I am not even going to try and keep you guessing about how good this car is. None of that ‘I’m strapped in, feel the rumble, snick the switch, it’s brilliant’ nonsense. Instead, I’ll start with the end – here is a Volkswagen Golf you need to own; do whatever it takes, find the Kruger millions, hasten auntie’s end, win Wimbledon. Whatever. You won’t regret it. And you will forgiveVW their trespasses against us. Right, job done – the smart ones are off plotting their financial triumphs. For the rest, I’ll tell you why this car is the business.
It all has to do with one little switch under your right foot, hidden behind the accelerator, under a standard-issue black Wolfsburg carpet. Rather think of it as a black box, only this one may cause crashes instead of recording them. Except not, but more about why not later on.
The switch, when depressed by a willing boot, unleashes an extra 18 kW of over-boost, and a whole lot of other figures that are equally gleeful; 10% more power, 10% more torque, 213 kW for a limited charge, up from the book value 195 kW. Yes, 213 kW – read it and weep. Except that’s not even the half of it, and to explain the rest, you have to go back in time.
Way back in 1974, when the Golf was born, VW’s whole idea was to make the car as easy to drive as possible. Fun and immediate, certainly, but above all, easy. It was a radical departure from the norm of the day. Clattery lumps of ’70s heft was the order of things, only the aging Mini offering a degree of spirited elan.
And then came the Golf GTI, which took the essence of easy and added rocket fuel. Bingo: the hot hatch, in its purest form, was born. Over the next 40 years, things got hotter, others copied GTI and bettered the car’s figures, but none managed to crack that key Golf attribute: absolute ease. And so, to the Clubsport. For all the launch talk of kilowatts and overboost, chassis engineer Karsten Schebsdat kept returning to that core element, and rightly so; the Clubsport is hands down the easiest, most intuitive and fluid hot hatch available, the awesome power delivered in a constant flow of pure energy that has you genuinely questioning the power plant. It surely can’t be just a turbocharged 2.0ℓ four-cylinder, can it? It feels, for all the world, like a silky six, so linear and so muscular is the delivery.
And so to the yee-haw bits, just to elaborate, just for fun. We’re sitting on the line. Launch control is initiated. This means I have my left foot on the brake and my right foot suspended above the accelerator, ready to stamp it all the way beyond the floor to access all that extra clout. Three, two, one, stamp, hold the brake for a few seconds so that the revs reach the launch-control limit ceiling at 3 000 rpm. Boom: release the brake. Viva, VW! Okay, it’s no Veyron and that sweet- six feeling washes over the cabin better than any Honda VTEC chaos, but feel the flood, the seamlessness and the shove. In launch mode, the extra kilowatts are available for 20 seconds, rather than the 10 seconds available in ordinary driving, and the Golf cuts through the track air like Malcolm Campbell in his Bluebird at Bonneville. Gears come and go, so easy, snick, snick, snick, the old-school heritage golf-ball shifter round and magical in your gear hand.
At the end of the straight, conventional wisdom suggests you watch for understeer: this is a front-wheel-drive car, after all, not the all-wheel-drive Golf R. And yet, you glide through embarrassingly slowly – this car has so much more and tells you in no uncertain terms; ‘I’m easy, remember? Drive smoothly and I’ll straighten out this track like you’ve never seen before.’
So you listen to the car and attempt to squeeze a bit more power around the next corner and, again, it simply fires through, absolutely no drama, just like a serpent scything through the undergrowth, utterly certain of its passage and placement. It is just wondrous.
Wondrous, yes, but not owing to magic. Engineering, rather. Underneath, the trick is Schebsdat’s electronic-diff-lock-equipped chassis. You can’t feel it – or I can’t – but it sends some extra drive to the outside cornering wheel in order to prevent the inner wheel from losing traction. The result is to catapult me through every bend as if I’m being pulled on rails. Yes, on rails. Wasn’t that the original GTI’s ad campaign? Clever men, these. I concentrate harder, go faster, try for smoother. After three laps and ever-increasing speed, I have to admit I’m beat – this car has the measure of me, with limits far beyond mine, even if it shouts to be rocketed ever quicker. I’m awestruck.
And as I fly past the pits on a cool-down lap, I’m thinking maybe, just maybe, if you have jet fuel in your veins and require a cacophony of erupting pistons to tell you you’re going fast, then this may not be for you. If ever a fist in a velvet glove was appropriate, it’s here. The Honda Civic Type R crew in their shouty red shirts need to queue somewhere else. There’s no Iron Maiden soundtrack here and no fused spine to tell you this is a white-hot hatch. It’s Federer, this, not Nadal. Choreography rather than calamity, and class, class, class.
Back in the pits, the GTI sits pinging quietly to itself, brakes and oily bits more than a little fried after the helter-skelter of less-than-genius journos misreading apexes and grinding its gears. As in most special-edition VWs, the signs of rarity are minimal, but they are there, and mostly reference the car’s quest for downforce. VW has added a completely redesigned front bumper that channels air through those ominous gills and out through the wheel housing. Look closely and you’ll also see an extra air intake for the radiator and a new front splitter. All three help to create downforce on the front axle. The same principle applies at the back – the two-part roof spoiler and redesigned diffuser add weight to the rear axle at speed. But it’s all relatively subtle. I turn and walk away, with only a backward glance. It’s years since I wanted to own a car I’d tested (the Mégane RS Cup 275), and it’s almost too painful to contemplate. How do you become a banker overnight?
The Golf GTI Clubsport is the GTI’s 40th birthday present to itself, and whatever your age, you should make it yours.
In a nutshell: VW Golf GTI Clubsport
Best balance of a hot hatch yet, seamless delivery, beautifully made
It costs more than I can afford
- Engine: 1 984 cc, 4-cylinder turbo
- Power: 195 kW @ 5 350–6 600 rpm, 350 Nm from 1 700–5 300 rpm
- Performance: 0–100 km/h in 5.9 sec, top speed limited to 250 km/h
- Tyres: 225/40/R18
- Economy: 7ℓ/100 km
- Transmission: 6-speed manual
- CO2 emissions: 160 g/km
- Price: R540 200
Ford Focus ST-3
The ST is to the RS what the Clubsport is to the Golf R, the front-wheel-drive version of the hottest hatch. The ST is more fun than the RS, though not as fast and, of course, there’s no drift mode. Well-
priced too. 0–100 km/h in 6.5 sec, top speed
248 km/h, power 184 kW/360 Nm, price R462 900
Audi A3 Sportback 1.8T SE
An Audi for Golf money, almost as fast, less exciting, but oh-so refined. Four doors and
a hatch, too. 0–100 km/h in 7.2 sec, top speed
232 km/h, power 132 kW/250 Nm, price R413 000
Mercedes-Benz A250 Sport
Often forgotten with all the noise about the bruiser A45, this lesser A-Class is better in town, quick, easier to drive, and it won’t scare the neighbours every time you start it up. 0–100 km/h in 6.3 sec, top speed 240 km/h, power 160 kW/350 Nm,
price R528 522