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Driven: Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport. Image by Volkswagen.

Driven: Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport
By any rational measure, this Golf GTI Clubsport is a superb hot hatch. So why havenít we marked it higher?


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Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport

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Good points: one of the best Golf GTIs we've ever had the pleasure of driving

Not so good: interior still infuriates, styling not to all tastes, the Cupra Leon 300 TSI does everything it can do... only better

Key Facts

Model tested: Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport
Price: Golf range from £23,360; GTI from £33,525, Clubsport from £37,230, car as tested £42,460
Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol
Transmission: seven-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic, front-wheel drive with XDS electronically controlled mechanical diff-lock and Vehicle Dynamics Manager
Body style: five-door hot hatch
CO2 emissions: 167g/km (VED Band 151-170: £555 in year one, then £490 per annum years two-six of ownership, then £155 annually thereafter)
Combined economy: 38.3mpg
Top speed: 155mph (limited)
0-62mph: 5.6 seconds
Power: 300hp at 5,300-6,500rpm
Torque: 400Nm at 2,000-5,200rpm
Boot space: 374-1,230 litres

Our view:

There's something very odd going on at Volkswagen. Forgive us for going all Inspector Clouseau on you (we're not competent enough to be any other fictional detective, frankly), but we've had our suspicions about some kind of in-house subterfuge since driving the Golf 8 for the first time. Two trains of thought both immediately set off from Deductive Station in the wake of a somewhat insipid first experience at the wheel of the once all-conquering German hatch, and neither of them is going to a nice destination if you're a staunch VW fan: the first only gathered pace following subsequent drives in the fourth-gen iterations of both the SEAT Leon and the Skoda Octavia, cars which both seemed to offer everything the Golf could, only for less money, with more kit and boasting superior cabins; and the other cognitive locomotive set into motion was that Wolfsburg's beloved ID project was clearly of more interest to the company than making sure the Golf 8 was as good as it possibly could be.

Not to worry, we thought. That the Golf was clearly outmanoeuvred by both its Leon and Octavia cousins, while also slipping further than ever from the lofty premium perch occupied by the Audi A3 Sportback, was not in question, but maybe the performance derivatives would sort it all out once Volkswagen got them into the public domain.

And yet, the launch of this GTI Clubsport has confused us even further. Mainly because Volkswagen hasn't waited to get the harder, more focused version of the two-wheel-drive GTI into showrooms in this Golf generation's lifecycle. Indeed, the 300hp/400Nm Clubsport was released right alongside the 320hp/420Nm current gestation of the Golf R, which - with the Mk8 R priced at £39,295 - the Clubsport undercuts by £2,065. It even saves 90kg on kerb weight, the GTI clocking in at 1,461kg with the R rated at 1,551kg. Although that's because the R has AWD and so is quite a bit quicker for off-the-line acceleration (as in, it's almost a whole second quicker to 62mph than the Clubsport, with a 4.7-second time).

Yes, the Clubsport is front-wheel drive only. Although it does have a mechanical diff-lock, the XDS electronic control system and the Vehicle Dynamics Manager which includes a 'Special' mode that sets the car up to run the NŁrburgring in the best possible fashion. That'll be handy for you, when you're on the, er... A286 (actually, it might; the 'Ring is rather a lot like a bumpy British trunk road). It also belies the myth that Volkswagens come with nothing fitted to them, because all of three-zone climate control, keyless entry and go, adaptive cruise control, the 10-inch Digital Cockpit Pro cluster, Discover Nav on another 10-inch touchscreen (yes, it controls nearly everything, as per any Golf 8; sigh), 18-inch alloys, IQ Light headlamps with Dynamic Light Assist, uprated performance brakes and a full Clubsport styling pack (more aggressive front and rear bumpers, a bigger rear diffuser, oval chrome tailpipes, GTI decals and a huge roof spoiler) are all part of the equipment list on the VW.

Which is as it should be on a car which is still, when all's said and done, £37,230 basic. And yet there are more desirable things you can add, like Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC) for £785, the upgraded Discover Navigation Pro infotainment at £1,600 (!), a rear-view camera for £300, the Head-Up Display for £625, 19-inch black 'Adelaide' alloys for £725 and a Winter Pack that throws in a heated steering wheel for £270. Resulting in a Golf that's not an R which is only 40 notes shy of £42,500. Oof.

