► A few tonnes of hardcore
► Clubsport vs Trophy
► Which offers more thrills?
'You got my pulse above 130bpm – no one's done that before,' growls beardy Kenneth Branagh to John David Washington at the conclusion of Tenet's pivotal car chase.
After months of dark nights, Covid lockdowns and extended festive industry hiatus, it takes three corners in the updated Renault Megane RS Trophy before I too am checking my Fitbit to diagnose that strange pounding in my chest. This is the most awake I've been in months, and the morning mist is yet to lift.
It's a cold January Saturday (days mean nothing any more) and CAR's staff racing driver James Taylor and I have converged on some of the Midlands' best and least travelled back roads for some driving, some arguing, and some more driving. Their hot-hatch track records are all but unblemished but which new exponent of the art, VW's Clubsport Golf GTI or Renault's revised Megane RS Trophy, burns brighter as a driver-focused plaything? James will bring the granular-level pitlane feedback; I'm here to see how they cope in the hands of an over-enthusiast.
Right off the bat, thanks to the damp and very low grip levels, the Renault is very, very exciting – thrilling even, offering adrenaline hits not even CAR's perennial favourite, the Honda Civic Type R, can rival. 'That's a really fun car,' agrees James Taylor. 'It's almost Fiesta ST tail-happy.'
Would you ever talk this way about a VW Golf? If any version has a chance it's the new GTI Clubsport, Wolfsburg's stab at a more expressive hot hatch. It's a car with one eye on delivering road-based highs and the other on a decent Nürburgring lap time. Except this time there's no stripped-out, two-seat Clubsport S on the horizon to challenge the lap times set by Renault, Honda and Cupra.
To the box-fresh Golf GTI Clubsport first, then. Following the formula set by the last generation, it offers more power, less suspension travel and a more purposeful front differential. It's nearly as punchy as a Golf R, with 296bhp from its fettled EA888 engine, but it's about a second slower from zero to 62mph because standing sprints are compromised by the fronts spinning on anything but a perfectly dry road. On wet tarmac you're soon short-shifting to second to keep the thing moving, but the 2.0-litre turbo motor is torque-rich enough to cope.
Think of it as a Golf R that wheelspins and you won't be far off – when you're up and moving it feels every bit as quick, but getting there means managing the power delivery, instead of just mashing the gas pedal. So it's more involving than the all-wheel-drive car from the off. It rides with more purpose too, the firmer suspension noticeable right away. That sits a little oddly at first. One of the best things about the standard GTI is that your passengers won't know or care it's a GTI. This one's jiggly – not crashy, but firm enough to come up in conversation. And finally there's the inclusion of a grip-enhancing diff, which works quite differently to the mechanical Torsen in the Megane.
In the Golf a sophisticated electro-mechanical clutch portions out torque across the front axle so accurately you won't notice. You turn the wheel and squeeze the throttle and the car does the rest. Loads of grip, hardly any steering corruption, everyone has a good time. The Megane tramlines, torque steers and slithers around hunting for patches of grip on the tarmac. Wrestling the wheel feels like putting sun cream on an eel. Of course this is key to its appeal, because you need skill to get the best from it. You need to be awake. Not that you'd have any hope of sleeping through the racket the thing makes – we hear James coming long before we see him, despite the Meg's paint looking like someone in the paint department colour-matched a rubber duck.
On the outside, this recently facelifted Megane is essentially just a tweaked grille and new LED lights front and rear. Inside, subtle updates make it easier to live with; proper physical heating controls so you're no longer forced to faff with the portrait-orientated touchscreen, which is also simplified to make its menus easier to use and more attractive. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are now standard, as is a load of Level 2 assistance tech. There's a 10-inch screen that's smarter and less cluttered than the Golf's, too, but the biggest change is that the two Meganes RSs in the range, the RS300 and the Trophy, now both get the same 296bhp, and the Cup chassis is no longer an option – it's standard on the £37k Trophy.
Late morning, and with the sun burning off the mist and the full splendour of an admittedly very wintry landscape opening up before us, the cars are as keen to get into some serious stretches of road as we are.
