The new Clubsport is the Golf GTI at its most extreme, but it's still a GTI first and foremost. It's the car that invented the hot-hatch genre and almost single-handedly created its legend. The segment of urban performance heroes has come a long way from the first outing of the fast Volkswagen hatchback in 1976. Wolfsburg couldn't have imagined what it has morphed into today. Some of the current hot-hatches reach performance heights that only yesterday were strictly reserved for supercars while rising to even higher levels of sophistication. Both hot-hatch hallmarks, i.e. packing more power and removing weight, now take more spectacular forms than ever. Interestingly, these traits rarely go hand in hand. There are some premium hatches that are more GTs than GTIs, like the Mercedes-AMG A45 or the "mini-me Audi RS 6," the VW Golf R. In a parallel yet opposite universe lives the raucous track tools like the brilliant new Ford Focus RS and back-to-the-roots Honda Civic Type R.
Although it is great to have all these cars around, not a single one of them fully encapsulates the original GTI formula. The only car that does the trick is... well, the GTI. It's really easy to omit the seventh incarnation of the hot-hatch pioneer, having so many faster, shinier, and louder competitors on the market now. However, few cars can bring such a polished mix of performance, everyday practicality, refined quality, and at a relatively affordable price. And yet, to mark the 40th anniversary of the segment-defining GTI, Volkswagen wowed the Woerthersee VAG gathering audience with a Golf that was everything it had eschewed for the last decades. The new Clubsport, as the name suggests, is the most powerful, the most extreme, and the most expensive Golf GTI in history. It might be the best one, but it may well turn out to be the opposite of what made GTI such a desirable formula.
Normally, in a review like this one, we'd now write the bit saying that only a racetrack session would reveal the true value of such a car. Not this time, though. VW has already done that by setting new records at several tracks; I'll get back to that. This time, the Clubsport needs to prove its worth as a Golf, so we're going to throw it into the natural Golf habitat. No racing against the stopwatch under perfect sun then—just doing the things Golf drivers do on a gloomy day like this. Oh, this will be exciting.
No, but wait, this is where the things get interesting. It's easy to say that the Clubsport will be a fantastic track performer. So good, in fact, it shaved 1.4 seconds off of the Nordschleife lap record set by Honda Civic Type R to become the fastest front-wheel-drive car to ever appear on the legendary German proving ground. OK, that's not entirely true, as the car that achieved this was an even hotter Golf GTI Clubsport S, which has more power than the AWD Golf R and takes no compromises in weight saving. And by that, Volkswagen means really no compromises; the rear bench, the parcel shelf, and most of the sound deadening are out, bringing the weight down by 66 pounds, while the gearbox choice is limited to manual only, which takes away a further 44 pounds from the DSG's mass. The S in the name indicates some upgraded brake pads and a bespoke suspension, too, while the air-con is conspicuous by its absence. It's hard to call this track monster a Golf GTI anymore. It's nothing that a hot-hatch should be about. It's not even remotely accessible, costing north of 40,000 USD in Europe, the only region of the world where the limited run of 400 units was briefly available. This leaves us with this non-S Clubsport, but sadly even this unrestricted edition hasn't reached U.S. shores yet. Still, the question of how far the Golf GTI formula can go—and what the benefit of it is—is still for us to discover.
Price-wise, Clubsport lands exactly halfway between the standard GTI and the all-out Golf R. It keeps the key features of the hard-core Clubsport S, the most obvious of which is the unique aero kit, making the conservative Golf look at least a bit more like the bad guys from the hot-hatch world. The new parts that form the front and rear ends are said to channel more air to the brakes, cut lift, and bring more downforce at above 75 mph than your regular GTI body. To keep Golf geeks happy, there is a new set of bigger wheels and a black decal running alongside the lower edge of the door, mimicking the original 1976 Golf GTI. Inside, there's more of the special-edition fad. Lashings of Alcantara cover the steering wheel, gear knob, door panels, and bucket seats. There's quite a lot to like here, as the typical VAG spot-on ergonomics and upmarket build quality meet some properly entertaining design touches that give the black cabin much-needed charisma. The steering wheel is relatively thin but looks as if it had been taken straight out of a professional race car, and so do the optional bucket seats; they are as crazy as the practical Germans would allow them to be, but of course they're still clinically ergonomic and habitually comfortable.
