Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport 2021 review – has the Honda Civic Type R been usurped?

It feels genuinely fast, and there are plentiful signs that its dynamics are very impressive, but until we drive a GTI Clubsport with DCC and 19-inch wheels it’s hard to judge its full ability

Evo rating
  • Precision and poise of chassis; straightline performance
  • Underwhelming driving experience – so far. Will a higher specification make the difference?

We haven’t had to wait long for a Clubsport version of the Golf GTI this time around, the Mk8 version appearing right at the beginning of production for this generation, unlike its predecessor. The recipe is simple: more power, a more driver-orientated chassis specification and subtle visual enhancements anchored in cooling and aerodynamic requirements. Is this the Golf to challenge the hottest hot hatchbacks on the market?

Engine, transmission and 0-60 time

There are few surprises under the bonnet. For the Clubsport, VW offers the ubiquitous EA888 engine in its latest ‘Evo 4’ form, uprated to 296bhp and 292lb ft of torque compared to the 242bhp and 273lb ft of the standard car. This is achieved by a higher boost map and a larger intercooler compared to the standard GTI, along with a new turbocharger. You’ll notice that the biggest gains are concerned with top end power, the Clubsport promising a much more energetic character at high revs than the standard car. 

Unlike the original Mk7 Clubsport, VW has made the decision to only offer this one with a twin-clutch automatic this time around. The seven-speed ‘box offers the usual rapid shifts, but we’ll miss the driver interaction of a gearlever and three pedals, especially on a hot hatch with such driver focus. Nevertheless, the Clubsport’s performance stats are typically impressive, with 0-62mph quoted as ‘under six seconds’ and an electronically limited top speed of 155mph. 

Technical highlights

The Clubsport features a unique design of front bumper, with a larger opening, plus flared side sills and a bigger rear wing. Lift is said to be reduced, front and rear, over the standard GTI, although there is a slight drag penalty in the process. 

There are more changes under the skin, with the Clubsport sitting 15mm lower than a GTI, with an increase in negative camber on the front axle, new control arm mounts on the rear with different bearings, plus a new calibration for the power steering setup (just 2.1 turns lock-to-lock). Unlike the GTI, the electronically-controlled limited slip differential (VAQ in VW speak) is under the control of the Vehicle Dynamics Manager (VDM) accessed via the driver modes available. There are also bigger front brake discs (357mm) and, if the car has the option fitted, a unique calibration for the DCC adaptive dampers that includes a specific Nurburgring setting.  

What’s it like to drive?

First things first: the Clubsport immediately feels properly quick. The trusty EA888 pulls from low revs, hits hard and then – in this state of tune – keeps pulling with determination, revving out convincingly to the redline. The DSG ‘box assists by popping through the shifts almost instantaneously, although the tiny paddles are fairly hopeless at clawing back the driver interaction lost by not being a manual. There’s no word on whether the Clubsport will get the new Golf R’s extended paddles, but frankly they can’t come soon enough. 

However, it’s clear that in the cold, slippery, wintry conditions we tested the Clubsport in, it’s struggling for both outright grip and traction. This isn’t a flaw specific to the Clubsport, obviously, because any of the 300bhp-or-thereabouts, front-wheel drive hot hatch crowd can suffer the same fate, but the Golf’s Bridgestone Potenzas are easily coerced into losing grip on the road’s surface, with the limited slip differential working hard to maintain forward motion. There’s also the feeling that the Clubsport is constantly hamstrung by a lack of outright grip, teetering on the edge of slip particularly through faster corners. Initially this can cloud the impression of the car, and make it seem far less exciting and involving than had been hoped. In its normal driver mode, with the box changing up early and automatically, it can seem like the rather sterile Clubsport is just another Golf with a bit more power than usual. If you’re looking for the most expensive, most powerful GTI, with no concessions to daily use, that may be enough, but it’s hardly the stuff to worry a Honda Civic Type R

But persevere, and you’ll discover a chassis that’s a good deal more precise than the standard car. It steers more convincingly, particularly as you turn immediately away from dead centre, and while it keeps any wild oversteer studiously in check, it’s not averse to letting the rear of the car assist on turn-in into a corner. There’s an economy of movement about the way it picks apart a difficult B-road that becomes infectiously entertaining once you’ve tapped into what it can do, even if managing the grip in poor conditions is a top priority. VW says the Clubsport is 13 seconds around the Nurburgring Nordschleife than the standard GTI, although those lap times were with a car shod with sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres: there’s no word if they’ll be a dealer option in the UK yet. 

Our car wasn’t equipped with the DCC adaptive dampers; when we tried the standard GTI with them fitted it was one of the car’s most impressive attributes for they gave it such a wide breadth of ability. Would the broader contact patch of the 19” wheel option coupled with DCC make the Clubsport come alive? There’s every chance it might. As is, the passive dampers have a firm low speed ride that you quickly get used to, and are well judged in their calibration most of the time. 

In other respects, the Clubsport is a typical Golf GTI: the excellent sports seats have a unique fabric, but otherwise there’s little to mark out this ultimate Golf inside, while the Golf Mk8’s dashboard and screens will either delight or frustrate, depending on how you view such technology. Personally, a few more analogue switches that you didn’t have to look at to operate when driving wouldn’t go amiss. 

Price and rivals

The hot hatch market is enjoying one of its perpetual renewal cycles, and whether it’s a supermini-based car, a larger, higher powered example or the type with four-wheel drive, there are a lot of options for the new car buyer. At £37,215, the Clubsport is significantly more expensive than the £34,320 Honda Civic Type R, and while many may be put off by the Honda’s styling, on the basis of this first test the VW is unable to match its driver appeal. 

Apply those extras we mentioned above and that price will rise further to £38,725, making it feel especially pricey against the revised £32,990 Renaultsport Megane RS300, which is also now auto-only and makes a formidable foe for the Clubsport, plus there’s a revised Hyundai i30N and the new BMW 128ti on the horizon too. 

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