Porsche cynics, look away now: four-cylinder turbo sports cars get new spec
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Wait, another fast Golf GTI? Yes, as the hot hatch arms race has intensified with seemingly never-ending one-upmanship to be the King of the Nürburgring, there have been more and more variants of the humble Golf GTI brought into the world. So what’s this one then? The Clubsport S, the most powerful production Golf ever. And the fastest ever front-wheel-drive production car to lap the Nürburgring. It’s a £35,000 stripped-out, semi-slicked, uber powerful and aero’d version of the standard Clubsport (now known as the ‘Edition 40’). Isn’t the Clubsport/Edition 40 a souped up version of the Golf GTI Performance Pack?
You’re right. Which is a more powerful and track-oriented version of the bogoo Golf GTI. We can see how this gets confusing. Basically, the Clubsport S is the bobby-dazzler of the GTI range and the car that has Renault, Seat and Honda spitting feathers and scratching their heads as to how to go faster round the legendary Nordschleife. How fast is it? Very. It managed a 7:49.21sec around the Green Hell – 1.5sec faster than Honda’s Civic Type R – to claim the front-wheel-drive production car lap record. To give you some perspective of how fast these humble hot hatches are getting, that’s quicker than the motorsport-derived Porsche 996 GT3 (a true benchmark of quick), but a whopping 36 seconds a lap quicker than a Performance Pack GTI. Which is monstrous. Like, a full six Vines worth of time. Jeepers. What have they done to it to make it that quick? Stripped it, then added power. It’s a simple recipe but weight is always the enemy when trying to go fast. So, VW engineers were ruthless and binned bits that weren’t deemed necessary. The rear seats, parcel shelf, hidden floor, armrests and some of the noise insulation were all chucked in the skip. In total, 30kg has been ravaged from the standard CS – helped by installing a smaller battery and aluminium front sub-frame. But where weight is down, power is up. The usual 2.0-litre turbo four (the EA888 TSI unit, suck, squeeze, bang, blow fans) has been fettled to give 306bhp and 280lb ft of torque through the front wheels. Unlike the standard CS (which features an ‘overboost’ function only allowing for maximum power for 10 seconds when the throttle is on the floor) the S gives you all of its beans, all of the time. It’s also got three pedals and a stick to change gears. Even though a DSG ‘box would swap cogs quicker, it’d also add 20kg to the overall weight of the car – a penalty not worth considering. And a win for the purists. Air con has also been shelved on five per cent of the 400 car limited-run, saving a further 15kg. Plus, the wider diameter exhaust breathes more easily and has got a bit shoutier in the process. The result is a 1,360kg kerb weight, which alongside the extra power, yields a 0-62mph time of 5.8secs, and a top speed of 165mph. Yep, VW has also thrown away the electronic limiter. What about the set-up? Well, there’s a bespoke ‘Nürburgring Mode’ on the drive selection that softens up the dampers and puts everything up to max. It’s a trick a lot of us use on UK roads in cars with trick dampers, but this setting has been specifically honed for the wavy and curly tarmac of the ‘Ring. A new aero package has also been fitted giving a lot more downforce (8kg on the front axle and 17kg at the rear) helping high-speed stability and rear axle neutrality. Meanwhile, at the front is the same deep and jutted front bumper with vertical ‘air curtains’ (that channel air around the front wheels), side skirts and reprofiled rear bumper as the CS. Just with a slightly different, more downforce-y flick of a spoiler sat on the back. There’s also cool new hardware and nerdy tweakery in pursuit of speed. To aide response and turn-in, the front hub carriers are new, there are bespoke front knuckles, stiffer engine mounts, firmer bushes and the boffs have done some maths on the geometry. There’s less toe-in and more negative camber. More race car. Plus, the XDS+ system and electro-hydraulic front differential have been retuned. Most importantly, there are super sticky, semi-slick Michelin Sport Cup 2 tyres at all four corners. They’re specifically designed for it and worth five seconds a lap by themselves.