So far, so very hot-hatch, so very GTI. The bits that will win you respect in the parking lot get-together are there, but none of the changes complicate things if you actually used it for carrying your groceries. It's still a Golf, with its roomy five-door body and more cargo space than a Toyota Prius. Exterior and interior exams passed. The situation doesn't get any more dramatic after starting the engine, which is both relieving and maybe a little disappointing. The special GTI retains the well-known and well-loved, EA888 2.0 TSI inline-four, here set to the tune of 265 hp. If the driver stomps the throttle hard enough, though, this number will go up to 290 hp for 10 seconds as the turbocharger raises the boost pressure from 27.5 psi to peaky 30 psi ("push-to-pass" in Volkswagen race cup speak). Quite a lot for a FWD hatchback, but VAG knows how to put this kind of performance through the front axle thanks to the experience gathered with Golf's sexy Mediterranean cousin, Seat Leon Cupra 290. Although VW wouldn't admit to it, the reason the Clubsport gets the full power dosed at 10-second intervals only is that it has to prove that it's at least a bit different from the aforementioned, slightly cheaper Seat or the pricier AWD Golf R, now only 10 hp ahead.
A bit disappointing, yes, but the numbers prove that the hottest Golf doesn't need to be any stronger than that. It's properly rapid on straights with 6.3 seconds 0-62-mph time (VW's number, not ec's) and stays committed on the twistier bits as well, thanks to the usual tuning ritual of turning up the spring rates by 10 percent and revising the dampers in quest of greater agility. An electronically controlled mechanical limited-slip differential, known from selected Golf GTI trims, comes standard. Toe and camber settings are carried over untouched from the stock GTI, as are the brakes. The DSG gearbox returns to the price list, and the Dynamic Chassis Control system that lets you choose the driving mode is also available, but you quickly realize you don't really want any of these gimmicks here. It's a back-to-the-roots fun-people Golf; the most playable of the GTIs in a few decades, a much purer feat than the 252-pound heavier Golf R. Suspension settings have been recalibrated to shuffle the mass rearward, which limits understeer and even allows for some oversteer, but it's still nothing like the French understanding of the GTI letters of the good ol' days, when lifting off in a Peugeot 205 GTI mid-corner resulted in a spin that would make 930 owners proud. Just like any other GTI, Clubsport knows how to have fun, but always stays on the sensible side—in a very German way. It sounds crispier and behaves more viciously than any other GTI but still lacks the rawness and sheer irresponsibility of the unhinged competitors.
Come winter, some of these front-wheel-drive track gods become tiresome and just plain ineffective. That's when the Clubsport keeps serving the power in a masterfully manageable way through the XDS+ diff to the extent that you think there's just too little power to bother the Pirellis. But that's just how effectively cold-blooded this car is, or rather, perfectly balanced. The stiff chassis stays composed and never allows wallowing under any circumstances, yet somehow, you'll still be happy to live with these dampers 365 days per year. Notice the settings aren't much stiffer than a standard GTI, and it hasn't been lowered. In optimum conditions, the setup allows you to carry big speed into corners and pull out of them early thanks to the help of the torquey powerplant. Additional grunt has brought a welcome increase in flexibility so you don't need to grab the gear lever every five seconds in city traffic, and an even more welcome increase in responsiveness. The 290hp version of the EA888 is an engine you want to rev, especially given that the top of the range is now edgier and more rewarding. On the wetter days, it can lead to some torque steer and regular appearance of a yellow traction control lamp on the dashboard, but the system cuts the power in an unobtrusive way that doesn't disturb the fluency of the ride. Even with nearly 300 hp sent through the front wheels, the electro-mechanical steering still shines uncorrupted. Its setup doesn't expect much effort from the driver, so you can still maneuver in the parking lot with one hand, sipping soda with the other. However, at the same time, it manages to give the driver just the right amount of feedback and precision you'd expect from something with "Clubsport" in its name.
