Was the key reason for creating the Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport S to secure the Nürburgring Nordschleife record for a front-drive hot hatch, I ask Karsten Schebsdat, the ex-Porsche dynamics guru who’s led this project?
He nods. That, he says, is why the board signed off the project. “We knew we had a good idea on how to get it; the board agreed and gave us the cash to go do it.”
The seeds were sown back in summer 2013, when Schebsdat’s team ran some tests on a Golf GTI Performance Pack (the 230hp model) running fancy Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres: semi-slicks that are about as close to road-legal racing rubber as you can get. The speed step-up was extraordinary, he says. But what more could we do, he and his team then thought…
By October, the 2.0-litre TSI engine was up to 300hp and the first suspension tuning work was complete. Come May 2014, the car had some new downforce-generating wings and spoilers (although the original monster rear spoiler actually proved too big…). It got fancy new suspension bits in March 2015 and, by May, was 30kg lighter and running its first tests. If you drove public laps of the Nürburgring that summer, you may have seen it testing.
The car was ready. All they needed was the lap record, to complete the project (and keep the bosses happy). The Clubsport S was to be revealed at the 2016 Worthersee show, as part of a Golf GTI 40th anniversary special – but, once Nordschleife speed restrictions were lifted, VW’s first private track booking in March was rained off. The only chance they had to do it was at another rush-booked session in April: if anything went wrong, that was it. No pressure.
In the end, the Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport S, in the hands of VW driver Benny Leuchter, aced it. They did three or four laps below 7 minutes 50 seconds, and one in 7:49.24. More than a second faster than the Honda Civic Type R. The limited-to-400 car, due in the UK this winter for around £35,000, was validated. And now we’ve driven it around the Nürburgring to find out just what it’s like to drive.
It looks subtle, like a Golf Clubsport
Visually, you won’t spot the record-breaking Golf at first glance. The engineering work is concentrated beneath the surface: on top, the Clubsport S uses the same all-new front bumper and enlarged rear roof spoiler as the ‘regular’ special-run Golf Clubsport (the UK gets 1,000 of those, compared to only 150 of the S). The unique bits are the 19-inch alloys, black roof, tinted rear glass and ‘Clubsport S’ graphics on the rear of the side sills.
The Clubsport S is also two-door only: unlike Honda and Ford, Volkswagen has a two-door version of its Golf family hatch, and it’s exploiting the slightly stiffer, slightly lighter advantage here. As it’s arrived in the Golf GTI’s 40th year, colours hark back to the original choice: either red, white or black.
It is a two-seater
Inside, to save weight, Volkswagen has got rid of the rear seats. And the parcel shelf. And the fancy flexible boot floor. And soundproofing pads fitted to the inside of the bodyshell during production. And fitted a smaller battery. In all, the kerb weight is cut to 1,360kg, pretty light by modern car standards, considering it’s still a Golf and isn’t packed with carbon fibre this and aluminium that to push up the price unrealistically.
So for all its GTI-stripe seatbelts, brilliantly hip-hugging bucket seats and race-like Alcantara steering wheel, it’s the fact there are no seats behind you, just a huge open space, that makes this Golf feel special to sit in. And not dissimilar to a race car. There’s never been a production Golf like this before and, for the company, it’s a big step to series-produce a Golf GTI with two fewer seats than a Porsche 911. But such is the purpose and intent of this very special limited-run machine.
Don’t whatever you do choose the one without air con though. It’s a no-cost option and, yes, going without saves 20kg and theoretically makes it a tiny bit faster and freer-revving thanks to the lack of drag on the engine. But sweating behind the wheel isn’t very modern Golf-like. The rest of it is so well-developed, this is a step too far. Purists can argue over it but we’re sticking with a/c.