Fortunately hot-hatch country doesn't take long to find in the UK, and we're soon onto the kind of roads you find and then try to keep all to yourself, for fear of ruining them.
As James suggests, the Renault is a bit lively at the rear, to put it mildly. It breaks away whenever the mood takes you, whether that's a small rotation to tuck the nose in or a trip to the lock-stops. You can't do that in a Golf or a Civic Type R. One of the reasons the Renault's shifting attitude is so dramatic is because it can summon so much front-end grip – so when you do lift, your corner speed is colossal, and the rear end comes around fast. Even in a decreasing-radius bend it's better to wrap your hands a little tighter around the wheel, keep your foot in and let the diff and rear-wheel steering do their work. Suddenly you have all the mid-corner stability you need.
The Cup chassis does a lot of heavy lifting here – stiffer springs, dampers and anti-roll bars give it the solid foundation required to push back against the rapid turn-in. At first the Megane feels jumpy. The steering is immediate and the nose dives left and right in response. You're persuaded to drive it differently to the Golf – and to older Meganes – by taking your time on turn-in and leaning hard on the diff, fighting the urge to lift off so that the back end follows the front. Except for when you want to slide around.
A happy medium can be found – fast enough to get the wheel fidgeting in your hands, line requiring the odd correction, but with (most of) the waywardness just below boiling point. Here the Megane feels potent and full of potential energy, like stretching a big swimming hat over a volcano. And it's that range of ability that makes it so endearing: no two drives – in fact no two corners, if that's what you want – are ever the same.
Prioritising this sort of freedom of expression can often make a fast Golf, which generally trades on being predictable, consistent and approachable, feel drab on a back-to-back test like this. But the last Clubsport was good fun at the limit, a world away from the big comfy jumper of near-endless grip and reluctant understeer you'd expect. This one is even better.
Partly that's down to specific chassis tweaks (more camber, reconfigured springs and dampers) but also because of the Dynamics Manager, the Mk8 Golf's party piece. This gets the other grip-enhancing systems, including brake-based torque vectoring and optional adaptive dampers, communicating in order to deliver dependable contact patches. It's quite telling that VW is most excited about the Clubsport's all-encompassing suite of interconnected driving aids while the Megane makes a big deal of offering you a Race mode with everything turned off.
This GTI has passive dampers, so I can't say for certain how well the system works, and it also means there's no Nürburgring drive mode, which is specially configured for the lumpy but demanding German lap. Shame, because it worked well on UK roads in the previous model. As did the even comfier suspension settings available with adaptive dampers, which might well give the Golf a point of difference over the Megane. As it stands, both ride in a firm but acceptable way.
Regardless, VW claims to have eliminated understeer in the GTI and really that's not a million miles from the truth. The thing just grips and grips. If you try hard enough it's still there, but otherwise the GTI is neutral, with the ability to coax the rear end around a little with the traction control in its new sporty half-off setting. Oversteer in a Golf! It even pops and bangs if you care to lift off in the right part of the rev range. Whether you're up for that sort of behaviour or not, it's another area where the Clubsport asks more from the driver, in exchange for delivering a bigger grin. This is a GTI with a sense of humour, and it is tremendous.
It does lack some of the Megane's focus, though, like there's too much normal Golf in the first press or turn of the controls – the steering's numb in the middle, the brake pedal has a half inch of slack, and the twin-clutch gearbox will upshift at the redline even in manual mode. It's fine once you push past that, and really all these things make it easier to drive normally and live with, but they also compromise a supposedly uncompromising car.
The name Clubsport doesn't help. To me that says a rollcage and fire extinguisher as standard, with optional slicks. In reality this is the car the GTI should have been from the off, being fast and precise with an easily accessible fun side that's mostly off-limits in the Golf R. The styling's an odd mix of subtle and aggressive too, partly because the Mk8 GTI itself is quite a stealthy design.