The hottest GTI is an insane car made by some very sane people. It has more power, more precision, and more edge than its regular counterpart, and yet it's still the same kind of an everyday hot-hatch the GTI has always been. Injecting some more fun into its formula is surely a step in a right direction and makes this special version a truly memorable name in the Golf lineage. It's torque-steer-defying handling is prone to road condition changes, but less so than the other spicy pocket rockets you might be tempted to choose over a Clubsport. With the kind of performance this Golf has, VW engineers must have used all of their reality-bending abilities to create such a versatile daily driver. Clubsport stays the paragon of a GTI; not only a Golf GTI, but also the segment overall.
Start your own club in the USA
Some of you might be thinking that the Clubsport treatment doesn't sound all that much different from the classic tuner recipe. You take a GTI, add more power, make the suspension more precise, and try to remove a little bit of weight. You would be correct, and I present our own Project MK7 GTI as an example of what you can do with a few carefully chosen parts.
Power-adders: Here's the easy part, if you aren't overly concerned with your warranty. Any number of software tuners out there can get your stock GTI to Clubsport numbers in a matter of minutes. Project MK7 made 262 hp at the wheels with a Unitronic Stage 1 Flash. Without pulling any conversion factors out of thin air, I think we can all agree that is at or above 290 hp at the crank of the Clubsport. Here's the bigger thing, we made 298 lb-ft of torque at the wheels—that's 40 more lb-ft than VW is claiming at the crank. So power is easy, and there is plenty more available in the form of bigger intercoolers, downpipes, and if you really want to take it past the Clubspot S's 306hp, you can always jump up to the IS38 turbo from the Golf R.
Suspension: Both the Clubsport and S have been praised for not only their handling but very civilized manners on the road. Spring rates have only been increased by 10 percent, which strikes me as a token adjustment. The most shocking fact (pun intended) for most enthusiasts is in the Clubsport S Individual Drive Mode. The highest performance setting using the most aggressive throttle and transmission maps also uses the softest suspension setting the car offers. While bouncing around might make you feel like a race car driver, the truth is, soaking up bumps and keeping the body from moving and the tires firmly planted on terra firma is by far the fastest option. The S also includes a lighter and stiffer aluminum subframe, new suspension bushings, and new front spindles. I switched to SuperPro Supalloy front arms that gave us the stiffer bushings and some of the extra camber and caster of the S. I would love to switch over to the subframe, but I'm scared to ask the price. Lastly, the Clubsport is not lower than the standard GTI. Some have even said the S might sit slightly higher than a standard GTI. Project MK7 GTI is currently wearing H&R Street Performance Plus Coilovers, which allow for factory ride height while adding slightly stiffer rates than stock, but also adjustable camber plates.
Wheels and tires: The Clubsport uses a 19-inch wheel called Brescia. It's 7.5 inches wide et51. From what the Googles tell me, they weight roughly 25 pounds. The Pretoria wheel is 19x8 inches, et50, and again don't quote me, weighs 21 pounds. There are plenty of wheel options out there; if I have to tell you how to find them, we can't be friends anymore. Tires might be the single biggest thing you can do to either help or hurt your GTI's performance. The S comes standard with Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s, probably the stickiest thing you can throw on a car and still use on the street. There are a few other options out there in this category. You will see better handling, better braking, maybe even better acceleration from a stop. We've tested multiple different tires on Project MK7; sadly a 235 is about as wide as you can get under the factory fenders without some work or living with rubbing. The car simply needs a bigger footprint.
Aero: The Clubsport actually makes downforce, unusual for anything but dedicated sports cars at this point. I haven't tested any aero upgrades on Project MK7 yet. After examining the Clubsport, I can tell you that it isn't that tiny little splitter making the difference. The big inlets at the ends of the bumpers are blowing out at the intersection of the bumper and the fender liner, creating an air curtain around the front wheel. This pulls air out of the fenderwell and accelerates the air under the front of the car. Surprisingly, the rear spoiler looks bigger than most of the aftermarket pieces out there, although I'd probably only add something to the rear, if you know you are adding something equally as effective up front.
- Michael Febbo