2017 VW Golf GTI TCR REVIEW: THE PEOPLE'S RACE CAR
VW's customer touring car is friendlier than expected but still has race car grittiness in every nut and bolt
Barcelona has just 55 ‘precipitation days’ per year, on average. So Google tells me. Unfortunately one of them is today. The day I drive the Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR around Seat’s Castelloli test track, which sits just on the edge of Spain’s Montserrat national park.
Normally, a Golf in the wet wouldn’t be cause for concern. But this is no ordinary Golf. This is a Golf touring car. It is technically a Golf GTI, in the same way that the Hulk is still technically Bruce Banner.
The Touring Car Racing (hence the TCR in the name) series is the core of VW Group’s growing customer racing division. Some 450 cars took part in it last year internationally, and 350 of them were Seat, Audi or VW cars; this is a popular and seriously competitive series that attracts both gentlemen (or women) racers, and those trying to make it as a pro.
The VW Golf GTI TCR shares 70% of its parts with the standard VW Golf GTi Performance Pack, although it doesn't feel like it in practice
The people's race car
VW will sell the car for 90,000 euros with the DSG ‘box that we're driving, or 110,000 with a sequential. By the time the driver has paid for a six race European series, including travel, technical support and all of that jazz, you’re looking at roughly 150-180,000 euros. Which, in racing terms, is not bad at all.
Particularly given that the front-wheel drive, 345bhp Golf GTI TCR actually proved to be wickedly fun yet weirdly undemanding to drive.
This was in part down to my expectations, as I fully expected all kinds of race car histrionics given the very wet conditions. Massive lift-off oversteer, drastic traction issues out of corners... That kind of thing.
But, out on the wet, slippery and rather run-off shy Castelloli, it is the TCR’s precision that impresses the most. The mesmerisingly feelsome, tippy-toe responses seem dialled directly into your brain.
The steering is meaty but predictable and just aggressive enough. There’s also impressive lateral traction, in these conditions no doubt largely courtesy of the huge Michelin wet tyres and the TCR’s wide tracks (the chassis is 15cm wider than a standard GTI, and overall the car is some 0.5metres wider).
So with such zen-like steering and high grip levels, the TCR feels, well, kind of easy. Almost disappointingly so. I quite want it to metaphorically stamp and snort a bit, and show a bit of pure-bred race car attitude, but it is brilliantly accessible by race car standards.
The TCR has been updated for 2017, with an extra 19bhp from the 2.0-litre turbocharged motor, and modified aerodynamics - particularly around the air inlets and that brilliantly ludicrous wing
Yes, it’s rampant. The engine is very much a tweaked version of the road car’s, yet it seems to have far less inertia. Almost none at all. It rips through the rev range in a heartbeat.
This, combined with short gearing and the fact that muggins doesn't make sure to have a good view of the shift lights before she set out, means that the first lap is spent going ‘s***, there’s the limiter again.’
Chasing a racing legend
Regardless, the TCR feels absolutely on form. More traction than I expected, more balance and forgiveness. Which is good, because I have Hans-Joachim Stuck ahead of me. 'Strietzel', as he's known. Racing legend. I am a bit star struck.
Two laps following Hans and I’d fathomed the aforementioned short rev range and the TCR’s ever-imminent limiter. I was now used to the cacophony of noise; a bass, guttural blare that vibrates through your diaphragm.
Now, this is not a race. Because of the wet weather, Hans Joachim-Stuck is there, in a Golf R, to stop us hacks from getting over-optimistic and piling the TCR into a concrete wall.
Racing legend Hans-Joachim Stuck, and racing legend in the making, Benjamin Leuchter, who set the front-wheel drive production car record around the Nurburgring in the VW Golf Clubsport S last year
But he also isn’t hanging about. So I’ll hassle him a bit. There’s plenty more that me and the TCR have to give, so I edge a bit closer. Brake a bit later. Enjoy the feel on offer from the brakes, which are perfect for delivering exact trail-braking into a corner – perfect for keeping the front-driven TCR on its nose as you turn-in.
Into a fast right hander where it’s tempting to go too wide before you turn in. On the brakes hard. See the Golf R flash its brake lights, feel the TCR squirrel about slghtly under hard braking. Off the brakes a bit, turn in, gaining on the R, and back on the power. Smoothly. A measured application, otherwise the TCR will spin its wheels up and wash wide, putting me on the kerbs, which are perilously slippery at the moment.
Braking happens via ventilated front and solid rear discs, with six-piston callipers at the front and two-piston callipers at the back.
Into the double-apex. Stay out late, make an aggressive turn in and hold the steering steady as you hang on round the corner and out again, towards the back straight.
So it goes on for a precious five more laps. Always keeping the R with its rather fast driver on its toes.
I can now add sharing a track with Hans Joachim-Stuck to my list of true ‘pinch me’ moments. The stuff I will tell my grandkids about in minute detail, probably too many times.
After the body has had new welds applied to strengthen it, and of course had that FIA approved roll cage fitted, the GTI TCR race car weighs a minimum of 1285kg including the driver
That, and the moment he got out of the R in the pit lane and told me that I was faster than him at all corners barring turn 3. Goddamn you, turn 3.
Still a Golf underneath it all
After all that, it is very clear that the VW Golf TCR is a remarkably sure-footed, capable thing. It’s got race car pedigree in its every nut and bolt. In the way it eggs you on. The way it begs to be driven with no mercy.
And yet, there is more than a kernel of the original Golf DNA in it. A bit of Bruce Banner’s sensible intelligence in the monstrousness of the Hulk looks and general drama and aggressiveness of VW’s touring car.
Sure, it doesn’t have the edginess of plenty of other race cars. But for a series that attracts a broad range of experience level, and has a lot of cars on track – up to 44 on some German circuits - it’s spot on. That accessibility might be its whole appeal, in fact.
Plus, with adjustable camber, dampers, springs, steering, brake bias – you name it, if it’s not the ECU, you can tweak it – the TCR is (within the regulations) as changeable as any competition car.
Basically, if you want to go racing on the world's best circuits, the TCR promises to give that opportunity, with as much adrenaline as you can possibly want, just with less death-defying handling antics than some alternatives.
If you’ve got the means and the motivation, you must absolutely do it. And send us a postcard, because we’ll be very, very jealous.
A 0-62mph time of 5.2sec doesn't sound that fast, but the TCR feels brutal in its mid-range acceleration
Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR
Price: 90 - 110,000 euros (est. 150-180,000 euros to include a six-series European race series with support)
Engine: 1984cc, 4cyl, turbocharged petrol
Layout: Front-engined, FWD
Gearbox: 6-spd dual-clutch auto
Power: 345bhp at 6200rpm
Torque: 310lb ft at 2500rpm
0-62mph: 5.2 seconds
Top speed: 143mph approx
Weight: 1285kg incl. driver