moot.

Whether those expectant signatures have bought the best version yet, however, is still very much up for debate. 

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DESIGN & STYLING

Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport S rear

Given that around 300bhp is an easily reached output for the third-generation EA888 engine, it’s no surprise that Volkswagen hasn’t had to work too hard to extract 306bhp for the Clubsport S – especially since it has a 326bhp version already running in endurance races.

The Clubsport S’s extra performance all comes from tweaks to the ECU and the fitting of a 65mm rather than 55mm-diameter exhaust, which reduces back pressure (and provides a healthy pop on upshifts or the overrun). The engine drives through a six-speed manual gearbox; there’s no DSG dual-clutch automatic option.

I like an aggressive slippy diff set-up. For me, the active diff doesn’t do quite enough to tuck the front axle in on a trailing throttle. You can feel it dragging the car out of corners under power, but I’d rather it contributed more

The Clubsport S’s exceptional lap time doesn’t come from the engine, then, and neither is it all from its weight reduction process.

Quite a lot of things have gone: some acoustic material, the rear seats, boot floor and load cover and bonnet damper.

There’s an aluminium front subframe and aluminium brake bells, too. But in gaining a luggage partition, 19in alloy wheels and adaptive dampers, the Clubsport S’s weight drops by only 30kg over a regular GTI, weighing in at 1285kg.

The on-track performance, then, comes instead from what Volkswagen has done with the chassis and aerodynamics – and the specially designed Michelin tyres, no doubt.

The aerodynamics are from the GTI Clubsport, while new bumpers reduce drag at the front and a spoiler at the rear gives greater stability. Not that an understeer-biased car like the Golf GTI needed that, so VW’s engineers redesigned the front suspension uprights to give more camber and generate more front-end grip overall, thus leaving the handling, VW says, neutral and stable. The variable-locking front differential and ESC received bespoke tuning, too.

But the Nürburgring is a long circuit and has many kerbs – so if you can shorten your route by going over them, you’ll be doing yourself a huge favour. Scroll through the Clubsport S’s various drive settings, then, and you’ll find Individual mode, which is, apparently, the optimum setting for the ’Ring, putting the dampers in a special kerb attack mode.

INTERIOR

Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport S interior

The Golf GTI Clubsport S isn’t quite as pared back as the most ultra-hardcore hot hatchbacks we’ve seen over the years.

This is still a Golf GTI, remember, so it would never do if it felt ‘basic’ – and it certainly doesn’t.

The thing about having no rear seats is that there are no seatbelts — or cargo net — to secure a crash helmet bag on the way to a track day. Bungees are in order

But pause before sliding into the Recaro bucket to look behind it and you’ll see only the vestiges of the back seats and parcel shelf.

VW has made a gesture at replacing at least part of the function of the rear seatbacks with an anodised bar that bolts between the upper seatback anchorages and a retaining net that hangs underneath it, tied down to the boot floor, which should prevent anything you put in the boot from joining you in the front of the cabin under heavy braking.

But you couldn’t call the bar itself a rear strut brace (although it’s clearly supposed to look a bit like one), because it’s only fixed – and fixed quite loosely at that – with allen bolts.

Our test car had climate control added back onto its specification (a no-cost option), so it wasn’t as sparse or as light as it might have been. You get VW’s Discover Navigation infotainment system as standard, but you don’t get a centre armrest.

The Clubsport S gets the same Discover Navigation system that is fitted as standard to every Volkswagen Golf above entry-level S trim.

It comes with a 6.5in colour screen — but this isn’t it. If you want the Discover Pro system as fitted to our test car (8.0in screen, voice control, hard drive storage, DAB radio), it’s a £1325 upgrade.
On a more conventional top-of-the-range model, we might criticise Volkswagen for a lack of generosity there, but in the case of a pared-down model like this, the lighter system might be justifiable.

Whether you believe it belongs on an ultra-hardcore hot hatchback or not, the Discover Pro set-up is certainly very good. With supremely clear mapping and great usability, the navigation system is child’s play to use, particularly when it comes to setting up your preferences for things like view and auto-zoom.

Both systems get Volkswagen’s Car-Net Guide and Inform functionality, filtering online traffic information, news, weather and fuel prices through via your smartphone’s data connection.