Oddly enough, we're not about to tell you that the GTI Clubsport has to be marked down because it doesn't feel worth such immense money. The truth is, it feels great value for that price, as it's one of the most energising, engaging and thoroughly enjoyable Golf GTIs we've ever driven. Short of a few odd high points in its history like the old Mk7 TCR, the Clubsport is a proper hoot to drive unmatched by any of its antecedents. It moves around a whole lot more on the throttle than almost any of its predecessors if you want it to, yet it can also deploy its prodigious reserves of power and torque incredibly cleanly and effectively to boot. This, along with the optional DCC (you'll want this extra, trust us), results in a two-wheel-drive hot hatch that's phenomenally quick across all sorts of road surfaces.

But the Clubsport doesn't keep its driver at arm's length while it's ripping up B-roads in a frenzy. It draws you into the process of going quickly with informative steering and mega brakes. Its body control is fabulous, allowing just a snifter of squidge and lean to ensure the transfer of weight in the car is telegraphed with crystal clarity at all times, while also pressing as much of its tyres' contact patches into the tarmac as is physically possible. It sounds great as it spools around the rev counter in a long, linear pull of startling acceleration and once you've got the GTI moving, you'll be gobsmacked at how fast it is. It honestly doesn't feel, having only driven the Clubsport in the Mk8 performance range so far, that the R is strictly necessary at all.

So why aren't we rating it more favourably overall? It all comes down to that conspiracy theory at the start. First of all, though, while we think the GTI Clubsport is excellent and would have been happy adding another half-star to the review, it should be qualified that it's a very, very, very good GTI as Golf GTIs go, but we'd still rather have two of the Volkswagen's three main rivals listed at the bottom of the piece, as they're even more thrilling again. And cheaper.

But let's finish on those mysterious goings-on within Volkswagen, or rather the wider group. In the wake of our test drive of the GTI Clubsport, when we were all ready to dole out 4.5 out of five, we were offered a chance to have a go in the new Cupra Leon 300 TSI. A full review of that is forthcoming very soon, but it is, essentially, the same car as the Golf GTI Clubsport, mechanically speaking, in every single way. Yet Cupra has managed to coerce even more brilliance and marvels out of the hardware than Volkswagen has; the Leon is just more fun to drive, more of the time. And it looks nicer on the outside. And it has the better cabin (no, really; it does). And it's less money than the VW. And it has more equipment for that outlay. And, finally, it is every bit as good at the day-to-day, civilised duties that the Volkswagen Golf GTI used to excel at. The Spanish car's refinement is off-the-charts good, in all truth.

So yeah, the Clubsport is superb in many ways. But do yourself a favour and buy a Cupra Leon 300 TSI instead. You'll thank us for it later.


Ford Focus ST: not often we write this, but overall the Volkswagen has the finer driving dynamics when compared to the Ford. It's the ST's weird steering and overly firm dampers which let it down, see.

Honda Civic Type R: you can argue all you like about the extrovert looks and the clunky dashboard/infotainment, but in every other respect the Honda monsters the Clubsport. Midlife tweaks and a modest-beyond-compare facelift only improved the CTR further.

Hyundai i30 N: this astounding first-timer shows just how many puddings Volkswagen has served us up over the years under the GTI banner. The i30 N has many, many strengths, not least its stellar chassis, and precious few weaknesses.

Matt Robinson - 23 Mar 2021    - Volkswagen road tests
- Volkswagen news
- Golf images

2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport UK test. Image by Volkswagen.2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport UK test. Image by Volkswagen.2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport UK test. Image by Volkswagen.2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport UK test. Image by Volkswagen.2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport UK test. Image by Volkswagen.

2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport UK test. Image by Volkswagen.2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport UK test. Image by Volkswagen.2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport UK test. Image by Volkswagen.2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport UK test. Image by Volkswagen.2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport UK test. Image by Volkswagen.


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