Review special: Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR vs greatest roads of Wales

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR in Wales

The hot hatch is best enjoyed alone. I came to this conclusion after spending a day in the company of the new Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR on the roads of Mid Wales. It was the kind of day that might have prompted Lou Reed to write a song. Almost everything was perfect, including the weather, which was very Welsh.

I’d arrived in Crickhowell, a small town in the foothills of the Black Mountains, just before 8am, feeling decidedly jaded following a three-hour motorway slog in a diesel-powered MPV. But there’s nothing like the sight of a freshly washed hot hatch – not to mention a fresh pot of tea – to stir the soul and awaken the senses.

Before most people had finished their morning commute, I was behind the wheel of a five-door Golf GTI TCR finished in Pure Grey, a colour unique to this run-out model. No passenger, no predefined road route and no rush to get back. Just a full tank of fuel and the entire Welsh road network at my disposal.

In truth, it wouldn’t have mattered where I went, because Wales is essentially a greatest hits album of epic roads: Now That’s What I Call Great Driving Roads. But I intended to put together a playlist of Welsh gems, so I took the A479 to Talgarth and headed for Builth Wells.

T, C and R, please, Bob

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR decals

First, a bit about the Golf GTI TCR. This is the last hurrah for the Mk7.5 Golf, its name and styling inspired by the Touring Car Racing series. Volkswagen has been successful in the formula, so it made sense to create a hotter Golf GTI inspired by the race car.

The tribute act is a lot more subtle than the track star, especially if you resist the temptation to spend £550 on the honeycomb design side decals. Maybe I’m getting old, but I’d prefer my TCR without the homage to Blockbusters plastered on the side. The letters T, C and R on the base of the rear doors are enough for me, Bob.

Other aesthetic upgrades over the Golf GTI Performance include a new front splitter, side skirts, a rear diffuser, black door mirrors and a larger tailgate spoiler. This particular car had the optional TCR Performance Pack, comprising 19-inch black alloys (18s are standard), semi-slick Pirelli tyres, de-restricted top speed to 164mph, suspension lowered by 20mm and Dynamic Chassis Control.

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR interior

All in, my test car cost a not insignificant £41,289.19, its price inflated by the £2,900 TCR Performance Pack, £1,000 panoramic sunroof, £100 rear tinted glass, £555 decals, £300 rear side airbags and £534.19 vehicle tracker. A panoramic sunroof on a track-inspired hot hatch? No thanks.

But then everyday useability has always been one of the Golf GTI’s greatest strengths. An ability to switch from mellow roast to espresso in the blink of an eye. The TCR is no stripped-out hardcore racer in the style of the Clubsport S, it’s a car for all reasons, even if the Golf R is – on paper at least – a superior car for all seasons.

I hadn’t so much left the suburbs of Crickhowell before I had settled into a groove. Finding the perfect driving position is easy, while the TCR seats provide good initial comfort and superb long-term support. But while the red marker at the top of the steering wheel is a neat touch, I wish Volkswagen had finished the wheel in Alcantara to match the gear gaiter and door inserts.

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR steering wheel

You can play around with the driving modes until your heart’s content, but for 90 percent of the time, I found myself in Sport mode and with the seven-speed DSG transmission set to manual. Some may bemoan the absence of a manual gearbox, but in the hills and mountains of Wales, the paddles weren’t a spoiler, they were adding to the event.

It’s not as though Sport mode turns the TCR into a rabid beast, loaded with pent-up aggression and egging you on to drive faster – this is not a hot hatch in the style of the Honda Civic Type R. There’s a noticeable difference between Comfort and Sport, but the ride quality is never uncomfortable, even on the 19-inch rims, and the exhaust pop-pops on the overrun are more pronounced.

Forget Eco mode, which is akin to exchanging the sticky Pirellis for a set of waders and asking the TCR to go bog snorkelling in Llanwrtyd Wells.

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR seats

Not that the car ever lets you forget that we’re living in eco-conscious times. Every so often, the dashboard would display an ‘eco tip’ advising me to flick the shifter into automatic to save fuel. An unwanted distraction, especially when you’re enjoying the asphalt of Mid Wales.

