The challenge facing those tasked with replacing the Mk7 Golf was obvious from the start. The car had done pretty much everything a Golf could ever be required to do, and done it so well that it left precious little room for manoeuvre with a new model that would be mechanically very similar. This was especially true for the performance versions: the GTI was the most complete version it had been in years and the R redefined expectations, not only of an all-wheel drive Golf, but of the entire sector. Oh yes, and in the Clubsport S, VW created one of the decade's hot hatch icons. Tough act to follow...
For an assortment of reasons already discussed, the standard GTI hasn't quite hit the mark thus far. The Clubsport is meant to fix that. It has more power for one thing, achieved in part by replacing the Garrett turbo with a Continental one - so it's rather more than just cranking up boost. That the 300hp and 292lb ft torque drives through shorter DSG ratios is a welcome touch, too. There's additional negative camber at the front axle, as well as larger (but lighter) brake discs, a bespoke steering tune, new mounts in the suspension and the option of Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres. VW even suggests that 98 octane fuel goes in the Clubsport (95 is fine for the standard car) like a proper tuned-up special. Perhaps that appeal will wear off after the first few pricier fill-ups, but it all points to a more senior Golf GTI.
Crucially, too, the new model benefits from the involvement of Benny Leuchter and Carsten Schebsdat, otherwise known as the record breaking driver and lead engineer respectively on the Clubsport S project. If you want to make a Golf great again, you employ those two. On numbers alone, it's suggested that the new Clubsport is just five seconds slower around the Nordschleife than the old S, despite less power and the weightier five-door shell.
There's much to be encouraged by then, and the Clubsport impresses before moving anywhere. In that fairly subtle and measured VW way, this is a more handsome hot hatch than the regular Mk8. The Clubsport sits 10mm lower, which helps, as do the (optional) 19-inch wheels. Note as well the redesigned front grille, chunky rear spoiler and new exhausts, now set wider apart. It's a more assertive, more attractive Golf GTI from the off - and when you're being asked to part with an additional premium, that obviously counts for a lot.
The interior is unchanged, bar the new seat material, so it doesn't seem worth dwelling on - suffice it to say it's still not the most intuitive cabin. However, there is a crucial difference for the Clubsport, because now when ungraciously fondling the mode switch, magic happens. Invisible until Sport is arrived at, the 'Special' mode emerges, with an image of the Nurburgring on the screen. Reserved only for those cars with DCC dampers, it's the setting used to deliver the 7:55 'ring lap, with all other parameters - engine, steering, gearbox - set to Sport, but the suspension eased off a tad.
Given how well a similar tactic worked for the old Clubsport S (albeit even better disguised in the Individual default setting), it should come as no surprise that this Golf works really rather well on a craggy British B-road with specialness engaged. Because there's new urgency in the way it changes direction, neatly allied to suppleness and a pervasive sense of composure. The Clubsport feels both focused and accommodating, which is exactly what a modern hatch should feel like. It takes only a few seconds in Comfort (a little slack) or Sport (too abrupt) to realise what a smart compromise Nurburgring is, even hundreds of miles away from it.
Those front axle changes have conferred some additional weight to the steering, which is welcome, with the whole car seemingly more willing to get into a bend as well - the revised rear suspension ensures the Golf is still cohesive rather than overly pointy. The brake pedal has a more natural feel, the shorter ratios makes it feel even faster (not that the GTI felt slow) and traction out of slower bends seems to have improved as well. In the normal GTI, the VAQ hardware that ably mimics a limited-slip diff isn't controlled by the Vehicle Dynamics Manager, the system that more efficiently organises what the chassis is doing. For the Clubsport, it is included, meaning that its behaviour can be more accurately matched to the sportier modes. In the words of Schebsdat: "Networking all driving dynamics systems means that the new Golf GTI Clubsport handles even more neutrally and precisely than the classic Golf GTI". Without wishing to swallow to much of the VW Kool-Aid, that does ring true; the Clubsport experience is not night and day different, rather it's been modestly (but tangibly) improved across the board. It's a formidably quick car in the real world.
That said, it's not without its problems. The steering is improved, yes, though there remains precious little real sense of connection, which is a shame given the Clubsport's considerable ability. Eventually you trust the chassis' poise and accuracy, but it's hard not be a tad disappointed by the shortfall in interaction. That feeling extends to the DSG gearbox: it's a struggle to find any meaningful fault with its operation, but why it is made to seem so lifeless via the switch lever or tacky buttons remains a mystery. There isn't any arguing with the auto-only logic, but following the lead of a rival like Renault Sport - with chunky, column-mounted paddles - would surely work wonders for engagement.
Still, for those already sold on the Golf GTI way of doing things, the Clubsport is absolutely recommendable over the standard version. Clearly £4,000 is a substantial premium, but it feels worth every penny, from the sharper look to the more incisive handling. Certainly this is a faster, leaner, and more likeable Mk8. But its failure to fully immerse you in the experience does leave a wrinkle. At times the Clubsport feels like watching a great concert on Zoom, where there's considerable talent on show - but you never really feel part of what's going on. And the failure to go that extra yard means the quickest Mk8 GTI is merely very good where it might have been great. Of course, that's precisely the same capability gap the Clubsport S filled last time around. Let's hope Messrs Leuchter and Schebsdat can one day persuade Volkswagen to let them repeat the trick.
SPECIFICATION | 2021 VOLKSWAGEN GOLF GTI CLUBSPORT (MK8)
Engine: 1,984cc, four-cyl turbo
Transmission: 7-speed DSG auto, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 300@N/Arpm
Torque (lb ft): 295@2,000-5,200rpm
0-62mph: 5.6 seconds
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 1,461kg (VW 'unladen weight')
MPG: 38.3 (WLTP)
CO2: 167g/km (WLTP)
Price: £37,215 (as standard; price as tested £42,445 comprised of Dynamic Chassis Control for £785, Discover Navigation Pro touchscreen navigation infotainment system for £1,600, rear view camera for £300, Head up display for £625, curtain airbag system for £335, 19-inch 'Adelaide' alloy wheels for £725, Winter pack including heated steering wheel for £270 and Digital Key for £215)
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