How well does a Golf Diesel handle a track day?
The local chapter of the BMW Club of America - BMW Club Atlantic - arranges one or two Advanced Driver Training weekends every year (HPDE's). That's where I started high performance driving 8 years ago and where I made great friendships so I always look forward to it. I was just getting ready for the driver's meeting at the last event when one of the event's organizers came to me and said: "We have someone who needs an instructor. Can you take on a second driver?" (I was already assigned another 'student'; a guy with a 525 hp Saleen Mustang, which I'll be posting a review for in the coming weeks!).
I said: "Sure," so they assigned me this new student and I looked for their car on the driver/instructor assignment sheet. It was a 2015 Golf. I assumed it was a GTI because that's the first one that comes to mind when you hear of a Golf on track. But I looked at it, and it was very clearly not a GTI. I thought it must be a 1.8 TSI, the only other engine you can get in North America. But it wasn't. It was just about the last thing you expect to see on track outside of a prototype racer or an LMP car; a diesel, a car that runs on the devil's fuel as Jeremy Clarkson used to call it.
Mk7 Golf TDI in the paddock at AMP (yes, that's a 1st gen NSX in the back) - Rams Eye The Track Guy ©
It was 100% factory stock. No aftermarket springs/dampers or roll bars, no track wheels, no track pads, and no aftermarket engine calibration/tune. It even had factory all season tires on it. I'm not going to get into what most people already know - which is that it's best to learn on slower, more softly sprung cars - I'm just going to jump straight into the awesomeness that it is to bring a Golf diesel to the track. I'm a strong believer that all you need to come out and enjoy a track day when you're just beginning is something that is mechanically sound and won't leak fluids all over the track or break down. That's it. Everything else is an excuse.
This particular driving student clearly knew this since she brought her Mk7 Golf TDI with a 6 speed manual to a two-day (weekend) event. But even I had some doubts. My first thought and biggest fear was that, with all the diesel torque and all season tires, this car was going to absolutely roast its inside front tire every single time you get near the "gas" pedal and the wheels aren't straight. Unlike the GTI Performance Pack, this car doesn't have a mechanical limited slip differential (you can read more about why that's important in my post here). I thought it was just going to be tire torture and smoke show for two days. I was wrong... very wrong.
Traction? Yes, definitely want some of that
What a blast this car is to drive! An absolute blast. I can't overstate how much fun this car is to drive. If there is only one takeaway you can get from this review is that this car is A LOT of fun. First of all, it doesn't roast its inside tire. I don't know if that's brake-based LSD control or just really good traction. Unless I hammered it very early in the turn in the slowest corner of the track (corner 2, more on that in a bit), I never get inside wheel shenanigans and traction control stayed out of the picture. Roll into the "throttle" from maintenance/partial to full and the only sign of protest from the tires is a few chirps.
Commit your right foot and the car tracks out of the corner beautifully. The car doesn't have much power so I could actually go flat out just before the apex in the slower turns where you couldn't carry a whole lot of speed as a result of the all seasons... it somehow has enough traction to deal with the mountain of diesel torque. Well, maybe a hill of torque, but it's still impressive. You only have to be patient until the car is pointed towards the apex, otherwise it will run wide (understeer). Once the car "sees" the apex, you could go flat out.
If you roll in smoothly, a whiff of turbo lag means that you get full boost right as you're hitting the apex and you ride the wave of diesel torque all the way out of the corner. And you could stay flat out for a very large portion of the track. For those familiar with the track, that's basically from the exit of corner 4 to the entry of corner 9, you're flat out - except when braking for corner 7, which is the fastest corner on the track (map below if you aren't familiar with the track).
And although the car isn't particularly fast (ok, it's actually pretty slow), it doesn't feel slow except on the straights. Between corners, the diesel torque makes it feel a lot quicker than it actually is. And it wasn't just the traction that impressed. Front end grip and balance, in general, was a very pleasant surprise.
Sure, it will certainly default to understeer if you come in too hot. It is an everyday diesel hatch after all. With that said, and given that this is an everyday hatchback on all season tires, with a diesel (heavy) engine up front, and no performance options, it blew me away. In fact, with a little bit of trail braking, this car actually rotates. It ROTATES! You can feel the back end starting to rotate beautifully... in a stock diesel hatch! And given how soft and compliant it is over bumps and curbs, body motions are remarkably well controlled and nothing seems to upset the car.
There isn't a ton of information or feedback coming through the steering wheel so you never have a very clear picture about front tire loading, but it isn't completely numb either and steering weight was good. The steering ratio is reasonably quick (2.7 turns lock to lock) and steering response is excellent for something not pretending or trying to be a track car.
By the same token, the brakes were also very strong and showed great perseverance for something that is so pedestrian. I suspect stickier track tires may tax them with more available grip but on the all seasons, they never let us down. During the first two sessions when the owner was driving, she went on the "throttle" too early and didn't roll into it smoothly. Instead, she leaned on traction control. The brakes started to get hot and smelly by the end of those sessions, but they never stopped working or even stopped working well.
The rest of the first day and the next day, she was smoother and a little more patient. The brake smell never came back. With some trail braking to get it to rotate, track brake pads, DOT 4 fluid, and at least good ultra-high or max performance summer tires, this car will surprise a lot of people, guaranteed, unless you're on a long track with lots of straights. Get a good tune and a stout LSD, and you have a Time Attack contender when adjusted for class.
That mileage, though...
And one thing I was very curious about as soon as I found out that it was a diesel was how efficient it would be. If you're worried about efficiency on a track day, you probably need to have your priorities straightened... But for someone on a budget, spending less money to fill the tank for a track day brings costs down. A diesel engine's undisputed mileage advantage in endurance racing was very clear here. The car used about a third of a tank for the day. Compare that to the VAST majority of cars from small 4 cylinders to big V8's using a full tank of gas for a day on the track, and you have a huge advantage in running costs.
Now, I'm not suggesting you don't need any more than a Golf diesel, not even remotely. I'm hugely competitive and speed hungry. The point is NOT to say you shouldn't want or set your eyes on better, faster cars. The point is: why wait?? Sure, not all average everyday cars would be this entertaining. In fact, some may be downright hateful and some will crumble and fall apart at the sight of a road course. But if you have a competent and reliable car, it doesn't matter if it's slow or fast, FWD, AWD or RWD, gas or diesel, just get it checked/inspected, sign up for a high performance driving school and come out. It will be the most fun you've ever had driving your car, guaranteed.