Compared with last time around the Golf's door graphics are a bit apologetic, but otherwise the GTI Clubsport looks how the Megane drives, and vice versa. The French car is comparatively restrained, garish red-spoked wheels aside – but then again, you don't need lots of styling adornments when the track is so wide and the wheelarches so far apart they're practically in different lanes. All the sporty design happens below the door handles – arch vents that recall the Clio 197, central exhaust seemingly inspired by a Lamborghini, and a hefty diffuser that just hints at the Renault's extensive underbody aero.
As standard the Golf rides on 18-inch wheels with a 19-inch upgrade, the latter unlocking a Cup 2 option that is, as yet, unavailable in the UK. Otherwise it gets Bridgestone Potenzas, just like the Megane, which rides as standard on 19-inch rims. Interior quality is a mixed bag. The Golf's cabin feels nicer, but doesn't have enough buttons, while the Megane has better physical controls but they feel cheaper. They have equally frustrating touchscreens but the French car's portrait layout works better when displaying a sat-nav map. They also have differing priorities – the Golf flashes up advice about lifting the throttle and coasting towards roundabouts; the Renault has digital tips on how to drive on your first trackday, and would rather you lifted the throttle and drifted roundabouts.
While it might seem counter-intuitive to leave our test route behind in search of coffee when the cars and corners provided more than enough caffeine shakes of their own, the afternoon's morphing into dusk and we've much to argue about. The Golf's dashboard is common ground, however.
VW's eighth-generation Golf cockpit is a bit of a whinge-magnet, not because most things have been moved to the touchscreen, but because what's left behind is so fiddly. It's hard to locate the drive-mode button when you're in a hurry and the traction control – with the new sportier mode, don't forget – is hidden behind several button pushes and swipes of the screen, in the braking menu, of all places.
James keeps pressing the buttons on the wheel by accident ('I tried to turn the heated steering wheel off and changed the radio station') and there's nowhere to rest your hand when using the infotainment screen, because there's a touch-sensitive slider there. Even the cupholder is a bit of a faff. You end up taking your eyes off the road a lot, which isn't ideal.
Mind you, that's not to say the Megane is perfect. The cupholders are the right depth for a delicate espresso but woefully ill-equipped for a Brit-spec latte. However, the chief offenders are the column-mounted shift paddles for the standard dual-clutch transmission. They're delightfully tactile and clicky to use, but set for a 10-to-two position on the wheel, not quarter-to-three. I keep grabbing nothing but air, or the media controller.
When it comes to driving positions, again it's a toss-up. VW has nailed the wheel and pedal positions, except the brake, which is too high. The Renault has the lower seat, but it's harder to get your hands and feet right. The Golf's chairs are softer, which helps dial out some chassis fidget, but the Megane's Recaros look better and grip that bit tighter.
Verdict? I'd have the French car simply because it's more exciting. While the standard Megane RS is a match for the normal Golf GTI, the Trophy pulls ahead of the Clubsport. It's a pint of nitro coldbrew to the Golf's luxurious if also highly potent cappuccino.
That said, exciting cars tend to be most impressive in small doses, a fact I'm reminded of when it snows briefly during our test, at which point I'm delighted that the more-rounded Golf has such a predictable, less snappy nature. And that's perhaps its greatest asset – it loses little of the standard car's ease of use but gains dynamic ability and a sense of humour. If you're after a Golf GTI, buy the Clubsport, because it really is the best GTI of all. But if you want to make your pulse race, it has to be the Renault Sport Megane Trophy.
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GTI Clubsport vs Megane RS Trophy: specs
Renault Megane RS Trophy
Powertrain 1798cc 16v turbo four-cylinder, six speed dual-clutch auto, front-wheel drive
Performance 296bhp @ 6000rpm, 310lb ft @ 3200rpm, 5.7sec 0-62mph, 162mph
Efficiency 33.6mpg (official), 21mpg (tested), 190g/km CO2
On sale Now
VW Golf GTI Clubsport
Powertrain 1984cc 16v turbo four-cylinder, six speed dual-clutch auto, front-wheel drive
Performance 296bhp @ 5300rpm, 310lb ft @ 2000rpm, 5.6sec 0-62mph, 155mph
Efficiency 38.3mpg (official), 23mpg (tested), 167g/km CO2
On sale Now