It’s quite likely that you missed out on the chance of owning a GTI Clubsport S because Volkswagen only produced 400 of them. The 306bhp, three-door, manual transmission limited-edition VeeDub was the fastest front-wheel drive car to lap the Nürburgring and unsurprisingly sold out quicker than you could mutter ‘red grille and tartan seats’. So the Wolfsburg carmaker has created this, the GTI Clubsport, to mark 40 years of the model — which sits between the GTI and the R. Having spent the weekend with the hot hatch, I’ve been left wondering if it should be in second spot, or first.
Our doorier tester equipped with an automatic is way down on power compared to the mad S, but in spite of this, the watered-down version still has the ability to put a very large grin on your face due to its sporty character which, thankfully, amounts to more than just a few visual add-ons to the body. But since we’re on the subject let’s start with the revamped exterior. It features a deeper front bumper with bigger air intakes and serious-looking duct vanes channelling air through brake cooling slits. It rides on lighter 18in wheels wrapped with size 225/40 tyres and gets ‘Clubsport’ decals along the side sills, not to mention an extended roof spoiler and rear diffuser. The slim taillights are accompanied by fatter dual exhaust pipes, which make an angrier, naughtier note than the GTI. It’s a throatier bark and it suits the Clubsport’s more aggressive personality nicely. It has a lower stance too, thanks to a sports suspension that drops ride height by 15mm, and as for the cabin, it is mostly finished in a grey hue with a few splashes of red — however, it does get Alcantara trim seemingly everywhere, from the flat-bottom multifunctional steering wheel, gear lever and the bucket seats.
It’s still ever so practical with its ability to accommodate five adults (along with a 380-litre boot), and it has an 8.0in infotainment system with a CD player, SD card and aux-in, while the eight-speaker sound system is crystal clear. However, the only reason you would contemplate wanting one of these is for its performance. And as it would transpire, that is a very good reason indeed.
The output of the EA888 2.0-litre turbocharged four-pot goes from 220 horses in the GTI to 265 in the Clubsport. It’ll hit 100kph from rest in just 5.9 seconds and it’s stronger throughout the rev range too, but it has another party trick up its sleeve; a boost function is able to access another 25 horses for 10-second bursts of throttle, and this takes the final output to a Golf R-threatening 290 horses, and since it doesn’t have the R’s Haldex all-wheel drive system weighing it down, it feels more sprightly. You really don’t need AWD anyway, not when the Clubsport has more than enough grip to keep it on the straight and narrow. Even when you try, you can’t seem to shake it from its stride. Its bespoke suspension geometry with retuned springs and dampers does a sterling job of improving responsiveness and agility when you’re assaulting the corners.
No, the GTI doesn’t shy away from twists and turns at all — but Volkswagen has made what was a fabulous chassis even better. This car seems to relish the bends just a little bit more; it’s stiffer than the GTI and the ride may be slightly harsher, but you will appreciate the firmer suspension set-up when you are up in the mountains and chucking it from left to right, as I was over the weekend in Al Taween. An electronically controlled mechanical limited-slip differential, taken from the Performance Pack model, is fitted as standard on the Clubsport and overall it feels more poised in the corners with the front end keen to tuck in with a flick of the meaty steering, which is incredibly tight and responsive and tuned to oversteer more — making it perfect for the track and fast, winding roads. There isn’t a hint of body roll to be detected either, it corners flat and when the road begins to straighten out and you’ve buried the throttle, you are thrust into the back of your seat from the 350Nm of twist that it summons up from 1,700rpm.
The throttle response is incredible for a four-pot turbo (it actually feels like there’s a far bigger motor over the front axle), while the six-speed DSG rifles through the ratios as rapidly as ever. In fact, the Clubsport seems to be a little too peppy at times as even on a dry road you can chirp the front wheels from first through to third gear. Admittedly, you have to give traction control the afternoon off and if the heavens had opened up and left a tiny layer of water on the road, this GTI would have put an even wider smile on my face. I just wish it had a ‘proper’ handbrake, it’d make U-turns far more exciting.
For forty years and seven generations, the GTI has been delivering thrills to car enthusiasts all over the world and has rightly earned its place in motoring history as one of the best performers of all time. Even though the Clubsport is not as extreme as the Clubsport S (this one has backseats...) and falls short in terms of sheer power and has been tuned to produce less oomph than the R too, I have to say I like it more than both the regular GTI and the R. It’s a brilliant way to honour that milestone and although it may sit in second place in the line-up, I would rank it as the ultimate Golf GTI.