It has a wickedly fast engine
The tuned EA888 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo engine produces 310hp and 280lb ft of torque. It starts pulling from 1,700rpm and maximum drive is yours until 5,300rpm; peak power is from 5,800 – 6,500rpm. 0-62mph takes 5.3 seconds and, at 165mph, this is the fastest Golf ever (and the first not to have a 155mph speed limiter). It’s the same setup as used by the Golf GTI TCR racing car, compete with modified exhaust whose bigger pipework pops, bangs and crackles wickedly under braking (made all the more prominent by no rear seats and less soundproofing).
This glorious engine is wonderful. Exceptionally free revving, the noise at higher revs is rorty, prominent and turbine-smooth, throttle response is exceptional and the effervescence is akin to the sparky Mk2 Golf GTI 16v, albeit with twice as much power and leagues-ahead engine muscle.
Because torque is spread so wide, and it’s so willing to rev, it’s always indecently fast. No demand to be in the right gear at the right time here (good job: it’s manual only). It’s forgiving and seems happy to always demonstrate to you how fast it is – never mind the Golf GTI, this is a step on even from the Golf R, certainly in terms of how much satisfaction you draw from all this speed.
The tyres are key to it all
The Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres are where it starts with the Clubsport S. They have lots more traction and grip, and they also respond much more quickly to inputs: right away, the car feels more focused, sharper, pointier and more alert to small steering inputs. The initial layer of ‘sneeze factor’ softness in the steering is reduced: turning forces build much more quickly here. An extra bit of weight is nice, too.
The mechanical grip of the Clubsport S allows you to lean on it almost perilously hard on a Nürburgring hot lap and it rarely cries enough. When it does, the controllability and ‘feel’ during a slide is extra-enhanced: even here, it feels keyed in and heroic, without the sliding softness of the regular car. The tyres quickly nibble back at the road surface to grip again: they make you feel like a racer, or certainly someone who knows what they’re doing.
Go faster to feel better
Despite its bodykit, the regular Golf GTI generates 60kg of lift at speed. You don’t want this, as it makes cars nervous and slip-prone. The Clubsport S generates 25kg of downforce at speed, with most of that on the rear axle. It’s pushed into the ground – and the faster you go, the more it’s pushed down.
The effects are particularly felt over 70mph. Bit of a problem for UK road laws but, on a circuit like the Nürburgring, another reason why the Clubsport S feels so great at speed. The confidence you have from the more clamped-down feel of the back end calms the nerves and makes you happier to press on.
The Clubsport S also has a trick electronically-controlled differential which manages power delivery: if it’s about to be spun away on one side of the car, the diff lock effect channels it to the other side with more grip. Drive it fast but tentatively around the ‘Ring and you might get understeer – but this isn’t naturally an understeer-prone car. So try more throttle: plant the accelerator around that third-gear sweep, to feel the diff bite and the front end pulled into the corner rather than washing out of it. Brilliantly effective, hilariously satisfying.
The steering doesn’t squirm like a snake under power
310hp and diesel-like pulling power, all delivered through the front wheels only? A recipe for arm-snapping torque steer through the wheel, surely? Nope. It’s amazing how little wheel fight there is from the Clubsport S under power. It bites the tarmac rather than bites your arm off.
There’s serious electronic trickery at work here in the differential to quell this, explains Schebsdat, and sheer mechanical grip of the Michelin tyres also helps. It means the ability to effectively deliver 310hp without the extra weight and complexity of a Golf R’s four-wheel drive. The Clubsport S benefits from this purity: this is what makes it distinct from the similar-power Golf R.
The Clubsport S is brilliant at kerb-hopping
Those who say cars developed at the Nürburgring are all ultra-stiff road-racers are wrong. To go fast here, you need controlled but compliant suspension. The small Clubsport S team has spent thousands of man hours tuning the DCC dynamic chassis control adaptive dampers to achieve this – and have even created a bespoke Nürburgring setting to do it. (Yes, it has a Nürburgring button, albeit a virtual one).