What’s it like to drive? There was only one place to test it: the Nürburgring. And it was pretty remarkable. There’s no denying how quick it is, but the GTI is also incredibly tactile and approachable for a hardcore front-wheel-drive hatch. The engine feels more eager and willing after its upgrades. Max torque is available from way down at the bottom of the rev range; so you can stay in a higher gear and rev it out all the way to the 6800rpm redline. Then, grab another gear from the short and direct six-speed gearbox and charge on further. However, it’s the body control and suppleness of the damping that really impressed. Along with the maniac cornering speeds that it’s capable of. Entering high-speed corners (which there are plenty to chose from on the 13-mile, 154-corner track), the new uprated brakes do a much better job of scrubbing off speed. They’re now ventilated, have a specific pad compound and aluminium bell housings that enable the discs to expand under sustained work without warping. Only after a full day of hot track work did they start to get a bit grumbly. But when you turn in, the response and accuracy from the steering is more positive than all the other GTIs. Being able to lean on the sticky tyres heavily and then apply aggressive amounts of throttle to get the diff to hook you out of corners is addictive. And with all the electrical nannies having been slackened off for the CSS (if you’re brave, you can turn them off-off) you have more control. Although it’s not fitted with a fully-fledged mechanical diff, the electro-hydraulic unit locks up 100 per cent, and uses a multi-plate coupling – 50 per cent of the Haldex system VW has used for years – on the diff box and right driveshaft. Long and short of it: reduced steering angle, more precise handling, increased cornering velocity, and sling-shot exit speeds. It’s also been calibrated to work with the power steering to negate torque steer. Which it does flawlessly. Traction out of bends is mighty impressive. If you take it beyond its limits, the car will settle into understeer. But you have to be pretty kamikaze with your inputs to do that. The chassis balance and stability you have (especially at the rear end that never wants to get wildly out of shape) means you can do big, big speeds on Big Dipper tracks like the ‘Ring with ease. Is it teeth-jarringly hardcore? Surprisingly not. Which is probably its biggest triumph. The GTI has always been the master of everyday usability, now it’s managed to pull off the same trick but for a slightly more enthused pace of driving. It’s the dampers that make the real difference. The way they hoover up the kerbs and undulations of the notoriously knotted and undulating track gives us hope that it’ll be a hoot on our broken UK B-Roads. A Megane Trophy-R would’ve nerfed itself off line when attacking the red and white kerbs as hard as we did. And a Type R’s front end would be fighting with you the whole way round. Admittedly, those cars provide engaging little kicks and smiles at a lower threshold. You really have to push the GTI pretty hard to notice its differences. But ultimately, the GTI is quicker. Which is all that matters when you want to set the fastest lap time. What’s it like on the inside? The fit and finish and ambience of the cabin also situates the Clubsport S in a slightly different place to its rivals. It feels wonderfully premium, yet not too far removed from a standard GTI. You have to do a double take to remember that there’s nowhere to put your mates in the back. And when you do, the lining and quality of the barren landscape behind your head is superior to other pared-back cars. Meanwhile, the hip-hugging race buckets and swanky alcantara steering wheel – complete with this-way-up red stripe – could be sat in and behind on a long drive with ease. And even though there’s reduced sound deadening (good for hearing that new poppy-poppy-bang-bang exhaust) it’s a car that you could easily live with all day, every day. Unfortunately, no harnesses or cage are available. Good for practicality, but lacking in theatre that cars like the Megane provide. Will I be able to do a 7:49.21sec lap time? If you’re wired like a nutty racing driver, yes. But even if you’re not, you’ll be able to put a decent lap time in. It’s a car that inspires confidence while driving at the limit. The composed chassis and voodoo diff pull you out of trouble while the neutral rear end, positive turn-in, sticky tyres and kerb-happy damping inspire you to dig deeper and nibble away at tenths. How much is it? Official pricing hasn’t been announced yet, but expect it to be in the region of £35,000. Which is a lot. But with only 150 right-hand drive cars set to come to the UK, it should hold its value well. What we don’t know is how it’ll perform on our shoddy roads. But we can’t wait to find out.
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