The 20-mile drive to Talgarth was like a familiarisation event; like being reacquainted with an old friend, everything feels right in a Golf GTI. It might be easy to poke a stick at VW for being a little unadventurous with its interiors, but when the quality is this good, and the ergonomics are near-faultless, who’s complaining?

It puts you at ease and delivers the confidence you require to really enjoy a hot hatch. And as I peeled off the A483 at Beulah, that was precisely what I intended to do.

The Abergwesyn Pass

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR Abergwesyn

By now, the fine weather that had greeted me as I crossed the Severn Bridge had given way to sleet. The clouds hung heavy over the peaks of the hills towering over the Abergweysn Pass, while the roads were coated in a treacherous blend of sheep mess and drizzle. Conditions more suited to the Golf R, perhaps?

Not a bit of it. Up here, in splendid isolation, this was everything a car enthusiast could dream of. No phone reception, no need to be anywhere, no Slack notifications, no four-wheel-drive. A hot hatch should be driven through the front wheels. End of story.

Just a few weeks earlier, this road had been rendered almost impassable by Storm Whateveritsnamewas, but today it created a playground for the TCR, the peace and tranquillity pierced by the tuneful burble being performed by the stainless steel exhaust system. It’s not anti-social loud, but it’s just enough to add something to the occasion.

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR Devils Staircase

From the three fords at the bottom of the pass, the road climbs up Devil’s Staircase, a one-in-four zig-zag hill requiring the use of first gear and an ability to see around corners. Here, the TCR struggled for grip, with a shift from first into second causing the traction control light to flash up as the car propelled itself to the next switchback.

I still hadn’t been able to make full use of the 290hp 2.0-litre turbocharged engine – that would come later – but I was already enjoying the thin-rimmed steering wheel, a welcome tonic to the ‘phat’ wheels deployed on some other hot hatches.

The steering itself is hardly brimming with feel, but it’s communicative enough to let you know what the front wheels are doing. It rewards a light grip on the wheel, and there’s a noticeable difference in weight between low-speed manoeuvring and high-speed cornering.

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR on road to Tregaron

It was from here to Tregaron that I truly appreciated the manual function of the DSG transmission. Blessed with a stretch of freshly-laid asphalt, the first section is a series of tight corners, woven together by short and snappy straights. While the shifts through the gears aren’t lightning quick, the paddles mean that you can keep your hands on the wheel, which is handy when the road is barely wide enough for one car.

Get it wrong, and a multitude of terrors lie in wait, including rolling down the hillside, wheels wiped out by roadside rocks or a head-on collision with one of the many sheep. Get it right, and it feels like heaven, even if the sleet had turned to snow and the pine forests were in full-on Narnia fancy dress mode.

Once past the long-since-retired red telephone box, the road climbs like a helter-skelter, with the fresh tarmac making way for a more pitted surface. It’s here that I discover that the TCR can feel a little skittish when cornering on the limit, a symptom of the larger wheels and lowered ride height, perhaps?

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR 19-inch wheels

On the flip side, the way in which the TCR corners is utterly intoxicating and in many ways the raison d’être of a car of this ilk. It turns in with such precision and vigour, and the harder the corner, the more rewarding it gets.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I channelled my inner Meg Ryan on a number of occasions – remember what I said about enjoying a hot hatch alone? – and my heart skipped a beat when I laced together a series of bends to absolute perfection. And if I entered a corner too quickly, the TCR was on hand to get me out of trouble, and there was no passenger on hand to judge me.

Mountain road and the Elan Valley

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR in Wales

Dropping down into Tregaron and below the snow line, it was back to reality. The first sign of civilisation since I left Beulah over an hour ago, and the unwanted influx of messages appearing on the crystal-clear 9.2 infotainment screen.

Not that my playlist of great roads was about to fade to grey – there were no fillers or makeweights on this greatest hits album. Instead, I took the B4343 to Cymystwyth, where I’d join the mountain road to Rhayader, via the sublime Elan Valley.

It was on the mountain road that I finally managed to stretch the TCR’s legs. It begins with a tight, technical section; the road behaving like a temptress, provoking you into a wrong decision. One minute you’re enjoying a ribbon of bends, the next minute you’re tangling with a savage cocktail of sudden camber changes, blind summits or unexpectedly tight turns.

