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So, this is the fastest front-drive hatch around the Nürburgring? No. Wrong Golf GTI. You’re understandably thinking of the visually identical Golf GTI Clubsport S, which has 306bhp and the Nürburgring champion of the world belt around its waist. Golf GTIs have got quite confusing lately. Right…what’s this then? The regular Clubsport. Since we last drove it at the Portimao circuit in Portugal, VW has tacked ‘Edition 40’ onto its name, signifying four decades of Golfs wearing those three hallowed letters. The mk4, mk5 and mk6 all got respective 25th, 30th and 35th editions, so it’s fitting the current mk7 Golf gets to have its birthday cake and eat it, too. Now we get to try it on real roads, in Britain. I know, VW’s pictures were taken at a race track. Sorry about that. Just imagine less red and white kerbing and more potholes.
The car looks the same as the Nürburgring-busting Clubsport S… Indeed. It uses the same functional gills up front for funneling air around the front bumper and out of the wheelarch. There are brake ducts in the honeycomb grille, the split-level rear wing, and wider diffuser, which combine to cleave actual downforce from the atmosphere once you’re above 75mph. VW doesn’t quote a quantifiable figure, mind you. Not that it’ll help your argument when you’re nicked for speeding. “But officer, I’m actually more stuck to the road than when I was doing seventy…” What else do I get…or not get? Unlike the S, the Clubsport does have back seats, and doesn’t have 306bhp. The official rated output of the 2.0-litre turbocharged four-pot is 261bhp, but for ten seconds when in third gear or higher, it’ll overboost to 287bhp. On paper, that looks a bit contrived, like VW is overcomplicating matters and shortchanging you when Seat’s latest Leon Cupra serves up the full 286bhp whenever you like. And given this Clubsport is a £30,935 car – just £250 less than the all-wheel drive Golf R, no less – well, it’s all in danger of seeming futile. Why bother? Go on then, why? Because this is a tremendous car. Honestly, one of the very best I’ve driven in 2016. All of the confusing spec nonsense floats out of the window when you give the Clubsport a bit of stick, and discover what this car does is take the very likeable – but slightly untaxing – Golf GTI, and ramp up the aggression in every single department, without ruining any of the day-to-day ability. I’d personally like to drive one of these round to the house of every armchair critic I see whining on how ‘boring’ hot Golfs are, and sit them in the bolstered bucket seat of a Clubsport for twenty minutes. That’d do the trick. So it’s refined and easy-to-use? Still sounds boring to me… No, that’s its trump card, the daylight between it and say, a Honda Civic Type-R. In the wet, or on poor roads, or when you’re not quite in the mood – or all three – it’s a very habitable, well-damped and extremely smartly finished product. It’s not a rocket that you merely ‘put up with’ on the towns between A- and B-roads. Is it fast? Yes, it’s quick alright, and the overboost function gives a really enjoyable sense of performance ramping up as you accelerate. Our test car had £1,415 of DSG gearbox fitted, which admittedly flatters its urgency slightly, but given how sweet the manual in a regular GTI is, you can’t put the Clubsport’s appetite for pace purely down to a paddleshifter. Throttle response is world-class for a four-pot turbo, and because there’s so much less lag than a Megane RS or Civic Type-R, the relative gaps in performance to those heavy-hitters are masked. It’s also got bags of traction. No point in putting more than 260bhp through the front tyres if they can’t handle it. And it sounds angrier. Naughtily so. The flatter, coarser bark is a great fit for the Clubsport’s more aggressive, angry personality, while this instant-shift DSG transmission sprinkles some pop’n’bang garnish. And the brakes are fab. After multiple big stops they still feel ripe for a pasting, unlike the Golf R’s brakes, which betrays how relatively light the 1,375kg Clubsport is. Is the handling any Clubsportier than a normal GTI? Again, you’re instantly aware the GTI’s chassis has been dissected under a microscope and had every element honed into something more focused. It’s firmer in all three of the damping modes, but the genius is it retains superb body control and an ability to nonchalantly shrug off cruddy roads without jittering occupants and buzzing the structure like a giant tuning fork. It’s one of the best hot hatch compromises for British roads out there – less firm than a Megane on Ohlins, but almost as absorbent to abuse. Where the Clubsport loses out to some of the more hardcore front-drivers is in the behaviour of its electronic front differential, which doesn’t lock with the precision and speed of the best out there. Ultimately, that hurts your cornering speeds – likely more on circuit than a road – so if you’re craving that trademark sensation of swingball apex speeds, you’ve found one of the few areas a Clubsport doesn’t excel in. Over to you, Clubsport S… Guessing that’s not enough to spoil the birthday party? Correct. It feels properly honed, this thing, and somehow more than the sum of its parts. Even pre-options, it’s seriously expensive, but for sheer fun alone it runs a Golf R far harder than VW may have liked. Or planned. What a blinding era for hot hatches this is. Happy 40th, GTI. What the heck is the Clubsport S going to be like?
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