In this mode, everything is set to sport apart from the dampers, which go to comfort mode. So there’s both control when the body’s moving, but also the ability to absorb the monster inputs delivered by the ‘Ring’s bumps, cambers and undulations (this mode should also be perfect for twisty, broken-up British B-roads, adds Schebsdat).
A hot lap following Leuchter demonstrates this. “Use the kerbs” he shouts on the radio, before pretty much driving entirely over them at 95mph. Wow. I do the same. Wow! It’s miraculous – the Clubsport S absorbs the shocking forces amazingly, but remains planted and in control, even when I land hard off them.
This is an amazing level of suspension compliance and control that truly sets the Golf apart from stiffer, more racecar-like rivals such as the Honda Civic Type R and Renault Sport Megane 275. Suspension dampers almost have the depth, ability and tailored, other-level feel of a racing car and the Clubsport S is hugely satisfying and able as a result.
Bespoke detail overload
Volkswagen has done a proper job with the Golf GTI Clubsport S. Detail engineering abounds: there are bespoke front suspension knuckles, an aluminium subframe, modified rear suspension bushes. Toe and camber angles front and rear are unique. Brakes have new pads and aluminium rotors for better feel and heat management.
Schebsdat explains it’s the tiny details that make the big differences. The Clubsport S is packed with them, which is why it feels so special to drive. Fast, yes, but also with a custom-developed character that you feel with each input into the firm, weighty Alcantara steering wheel, each movement from the suspension, even every time you just lightly brush the brakes to balance the car through a 100mph Nordschleife curve.
This isn’t a car that’s just happened upon a Nürburgring lap record. And it feels it.
It’s the fastest Golf ever but is still a Golf
So it’s very fast, very able and has hidden depths. But while this 1-of-400 Golf is unlike any other Golf ever, it’s still a Golf. It’s still linear and faithful, has no nasty tricks up its sleeve, won’t bite you if you relax for a second, or get a corner wrong (and if you happen to be following a racing driver when you do so, the spread of engine drive and amount of grip available helps you catch the pack without getting too ragged and edgy).
Schebsdat explains the brief is always to develop VW cars with the firm’s DNA. You can chase records all day long with bespoke engineering but if it’s a VW, if it doesn’t feel like a VW, it’s out.
And this is perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Clubsport S: it’s the fastest hot hatch around the Nürburgring but doesn’t feel like it’s had to be custom-built or compromised to achieve this. This is an indecently fast, involving and capable Golf GTI, but other Golf GTI drivers will still find plenty that feels familiar.
This makes it a Nürburgring lap record car that doesn’t demand you be a racer to get the best from it – and it certainly won’t frighten you silly if you try a hot lap yourself. Approachable but not edgy yet still engaging and satisfying: just how you’d want an ultra-quick Golf GTI to be.
Verdict: 2016 Golf GTI Clubsport S
Yes, the Golf GTI Clubsport S is fantastic. It’s already the best in its class: no rival is (yet) faster than this around the Nürburgring Nordschleife. But it’s so much more than just a lap record special – it’s the extent to which Volkswagen has created a fully-formed Golf GTI with such a breadth of talent that makes it so special.
This is the fastest and most capable Golf GTI ever, but it’s still a Golf GTI. And it’s this approachability, combined with its speed and engagement, that makes it such an impressive achievement. It’s quite the 40th birthday celebration for the original hot hatch, that’s for sure.
- Exceptional speed, depth and ability…
- …Delivered in an exceptionally linear and Golf-like way
- Very desirable, very pleasing limited-run car
- They’re only making 400
- No air con is a step too far
- The fact we can’t yet get these transformative changes in a series Golf GTI
2016 Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport S: Specification
Price: £35,000 (est)
Engine: 2.0-litre EA888 four-cylinder turbo petrol
Gearbox: six-speed manual
Torque: 280lb ft
0-62mph: 5.3 seconds
Top speed: 165mph
Fuel economy: 38.1mpg
CO2 emissions: 174g/km