Volkswagen has also removed the sensors and transceivers that usually run the adaptive cruise control and crash mitigation systems, so there are a few blanks on the steering wheel.

The part-Alcantara Recaro buckets, shared with the standard Clubsport, are excellent and give plenty of room at the controls.

The suede-rimmed steering wheel can be pulled close to your chest and is grippy and tactile. The pedals are well located, although there’s a little too much space between brake and accelerator for the easiest heel-and-toe gearchanges. But pedal positioning apart, the driving position is pretty much ideal.

The instruments are typically clear, with a lap timer available as part of the trip computer function – but still no analogue oil temperature gauge, which might have come in handy on a track day.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

2.0-litre TSI Volkswagen Golf GTI engine

There are two elements to the Golf GTI Clubsport S’s performance.

Firstly, what it’ll do in a straight line. And secondly, what it’ll do on a dry race circuit.

The most extreme Golf GTI gets a revised powertrain, suspension and brakes but retains a conventional transverse engine layout, with a six-speed manual gearbox

The first of those can, if you only look at the headline performance figure, seem a bit disappointing.

VW claims the Clubsport S can hit 62mph from rest in 5.8sec, which for the life of us – although we test two up and full of fuel – we couldn’t quite match, at 6.1sec.

And given that we managed to coax 5.5sec from a Honda Civic Type R on the same stretch of asphalt, that might look a bit limp.

It’s not, though. Not a bit of it. The initial getaway is fine, matching the Type R to 30mph, but whether you slip the clutch, drive from low revs or allow some wheelspin, either the ESC or the active diff reins the action in when the revs begin to rise in first gear and inevitably trouble the traction – even with the former of the two systems apparently disengaged.

But look at the broader picture and the VW trumps the Honda in most respects. In gear, its every 20mph increment is quicker than the Type R’s. And it’ll cover the standing quarter mile in 14.3sec at 107mph, rather than 14.7sec at 104mph.

Those are small increments, but chuck them together and you get an idea of why the Clubsport S managed to eke out its Nürburgring advantage over the Honda Civic.

Another is its brakes; in the dry, it stopped from 70mph in 43.6m to the Honda’s 44.2m. And this is all delivered with that familiar Golf feel: pedals are straightforward in weight, the gearshift is positive, the engine’s response is smooth and power delivery is strong to the 6800rpm redline.

All of those things are part of the reason why the Clubsport S was able to lap MIRA’s dry handling circuit in 1min 14.7sec.

It perhaps reveals that the track favours the Volkswagen Golf’s handling characteristics over the Honda’s even more than the Nürburgring does, because the Type R lapped MIRA in 1min 16.1sec. These aren’t the kinds of numbers we’d usually get so tied up about in a hot hatchback, but it is, after all, the Clubsport S’s reason for being.

So today, we are. And bear in mind that, on the road, the drivetrain, brakes and transmission are every bit as easy to live with as in a regular GTI.

RIDE & HANDLING

Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport S cornering

In light of the way that it was launched, we shouldn’t be surprised that the Clubsport S conducts itself with the high-speed stability and damping sophistication that a racing driver would need in order to set a lap record at the old Nürburgring.

Compared with the most recent rival with which you might compare it, namely Renault’s awesome Mégane RS Trophy-R, the Golf is no less grippy but slightly less rabidly incisive in its handling responses – more softly suspended but no less purposeful in its own way.

Front axle clings on well the corners but isn’t grippy enough to allow much adjustment with a lift of the throttle

While the Renault felt pent up and unflinchingly aggressive on the road and wonderfully unhinged and liberated on track, the Volkswagen is much more at home on a typical uneven British B-road – and yet it can still hold its own on a circuit.

So whether you might prefer one to the other will depend in large part on the kind of use you have in mind for it.

Put the Golf’s adaptive dampers in Comfort mode and they’ll soak up as much punishment as UK cross-country motoring can throw at them.

They’ll never make the car pitch or bounce, keeping it faithfully on course at all times and making it an easy thing in which to cover ground at speed.

Fairly moderate spring rates are also to thank for this, making the car’s handling responses progressive but equally moderate while allowing some body roll on a circuit.