Occasionally it’s a blend of all three…

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR near Rhayader

It’s fun, exhilarating and at times scary, but it serves as a prelude to the main event: a fast, open section to the junction for the Elan Valley, blessed with wild vistas and, on this occasion, snow-capped peaks.

When the road is free of sheep and day-trippers, it’s possible to unleash the full force of the TCR’s 290hp engine. The 0-62mph time of 5.6 seconds seems a tad pessimistic, but it’s the mid-range pull that’s most impressive. The full 280lb ft of torque is available from 1,950rpm to 5,300rpm, so there’s plenty of pull in whatever gear and at whatever speed. Make no mistake: the TCR is properly quick.

Peak power is at 5,000rpm to 6,200rpm, so there’s a reward for holding on to a gear for longer, especially given the fact that the soundtrack is at its most raucous above 4,000rpm. Annoyingly, the DSG will change up when you approach the redline, diluting the feel of total involvement, not to mention providing fuel for the fire for those who’d argue that the TCR should have a manual option.

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR exhaust

Not me. I was revelling into the feeling of leaving my hands on the wheel, clicking up and down through the gears, listening to the pop-pops and spits on the over-run. With the sun shining and the road blessed with a 60mph limit, the Elan Valley road to Rhayader was arguably the high note of the trip. Everything fell into place – I felt no urge to stop for pictures.

After an unhealthy snack at Rhayader, I had a decision to make: take the A470 and A479 to Crickhowell, or the longer route via Llandovery and the Black Mountain Pass. Needless to say, I chose the latter.

Black Mountain Pass

In truth, playtime was over. After the rollercoaster B4358 to Beulah, the journey to Llandovery was a frustrating mix of no overtaking zones, lorries and mid-range hatchbacks. Worse still, by the time I had reached the bustling town of Llandovery, the sun had turned to rain and, for the second time this year, I was predicting a rather wet drive along the A4069.

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR in snow

I was wrong. The A4069 – known to car enthusiasts as the Black Mountain Pass – was in the midst of a pounding by near blizzard conditions. For the first time on this trip, I figured that a Golf R might be more appropriate.

And the Golf R is arguably the Golf GTI TCR’s chief rival. While the Megane RS Trophy, Civic Type R and i30 N might seek to tempt a Golf driver away from the safe bosom of VW, if you fancy a hot Golf, you’re unlikely to be swayed by a  temptress wearing a different dress.

Personally, I’d choose a TCR over an R. While the additional 10hp and 4Motion might be appealing, the R is also heavier and seems to be driven by every Tom, Dick and Gary living along the M4 corridor.

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR Black Mountain Pass

The TCR feels a tad more special, even if Volkswagen could have worked harder to increase the sense that it’s derived from a successful race car. And no, I’m not talking about adding more decals.

Whether or not the TCR is worth the £2,310 extra over the Golf GTI Performance is a matter of opinion. Subjectively, the TCR is the best looking Mk7 Golf GTI – especially in Pure Grey (£595) and without the decals – and the additional 45hp is most welcome.

But you’ll want the Performance Pack, which adds another £2,900 to the price. Heck, ‘my’ test car cost an eye-watering £41,300, which is big money for a Golf GTI, especially one based on an outgoing model and without the attraction of limited-run status.

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR at ford

I called it quits on the ‘White’ Mountain Pass and endured a slow crawl back to Crickhowell, energy and enthusiasm levels hitting the floor following 12 hours on the road. I had done around 200 miles in the TCR, mostly on mountain passes and technical B-roads, averaging 22mpg in the process.

Nearly a week on, I’m still thinking about the Golf GTI TCR. It has renewed my interest in the Golf GTI and awakened a former desire to own a new one. I have owned a GTI in Mk1, Mk2 and Mk3 flavours – and enjoyed a brief romance with a Rallye – but the newer models have passed me by.

Thanks to the TCR and the magical Welsh roads, I’ve added the Mk7 Golf GTI to the short list of new cars I would buy with my own money. And the first place I’d head to having taken delivery: Mid Wales. Alone.

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