2016 VW Golf GTI Clubsport S review – is it as special as everyone says?
Does ripping the rear seats out make it a hot hatch legend?
When Volkswagen released the Golf GTI Clubsport S in 2016, everyone thought something had gone wrong in Wolfsburg. The usually conservative German carmakers served up a hardcore track-prepped hot hatch with no rear seats, very little sound-deadening and a Nurburgring track record. It looked good on paper, and it went down a storm with buyers and critics – so much so that if you want to buy one in 2020, it'll cost you the same £33,000 that it would've cost new four years ago.
But is it any good? Because I'm utterly selfless in my servitude of you lovely DriveTribe people, I borrowed one for the day to find out. Watch my video below or read on for less damp thoughts.
The Clubsport S doesn't look particularly aggressive from the outside – this is still a Golf, after all. You get a few black bumpers, stickers and a rear diffuser, as well as a gently swooping rear wing. It's only when you open one of the two doors that you realise this isn't like any other Golf.
That's because there's a fabric net where the rear seats used to be, and a pair of hardcore winged tartan-clad bucket seats up front. The steering wheel is wrapped in Alcantara and has a rally-esque red 12 o'clock marker. Everything still feels as premium as you'd expect in a Golf, but there's just… less interior than usual.
It's all in the way it drives
The Clubsport S fires up with a dark crackle from its twin enlarged 65mm tailpipes, before the four-cylinder EA888 returns to a background hum much like in the regular Mk7 Golf GTI. But as soon as you nail it out of a 30mph limit into a national speed limit, you realise this is really nothing like a regular Mk7 Golf GTI. The four-cylinder 2.0-litre turbo engine has been turned up to a whopping 310hp – the same as the contemporary Golf R. Except here the power is sent to the front wheels alone, through an electronically controlled differential. For reference, that's as much as the FK2 Civic Type R put out, and we all know how fast that car feels. The Golf does the same, but without the puerile looks.
When the Golf's front wheels inevitably start slipping you brace yourself for the inevitable axle tramp thumping its way into the cabin, but nothing comes. Usually you get an unsettling thumping that sounds for all the world like your suspension turrets are trying to take out a 747 15,000ft above you, but not here. It just gathers up some traction and scoots off.
The Clubsport S' suspension is beautifully judged considering this was designed to take the Nurburgring Nordschleife flat out. It sits on adaptive dampers, and in race mode they're firm, but designed to let you attack the kerbs of a German race track without worrying about breaking something.
On a twisty road you almost forget about the act of driving the Clubsport S – the throttle response, steering and brakes are honed in a Porsche-like manner to the extent you just feel like you're at one with the road, in a car with immaculate body control in corners. Sounds wanky, but it's rare to find a car that just melts away, leaving you to enjoy trail braking, a little bit of oversteer and general hoonery.
Speaking of driving like an arse, at speed the Clubsport S feels impressively tied down, and not actually that willing to slide around. That's not to say it feels efficient and inert – you still get an immense feeling of connection to the road, and it still sticks a smile on your face when the diff hooks you out of a corner.
In terms of performance, the official 0-62mph time of 5.8 seconds and top speed of 168mph feel about right. There's not the same mid-range torque as a modern FK8 Civic Type R, but you never feel as if you need more shove as you slice through the manual gearbox. The throttle response is sharp enough that you can heel and toe quite naturally, which isn't something you can always say about a modern turbo car. The gearshift action itself feels notchier and more satisfying than your average GTI, but it's not a particular highlight.
Should I get one?
The thing about the Clubsport S is that there's no one part of it that grabs you immediately – it's just far more than the sum of its parts. The way it feels down a country road or – I'd imagine – on a track, though, leaves you in no doubt that this is a Golf GTI that's been honed to the Nth degree. Perhaps the best way of describing it is to think of it as a hot hatch that's been given the Porsche RS treatment, but without destroying its day-to-day usability. If you can live with the extra road noise that comes from having no rear seats, you should absolutely buy one.
It'll cost you the same £33,000 as it would have done in 2016, but that's for a good reason. Now, Volkswagen, can you do this again please?