Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport S review - updated with UK driving impressions
We find out what it's like to drive the most powerful GTI ever
The Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport S is the fastest and most exclusive front-wheel drive Golf yet. It sits above the Golf GTI, GTI Performance and the GTI Clubsport, but stops clear of offering four-wheel drive to rival the Golf R. It currently holds the record for the fastest front-wheel drive car around the famous Nurburgring circuit – smashing the record that Honda, SEAT and Renault have been squabbling over for ages.
The Golf GTI Clubsport S posted a 7 min 47 second lap around the circuit in December 2016 – a blistering time on a par with cars like the 997 Porsche 911 GT3 RS, Lamborghini Murcielago and BMW M3 GTS.
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The Golf GTI Clubsport S has a number of rivals, but few go as far in the pursuit of track supremacy. While we may think of cars like the Honda Civic Type R as hard-edged and extreme, the Clubsport S goes one further and does without rear seats in the name of weight-saving. Coupe status aside, it’s still fairly usable as a daily driver – more so than the previous Renaultsport Megane 275 Trophy-R, anyway.
The Clubsport S is a limited-edition model with just 400 units produced. 150 of those came to the UK, and if you want one, tough luck – every single one was sold before deliveries begun.
Engine, transmission and 0-60 time
With 306bhp the Clubsport S becomes the most powerful Golf ever, as well as the fastest. It uses the same EA888 2-litre, four-cylinder turbo unit that powers all high performance Golfs, tweaked here to deliver its peak output between 5800-6500rpm, with 280lb ft of torque available from 1850-5700rpm. For reference, the Clubsport delivers a peak power output of 286bhp on temporary overboost.
The only transmission option is six-speed manual, carried over unchanged from the Clubsport. Drive is sent to the front wheels and apportioned between them by an electronically controlled limited slip differential.
The Clubsport S records a 0-62mph time of 5.8 seconds – trimming a full half a second off the Clubsport’s time – and it tops out at 165mph.
The Clubsport S carries over the Clubsport’s aerodynamic revisions. The front splitter and rear wing not only cancel out the 60kg of lift generated by the GTI Performance, they actually produce a small amount of downforce. VW’s engineers quote 8kg on the front axle and 17kg at the rear. They’re modest numbers, but with no lift to contend with VW has been able to make significant changes to the chassis balance.
With so much more stability at high speed than before the engineers can dial in a more neutral balance, which reduces understeer and promotes oversteer characteristics. In a front-wheel drive car that translates into more speed through corners.
From there the Clubsport S starts to distinguish itself from the Clubsport. The chassis gets bespoke damper tuning, new front knuckles, more camber front and rear with less toe and a lightweight front aluminium subframe. Those revisions are all designed to make the car more stable at speed, and reduce understeer.
Bespoke Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres are standard fit (they’re optional on the Clubsport) and the brakes get specific pads and aluminium bowls that enable the discs to expand under sustained track work without warping. Some 30kg has been saved over the Clubsport by removing the rear seats and some sound deadening material.
The car’s Individual drive mode has been configured specifically for the Nurburgring Nordschleife, which is notoriously bumpy. It slackens the dampers off to deal with the circuit’s countless bumps and high kerbs while keeping all other parameters in their most aggressive settings.
A DSG gearbox would add 20kg to the overall weight of the car, so the engineers very quickly ruled it out as an option. Most cars will come fitted with air conditioning, but around five per cent will do without, saving a further 15kg. The exhaust, finally, is a freer breathing item to help achieve the lift in power.
What’s it like to drive?
Given that it was developed specifically to break the Nurburgring lap record it should come as no surprise whatsoever to learn that the Clubsport S is extremely impressive on the Nordschleife. Its engine immediately feels stronger than the Clubsport’s, with the same sharp throttle response, immense torque curve and vibrant top end. Only in the final dash to the limiter does the engine begin to strain.
The manual gearshift is tight and direct and the car gets its power down to the road without any histrionics. It finds tremendous traction, even away from the tightest corners, and it never tugs itself across the road in the way that some high-powered front-wheel drive cars tend to. In fact, the steering and mechanical differential work so effectively together that you can feel precisely how wide you can open the throttle before the front wheels will spin up.
The steering itself is direct and precise with a reasonable amount of feel, but what’s really extraordinary is the grip the front axle claws out of the road surface. The Cup 2s sink themselves hard into the tarmac and the very neutral chassis balance means there’s virtually no understeer to contend with. That resilient front end means you can really chase the Clubsport S as hard as you dare, rather than just having to manage understeer. Releasing a car into quick, unsighted corners when your brain insists you should be hard on the brake pedal is one of the timeless joys of track driving.
The relatively pointy chassis balance means you only need to trail brake lightly to get the car turned in, although the stable rear end never feels as though it might try to overtake the front.
There is a fair amount of roll and the chassis doesn’t feel unbearably stiff – over the big kerbs it’s wonderfully pliant, in fact – but body control is good when the corners come thick and fast and the car isn’t unsettled by bumps. It’s well damped in compressions, too, all of which bodes well for the public road.
The brakes were showing signs of wilting after two quick laps of the Nordschleife, but otherwise they’re strong and consistent. The seats, meanwhile, offer really good support without the compromise of a full bucket seat and harness arrangement.
Impressively, the Clubsport S never feels like a raw, unrefined or uncompromising beast. In fact, if you can live with two seats it doesn’t seem to be much less usable than a standard GTI. There is a strong argument to say a hot hatch with this level of performance should feel otherworldly, but it’s difficult to take issue with the car’s breadth of ability.
UK driving impressions
Now that we’ve driven the Clubsport S on the road in the UK, we most definitely can award it the full five stars. We took the Clubsport S up to the Yorkshire Dales to test it on classic, bumpy British blacktop and it was simply superb. On the M1 during the journey up north it was surprisingly habitable. There is a bit more road noise because there are no rear seats to baffle the noise from the rear, but it’s of minimal inconvenience and you could certainly happily listen to the radio. The raw-to-refined ratio certainly hasn’t swung too far towards the former.
Once in the Dales, the Clubsport S was one of the most impressive cars we have ever pointed down a B-road. The way that it soaked up the bumps and yumps with pliant yet beautifully supported suspension was a joy. Even at low speeds there is a well-oiled precision to the just-weighty-enough steering that makes it feel deliciously tactile, and that’s before you add in the soft suede covering to the wheel. Several people drew comparisons with Porsche in the way that everything felt so deeply well engineered.
The engine is immensely strong and although you don’t have a singing top end that you can really enjoy, the way it rips through the revs is quite addictive. Matched to the mechanical limited-slip diff the S is a formidable companion across country, digging hard and finding immense traction from early in corners. It has an almost uncanny composure that seems to allow you to drive with greater clarity as a result.
All in all, it feels like a very complete package. There is always a worry with cars that seem to have a leaning towards lap times that they will forget their roots and be less enjoyable on the road. But the upgrades that Karsten Schebsdat and his team have made have allowed the Golf to shine even more brightly on exactly the sort of roads where a hot hatch should feel at home.
Price and rivals
With a targeted price tag of £33,995 the Clubsport S is among the more expensive front-wheel drive hot hatches. The Honda Civic Type R starts at a fraction under £30,000, but it doesn’t have the Golf’s high quality cabin or premium image.
Based on this first impression the Renaultsport Megane 275 Trophy-R is more of an event – buckets seats and a roll cage tend to make a car feel rather special – but the Megane certainly can’t match the VW’s everyday usability.