► Most powerful GTI yet
► Limited to 150 cars in UK
► We test it at the Nordschleife
Remember the Golf GTI Clubsport, the most powerful version of the Golf GTI ever? This is the new, even more powerful version. It's called the VW Golf GTI Clubsport S, and there's a bit more at play here than just an extra consonant.
Limited to 400 cars worldwide, the Clubsport S winds the GTI's 2.0-litre turbo's power up to 306bhp (even more than the awd Golf R), carries some substantial chassis tweaks, loses a fair bit of weight (some of it by chucking away the rear seats), and has recently garnered the coveted lap record for a front-wheel-drive production car at the Nurburgring Nordschleife. Which, appropriately enough, is where we've tested it...
So there's more to the Clubsport S than AWOL back seats and a few damper tweaks?
The power hike, from 261bhp in the Clubsport to 306bhp in the Clubsport S, comes largely from a larger, freer-breathing exhaust system. For the first time on a modern VW performance car, the speed limiter's been removed, allowing the S to hit 165mph flat-out – a figure that would be higher were it not for that big rear spoiler.
All that power flows through the regular GTI's manual gearbox rather than the DSG auto, since the dual-clutch 'box's extra weight would have negated its quicker shifts.
Aside from losing the rear seats, some of the sound deadening material has also been deleted, as has the variable-height boot floor, and an aluminium front subframe has been fitted. The net result is a claimed 1360kg kerb weight.
The tech spec of the VW Golf GTI Clubsport S
Unusually for a hot hatch, there's significant downforce, too. Those flared nostrils and that spoiler aren't for show, transforming the standard Golf GTI's 60kg of aerodynamic lift at top speed (not unusual for a car of this type) to a total of 25kg of downforce, 17kg of which is concentrated over the rear axle. There's resultant drag, of course - down the Nordschleife's enormous Döttinger Höhe straight the Clubsport's noticeably slower than its rivals, VW says – but it claws the time back in the corners.
The suspension's come in for a detailed rejig, with far more negative camber at the front courtesy of brand-new (and very expensive to manufacture) subframe knuckles, with the aim of making the car as stable as possible when braking and turning at the same time – something drivers have to do quite a lot of on the Nordschleife.
There's been much electronic calibration tweakery, too. Setting the 'Ring record (7m 49.2sec – a full 1.4sec quicker than the previous fwd champ, Honda's Civic Type R) simply wouldn't be possible with passive dampers. The electronically controlled shocks play a huge role in helping the Clubsport monster the track's kerbs, yumps and cambers. The 'Comfort' mode in the car's driving profiles is identical to the damper settings used for the Nurburgring record lap.
The brakes have also been modified, with pads that are more heat resistant and lighter aluminium brake pots, said to lend the driver's foot more precise control. And last but not least, a great deal of credit for the car's abilities also goes to its super-sticky Michelin Pilot Cup tyres, especially developed for the Clubsport. Soft enough to sink a thumbnail into, they're worth as much as five seconds a lap in the dry, we're told, although they're 'quite difficult' in the wet.
How do all those changes feel on track?
One of the impressive things about the Clubsport S is that despite its laptime-busting agility, it's not an intimidating car to drive. Rather than handling on a knife-edge, it's very neutral, with a safe bias towards reassuring (but not frustrating) understeer when driven below ten-tenths, and incredible stability under hard braking.
Perhaps the car's most remarkable facet is the way its dampers handle bumps. It's possible to take enormous liberties with the Nordschleife's kerbs. Benny Leuchter, the seriously handy driver who set the car's record-breaking time (not just once but on three separate laps, incidentally), says he's only ever driven three cars that can take the same kerb-hopping lines the Clubsport S can – and they're endurance racers with full race suspension.
On the way out of corners, the Clubsport S summons incredible traction for a front-drive car. The electronically controlled mechanical limited-slip differential, the same unit fitted to the regular Golf GTI as part of the optional Performance Pack, hauls the car up to speed and actively tightens its line, its effect felt all the more keenly through the new front suspension geometry. 306bhp through one axle? No problem. In the dry, at least...
The steering feels sharper, keener than a regular GTI's, largely as a result of the altered front toe and camber angles, though thankfully retains the confidence-inspiring linearity of the standard car's variable-rate steering rack.
You can feel the reduced kerb weight in the way the car responds, and hear it in the unfiltered sound of gravel spattering the rear arches and various pyrotechnic noises coming from the high-performance exhaust system. It's almost - but not quite - as vocal as a Renaultsport Megane.
The RS Megane, and the Civic Type R for that matter, feel more aggressive, less polished than the Clubsport S, and some might argue more engaging as a result - but they're nowhere near as easy to drive quickly. Nor, as it turns out, as quick against the stopwatch…
This Nurburgring stuff is all very well, but what's the Clubsport S like on the road?
A fair question. As race circuits go, the Nordschleife is a lumpy, bumpy, oddly cambered kind of place, but it's still much smoother and less bulbous than typical British B road. You might reasonably expect the Clubsport S's more aggressive camber settings to make it quite a handful, but in fact it's just as confidence-inspiring as it feels on the track. The steering doesn't dart around on cambered surfaces, the dampers do a great job of preserving body control on uneven surfaces and it feels far more exciting to drive than any other Golf road car I've driven, the R included.
What's more, even in heavy rain, the (admittedly brand new) Cup tyres felt usefully grippy. As with all track-biased tyres it's worth being careful around standing water, however.
Verdict: VW GTI Clubsport S
The Clubsport S is a deeply impressive car, all the more so because it's achieved its speed through painstakingly developed handling finesse rather than horsepower. It's a good friend on track, as rewarding to drive for a complete novice as it is for an experienced hand like Leuchter, and an enormously engaging road car. Were it not for some missing seats, it would be a very usable one, too.
Of the 400 Clubsport S cars to be built, 150 are bound for the UK, making Blighty the S's biggest market when deliveries start in autumn 2016. Assuming they can get their hands on one, buyers can pick from red, white or black. Prices are yet to be confirmed, but on the continent it'll be around the €40k mark. From the driver's seat, that sounds entirely reasonable.
UPDATE: On 26 October 2016 in cooler, more favourable conditions, the Clubsport S has recorded a faster-still laptime of 7min49.21sec, with Leuchter again at the wheel.
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