The Sunday Times Driving Placeholder
The best GTI for your money
Pros
Suspension tweaks give it cat-like grip
Performance to keep a Golf R honest
Will be rare
Cons
Overboost limited to 10-second bursts
Might not be so predictable on damp UK roads
I'd still rather have a Golf R

First Drive review: 2016 Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport

Clubsport? I nearly clubbed a wall but was saved by its sharpened claws

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VW Golf GTI Clubsport

2016 VW Golf GTI Clubsport at a glance

  • Handling: ★★★★☆
  • Performance: ★★★★☆
  • Design: ★★★★☆
  • Interior: ★★★★☆
  • Practicality: ★★★★☆
  • Costs: ★★★★☆

 

THE GOLF GTI turns 40 years old next year. No mean feat for a car originally conceived after-hours by a small team of VW engineers who thought that fitting an unusually powerful engine into a humble Golf hatchback might result in an amusing curiosity.


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In fact, the Mk1 Golf GTI turned out to be much more significant than that; it heralded the birth of the hot hatch. 1976 turned out to be a year not only for unlikely platform shoes but also inspired car ideas.

Fast forward four decades and we’re onto the seventh generation of GTI and an ever-increasing number of performance Golf spin-offs, including the GTD, GTE and R. The latest in the line-up is the 2016 VW Golf GTI Clubsport.

Intended as a celebration of the big 4-0, the Clubsport gets the same 2-litre turbocharged engine as the standard GTI, but this time producing 261bhp instead of the standard 217bhp, and a decent jump over even the 227bhp of the Performance Pack GTI. It’s likely to cost around £29,000 in the UK.

2016 VW Golf GTI Clubsport review

It’s not quite the whole story though, because the Clubsport also features an “overboost” function that allows for 287bhp at full throttle, albeit for only ten seconds, and only in third gear or above. Apparently this “limits wear and tear” on the engine but likely also has something to do with leaving some clear air — at least in terms of on-paper statistics — between the Clubsport and the range-topping 295bhp Golf R.

Still, we’re not complaining. Because the Clubsport looks really rather good. Externally, the changes are relatively subtle but significant: there’s a new front bumper that features an aerodynamic lower splitter complemented by racy “air curtains” that channel air around the sides of the car, new side skirts and a more significant spoiler at the top of the rear window. The rear bumper is also tweaked and now features a larger-diameter pair of exhausts, which emit a larger-diameter volume of noise.

There are also optional Clubsport graphics, which should be an aesthetic no-no but actually look remarkably good. All pretty standard stuff. What’s interesting is that VW claims that the car now produces actual downforce, helping pin it to the road surface at speed, though one suspects that the ability to sense the effect would require the kind of scientific equipment not usually available to casual commuters.

2016 VW Golf GTI Clubsport review

Inside, it’s more of the same kind of mid-life tweaks common to any special edition: slightly different seats and trim, an alcantara-trimmed steering wheel and Clubsport floor mats. Again, so far, so predictable. It’s when you drive the thing that it all starts to get infinitely more interesting.

I happily romped over a blind crest at 120mph, beyond which I had assumed was a straight but suddenly realised was, in fact, an imminent right-hander

Anyone who has ever stuffed a car into a ditch will recognise the horrible, yawning moment of utter clarity at that point you realise you’ve made a catastrophic miscalculation. In my case, it came at more than 120mph as I happily romped over a blind crest on the Portimao Circuit, beyond which I had assumed was a straight but suddenly realised was, in fact, an imminent right-hander.

If it had happened in a standard VW Golf GTI, there might have been a spectacular and painful interaction with the rather stout-looking barrier. Fortunately, the Clubsport managed — beyond all comprehension — to scrabble around said corner without so much as kissing the Armco.

2016 VW Golf GTI Clubsport review

The reason is nothing to do with the driver’s skill and everything to do with the way the Clubsport has been engineered. The suspension is stiffer, the damping is different and there have been changes to the XDS+ electronic front differential’s complicated algorithms to ensure that power is metered between the pair of driven front wheels to greater effect.

Translated into real-speak, the Clubsport is a car that clings to a racing line like a startled cat to carpet, maintaining a decidedly Swiss-style neutrality for the duration of all but the tightest corners.

It’s probably worth pointing out that we tested the Clubsport on a warm and sunny day in Portugal, on the optional semi-slick tyres; what it might be like on a leaf-strewn UK backlane on a wintery December day with standard rubber is yet to be seen, but there’s no doubting its efficacy in this situation.

Despite its stunning grip levels, the GTI Clubsport is still fun. The engine is much perkier throughout the rev-range than the standard GTI, it sounds better, and even though there are a lot of clever things going on underneath, the electronics never seem particularly intrusive.

If you get bored with being grown-up, you can switch the electronic nannies off and drive in a less responsible manner, at which point the Clubsport feels lively, alert and a little bit unhinged. That’s not to say wayward: it never does anything untoward and reacts with the kind of dynamic monotony that means drivers are unlikely to suddenly find they’ve spun and gone backwards through a hedge – after lifting off the accelerator mid-way around a quick corner.

2016 VW Golf GTI Clubsport review

But fast? Undoubtedly. Plenty fast enough to keep a Golf R honest, at least on a dry circuit.

Does that make this the ultimate Golf GTI? Yes. It’s an eminently sensible set of upgrades that see the Clubsport sit neatly between the Performance Pack GTI and the Golf R, both in terms of price and performance. A little bit marketing-led, sure, but still a package that provides value for money. After all, once you’re done driving like a hooligan, you can switch the adaptive chassis control back to ‘Comfort’ mode and totter to the shops as you would in any other Golf.

The added bonus is that the Clubsport will also only be produced for a limited time, probably with only a couple of thousand-ish units appearing globally, so it’s a good bet if you want something lightly brilliant and slightly more exclusive, but without the gaudiness of some special edition cars.

The best Golf, though? I think I’d still rather save up a little extra and have the all-wheel drive surety of the R — especially for the UK — but there’s not a lot in it.

2016 VW Golf GTi ClubSport manual specifications
  • Price: £29,000 (est)
  • Engine: 1,984cc turbocharged 4-cylinder, front-wheel drive
  • Power: 261bhp @ 5,350rpm (287bhp with overboost)
  • Torque: 280lb ft @ 1,700 to 5,300rpm
  • Transmission: 6-spd manual or 6-spd DSG
  • Acceleration: 0-62mph in 5.9 seconds,
  • Top speed: 155mph top speed (limited)
  • Fuel: 42.1mpg
  • CO2: 162g/km
  • Road tax band: G (£180 per year)
  • Release date: February 2016

 


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