More powerful Clubsport version of Volkswagen's iconic hot hatch proves thoroughly entertaining on our track-only first drive in Portugal
by Greg Kable, 25 November 2015
What is it?:
This is the most powerful Volkswagen Golf GTi yet: the new Golf GTi Clubsport.
First revealed in production guise at the Frankfurt motor show in September, the latest in a long line of celebratory Golf GTI models has been created to mark the 40th anniversary of the introduction of Wolfburg’s iconic front-wheel-drive hot hatch, which originally hit showrooms back in 1976.
It is planned to reach the UK in limited numbers in early 2016, and with a starting price of around £29,000 it is not only holds the distinction of being the most powerful production-based Golf GTi, but is also the most expensive to date.
The Clubsport is differentiated from existing seventh-generation Golf GTi models through a series of styling upgrades which are claimed to provide it with true downforce, both on the front and rear axle, at speeds above 75mph for the first time.
Included is a unique front bumper featuring a large central air duct with a honeycomb insert, additional trapezoidal ducts used to cool the front brakes, high-gloss black blades low down on the outer edges for added downforce, so-called air curtains to smooth airflow around the edges and a splitter element down low.
The upgrades up front are accompanied by high-gloss black door mirror housings and a black graphic along the lower edge of the doors in homage to the look of the original 1976 Golf GTi.
At the rear, Volkswagen’s design team has provided the new car with a new twin-vane spoiler mounted atop the tailgate, together with vertical vanes along the outer edges of the rear window, a heavily restyled bumper with an integrated diffuser and larger-diameter chromed tailpipes.
The Golf GTI Clubsport is powered by a reworked version of the Volkswagen Group’s turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder EA888 petrol engine, as used by existing versions of the Golf GTi. But while the standard Golf GTi gets 217bhp, or 227bhp in Performance guise, the Clubsport offers up 261bhp between 5350 and 6600rpm.
That’s not the end of the story, though. An overboost function temporarily raises turbocharger boost pressure from 1.9bar to 2.1bar for up to 10 seconds on kickdown, increasing overall power output to 287bhp — albeit only for a maximum 10 seconds. That's just 8bhp less than the Golf R.
What's it like?:
The subtle changes brought to the Golf GTi Clubsport make it a more potent driving machine than the exiting Golf GTi Performance — and a more capable one, too. There’s greater edginess to its performance and added precision to the handling, making it a truly memorable car to drive hard in the right conditions.
Yet despite its more focused nature, it continues to deliver excellent levels of chassis compliance and superb practicality, meaning it also makes for perfectly acceptable everyday transport. This dual personality is very much at the root of its appeal, although the jury is still out on its styling, which to these eyes appears a little heavy-handed from certain angles.
It’s no surprise to learn that the engine is the dominant feature of the Golf GTi Clubsport. Its added reserves endow its delivery with greater urgency than that of the Golf GTi Performance, giving it a more determined character.
There’s superior shove and a pleasingly flexible feel at low revs. Even if you’re not in the optimum gear, the hefty torque brings excellent response on a loaded throttle. But with an overboost function serving up the full 287bhp on the kickdown, there’s also a stronger feel at the top end of the rev range, making it more stirring drive than its already highly capable sibling when given room to move.
Indeed, there’s real fun in firing the Golf GTi Clubsport along, thanks to the precise action of its standard manual gearbox and alluring exhaust note, which burbles away with a deep, throaty resonance at low revs and gradually builds to a determined growl as the rev counter nears the 7000rpm redline.
At 1375kg, the new model tips the scales at a claimed 7kg above the Golf GTi Performance. Despite this, Volkswagen claims a 0.6sec improvement in the 0-62mph time at just 5.9sec. The altered aerodynamics provide added stability at typical motorway speeds, while also helping to raise top speed by an incremental 2mph at a limited 155mph.
The highlight, though, is the handling, which has been elevated well beyond that of the Golf GTi Performance, thanks in part to the availability of Michelin Pilot Cup 2 tyres, as fitted to all examples at the launch in Portugal this week. It’s not a big transformation in character, but it is definitely more talented in the chassis department.
With high levels of structural rigidity and grip enhanced by the fitment of the semi-slick rubber, the Golf GTi Clubsport is supremely agile. Turn-in is sharp, the electro-mechanical steering system quickening as you apply more lock in corners. It is very precise in its action and offers a decent amount of feedback, allowing you to place it well on the road.
Superb damping ensures body roll remains well suppressed as lateral forces build. You can carry high speeds up to the apex without any premature breakaway at the front end. The rear end is also more stable than what we’ve encountered with the Golf GTi Performance, providing the driver with greater confidence when forced to lift off mid-corner.
The addition of Volkswagen’s XDS electro-mechanical differential, meanwhile, allows you to get on the power early out of corners and remain committed at the exit without any unruly wheelspin. The ability to get its ample power to the road is one of the defining traits of the Golf GTi Clubsport, which is said to lap the Nurburgring circuit over 10 seconds faster than the Golf GTi Performance.
Dig deep and you discover the front end eventually relinquishes its purchase when pushed hard, although the level of breakaway is quite high and the onset of understeer is very progressive, the reworked chassis providing sufficient adjustability and control to allow you to trim the line by gently easing off the throttle.
The ride, while firm, is superbly controlled. It should be pointed out, though, that our first drive of the Golf GTi Clubsport was on the Portimao circuit — a snaking 2.9-mile-long ribbon of smooth bitumen that hardly resembles the appreciably bumpier, coarse-surfaced roads the car will encounter in the UK. Even so, it managed to soak up kerbs without any great harshness.
Should I buy one?:
It may lack the sheer deftness of handling exhibited by the Ford Focus ST, but the Golf GTi Clubsport can be recommended on the breadth of its abilities.
On the track, it is an involving car to drive, offering strong performance, engaging handling, a heightened level of agility, superb refinement and a quality driving environment that has been enhanced through the availability of new sport seats offering great support.
As an everyday proposition, the latest Golf GTi also has a lot going for it. We’ll have to wait until we get to drive it on UK roads to fully confirm whether its ride as suffered in the upgrade to its suspension, although first impressions are extremely positive. Given its performance potential, it is also quite economical, with a claimed 42.1mpg on the combined cycle and 155g/km CO2 rating.
If you’re in the market, you won’t want to hang around too long, though. Volkswagen plans to produce the Golf GTi Clubsport in limited volumes from February through to August 2016, when its production lines will start to gear up for the launch of the eighth-generation Golf.
Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport
Location Portugal; On sale February 2016; Price £29,000 (est);
Engine 4 cyls, 1948cc, turbo, petrol; Power 261bhp at 5350rpm; Torque 280lb ft at 1700rpm; 0-62mph 5.9sec; Top speed 155mph (limited); Gearbox 6-spd manual; Curb weight 1375kg; Economy 42.1mpg (combined); CO2 155g/km
2016 Volkswagen Golf GTi Clubsport review | Autocar