It is safe to say the latest generation of fast Volkswagen Golf has not been accorded the rapturous reception its creators may have hoped for and, given the breed’s recent past, expected too. And not without reason: it’s been 18 years since the fifth generation of Golf GTI made its public debut and if there’s been a duffer since, I’ve not driven it. By returning to first principles and creating a car that was as easy to live with as it was fun to drive, the Mk V GTI banished the memory of the awful Mks III and IV to history, cementing itself firmly as the thinking man or woman’s hot hatch. It was a position the Mk VI and VII GTIs merely reinforced.
I’ve questioned before on this page VW’s decision to vary this winning formula for the eighth generation car, but in short it appears to have decided it wanted the Golf GTI to join the throng of more overtly sporting fast hatchbacks out there, but then failed to equip it properly for the job. The result was something that marched purposefully away from one sweet spot only to run out of puff and pitch camp on a barren, windswept plain some distance short of the next.
It was, I imagined, a problem the top-ofthe-range Golf R would solve. And it did, but only to an extent and at a considerable price. It is a better car all round than the GTI but still fails to capture the magic of its predecessor. The sense of it trying a bit too hard but failing to recapture the magic remained inescapable.
So what chance then for this, the Golf Clubsport, that in terms of power and price seeks to split the difference between its brethren? It looks like a compromised compromise. But it’s not.
On paper it seems not to make much sense. Its acceleration figures place it closer to the GTI, its price nearer the R. But that’s only because the Clubsport lacks the R’s all-wheel-drive system (and the additional weight that goes with it). In reality it’s 52bhp more powerful than the GTI and only 20bhp weaker than the R, some of which is offset by its reduced mass.
And there’s no questioning the rest of the car has been tuned to support a more sporting driving experience. The suspension is lowered, its geometry changed at the front with new control arms fitted and additional negative camber introduced, while there are new springs and dampers at the back to make the car feel more lively. It comes with a shortened final drive for its seven-speed paddle-shift gearbox, a reprogrammed electronic limitedslip differential and it now carries Golf R brakes too. A comprehensive job, then.
It shows. The usual suite of visual upgrades to beef up the appearance of the car both front and back still only hint at how much better the Clubsport is to drive than the standard GTI. Only the much larger rear wing suggests that this is something different.
The first thing to say is the front-wheel-drive layout copes with nearly 300bhp with ease. There’s very little torque steer and not much scrabbling away from the apex. It feels fast too, in a way the GTI does not. I’d bet then if you removed the R’s traction advantage the figures would be near identical for both.
“My sense is the car is set up to bite more sharply into the apex so it’s easier to get into the corner”
But what I liked about it so much more than either its more expensive or cheaper stablemates is how it flows down a decent road. This is not something you can express statistically. It is a seat-of-the-pants experience. You drive the others, and certainly the GTI, mechanically, judging where to turn and get back on the power, and yet still feeling less than fully rewarded for your efforts. But the Clubsport is far more natural and eager, so you find yourself thinking less about your driving and simply enjoying the drive itself.
Why? Hard to say, but my sense is the car is set up to bite more sharply into the apex so it’s much easier to get into the corner; and knowing it’s going to adopt accurately your intended trajectory means it becomes a willing accomplice, not a slightly reluctant assistant.
And if there is a price to be paid for this, other than at the point of purchase, I couldn’t spot it. If its ride is any worse than that of a GTI or R you’d really need them all together on the same road to tell. So it makes no difference. It’s still a little firmer than I’d like a Golf GTI to be – even on the softest of its frankly pointless 15 different damper settings – but at least there’s now a good reason and palpable reward for it being so configured. The Clubsport is genuinely fun in a way the GTI is not.
There are still aspects that annoy, none more so than the infernal touchscreen. Where the previous generation screen was so clear, intuitive and easy to use that it would be hard to think how it could be meaningfully improved, this one is fiddly and complicated. Should your wrist accidentally brush the haptic switches at its base, it is more than capable of executing instructions you neither asked for nor desired. In this regard, and quite clearly to save the money required to engineer a proper interface with physical buttons which actually do what you want, VW has pitched itself from the top of the form to near the bottom.
But talking of form, the Clubsport is an otherwise welcome return to it for the Golf GTI. It is the Goldilocks car of the range: not too hot, not too cold, but just right. About time too.
2021 Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport statistics
Price From £37,315
Engine 2 litres, 4 cylinders, turbocharged
Torque 295lb ft
Power to weight 203bhp per tonne
Transmission Seven-speed double clutch, front-wheel drive
Top speed 155mph
CO 2 167g/km
Verdict Mid-positioned hot hatch is far superior to the standard GTI.