Even in Race mode, the car’s steering is a little light for our tastes and could offer clearer feedback from front contact patches as adhesive as these.

We’d also prefer a slightly more neutral balance of grip, the Clubsport S’s chassis preferring stability so much that it can understeer a bit when driven hard at low speeds.

All things considered, perhaps this isn’t the most compelling hot hatchback there has ever been – but like so many GTIs over the years, it has the kind of suspension compliance and dynamic pragmatism that you’d need in order to use the car every day and balances it against the desire for excitement and thrills very skilfully indeed.

Despite being marginally less balanced and direct than the most compelling front-drivers we’ve ever tested, the Clubsport S wants for very little pace on a circuit.

The lap time it set around MIRA’s Dunlop handling track beat every benchmark we could compare it with save one: Audi’s RS3. And while certain rivals (Ford Focus RS, Renault Mégane Trophy-R) were tested in less clement conditions than the Golf, there are few cars from which it would be easier to conjure such huge pace.

It’s a disappointment that you can’t fully disengage the car’s stability control system (making it impossible to launch the car from standing with optimal wheel slip), but it’s a small blight on an otherwise impressive showing.

You have to be mindful of the car’s tendency to push on in slower, technical corners, but through faster ones the balance is better and you can carry huge speed without worrying at all about rear-end breakaway.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport S

Capping the production volume of a performance car is a sure-fire way of justifying almost any asking price, and so it goes with the Clubsport S.

The question of comparative value is rendered void by the fact that the Clubsport S sold out almost immediately.

We would like to see the next generation Clubsport S to have a bit more poke and to make the rear-axle to be a bit more playful

But it won’t have hurt that both the Honda Civic Type R and Ford Focus RS cost more than £30k, as indeed does the much-venerated Golf R.

In fact, considering the temptation to charge exorbitant amounts for special-edition hot hatchbacks (the previous-generation Honda Civic Type R Mugen was priced at £38,599 a full seven years ago), this Golf’s exclusivity actually appears quite affordable – and you are also investing in the confidence that your money is in a relatively safe place here.

Wolfsburg’s decision not to hollow out the car’s interior quite to the level of a Mégane Trophy-R makes the Clubsport S an unexpectedly usable car to boot.

By retaining the Golf’s Discover Navigation infotainment system and making climate control a no-cost option (which puts 11kg back into the car’s kerb weight but which you should immediately tick anyway), the S seems homely enough around its heated race seats and semi-slick Michelin tyres.

The loss of a spare wheel, adaptive cruise control and a number of safety features are all easy-to-bear subtractions from the Clubsport’s longer kit list.

So, too, is the inevitably higher CO2 emissions figure (its 172g/km being marginally north of the Golf R’s quotation) – especially when combined economy is claimed at 40.4mpg. We recorded 35.5mpg at a cruise against a 29.1mpg overall average – both gently superior to the Golf R’s scores.

VERDICT

4.5 star Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport S

The Clubsport S makes for a fitting 40th birthday present to GTI aficionados.

It does this by not only being plainly faster and fitter than the basic Clubsport but also by exalting the badge’s traditional virtues even as it gently revises them.

A convincing combination of purpose and pragmatism

Yes, the back seats have gone, inevitably taking some of the practicality with them, but the Volkswagen Golf’s celebrated usability remains dynamically intact.

This is a track-orientated special-edition hatch that’s well capable of rewarding in everyday use, without being restricted to the frenzy of snatched Sunday drives on perfect roads and occasional forays up a pit lane.

Equally, and despite its record-breaking endeavours at the Nürburgring, the Clubsport S isn’t quite the match of certain rivals in terms of outright handling excitement.

The outgoing Mégane Trophy-R is more adjustable and free-spirited and a Focus RS simply more awe-inspiring all over.

But, crucially, the Clubsport S feels leaner, sharper and more assertive than the hospitable, all-weather Golf R – and that makes it, by a nose, the very best fast Golf you can buy. Second-hand, that is.

That is why we rank it second overall in our top five, just behind the incredible Focus RS, but ahead of the Honda Civic Type R GT, Audi RS3 and its sibling the Golf R.

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Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.