It's fair to say the standard Golf GTI Clubsport feels like a car with potential left unfulfilled. It’s a decent enough hot hatch, just not a truly brilliant one. Its improvements over a regular GTI are clear enough, but the FWD flagship still feels some way from the top of a very talented sector. Obviously, a Golf will never be the rawest hot hatch available, yet even allowing for that time-honoured fact, the Clubsport is too often found lacking when it comes to attitude, drama and driver-induced excitement. More than £40k ought to buy better than pretty good.
Enter the aftermarket, specifically Litchfield. It offers a range of upgrades for the Mk8 Golf GTI - indeed, plenty of bits for all the cars powered by the venerable EA888 engine - and this Clubsport is kitted out with pretty much all of them. While we were in Tewkesbury driving its take on the M3 Touring it only seemed right to try a 400hp Golf as well. For 1,100hp in total, between a Golf GTI and an M3 - mad old world sometimes.
As with the BMW, a few subtle tweaks to the Golf have made a good-looking car even more visually appealing. The wheels here are from Protrack, only 18-inch in diameter but wider and - crucially - lighter than standard, to the tune of 2kg per alloy. They even get a 5mm knurling on the circumference to secure the tyre in place when accelerating or braking really hard, for some idea of the intended use. Given how aesthetically underwhelming the standard rim offerings are, they feel like £1,700 well spent. Additionally, Litchfield has fitted Michelin Pilot Sport 5 tyres to its demonstrator. The wheels and new Nitron suspension contribute to a 12mm increase in track, and the more suggestive ride height. For all its issues, the Mk8 Golf GTI is already a good-looking hot hatch, but Litchfield’s one looks brilliant.
The suspension overhaul is rather more involved than the springs fitted to the M3. Having worked with them on previous cars like the GR Yaris, Litchfield has again partnered with Nitron for the Golf GTI kit. The NTR Road Sport coilover setup is custom-built for Litchfield installs, two-way adjustable and reduces weight compared to the standard springs and dampers. Essentially, it aims to deliver more excitement with no loss of refinement. The chassis upgrade is an expensive mod for something not exactly attention grabbing - £3k fitted - but it’s probably the most significant upgrade fitted to the Litchfield demo.
As expensive suspension so often does - the Focus ST Track Pack we pitched the regular Clubsport against recently is an ideal example - the effect is profound. Here is a Golf GTI that rides better than the standard car on 19-inch wheels at all speeds, supple and poised where a DCC-equipped Clubsport can be a tad vague and restless. Tellingly, a catch-all compromise for the Nitrons feels better suited for road use than any of the myriad settings usually offered. The Litchfield car now turns in with real conviction. Granted, the steering perhaps still isn’t an exemplar, but there’s an eagerness and attitude to get into a corner now that alluded VW's engineers. Even on a brief road drive the Nitrons were clearly a better resolved, higher quality set-up, just as it was for the modded GR Yaris. Perhaps even more crucially for the Golf and its broader remit, this isn’t a super aggressive solution that only works on the limit. Indeed, with this car only a third of the way through the dampers’ adjustment, there’s scope to make something even pointier if desired.
Perhaps the best indicator of that quality is just how well a Golf GTI, one still using VW’s VAQ ‘diff’ and without incredibly aggressive tyres, gets so much power to the road. Not so long ago the notion of a 400hp, front-wheel-drive car would sound like madness, but here it merely contributes to the feeling of a more thrilling GTI. As you might expect, there’s more wheelspin and torque steer than standard (because it has a third more power and another 100lb ft) yet nowhere the amount that might be expected. Litchfield actually tunes the torque delivery of the front-drive installations with this power to be subtler than the AWD cars (with the same peak values) and it works a treat. There’s a little more fight through the wheel, a generally friskier feel to the acceleration in every sense, but because it’s never unruly, the Golf is exciting to get through the gears rather than exhausting.
And boy, are you going to accelerate. Both Clubsport and R respond better to tuning because of their larger standard turbo (a Continental blower rather than the GTI’s Garrett); to that, Litchfield adds a Stage 2 ECU tune, a RacingLine R600 intake kit, a larger turbo elbow, a chunky intercooler and a Milltek exhaust. The result is 405hp (400bhp) and 390lb ft while keeping every filter and cat, all for £4k including VAT and with a 12-month warranty. No wonder EA888 tuning remains so popular.
The Golf certainly feels good for those outputs, feeling as fast (if not a bit swifter) than something like an Audi RS3. There’s a real vigour to the top-end rush that’ll keep you coming back for more, meaning it's not just reliant on the considerable mid-range muscle. There’s undoubtedly character waiting to be set free in the engine, even if the DSG still isn’t the most responsive; the sound is fiercer now, which is welcome after what’s a fairly average standard engine note, even with the Akrapovic. Thank the intake work for that.
It all adds up to a properly rewarding, engaging and exciting Golf GTI. It hasn’t abandoned everyday usability; the big bore exhaust doesn’t introduce unnecessary noise, and the chassis upgrades haven’t spoilt comfort. If anything, this Clubsport rides better, with a smaller, lighter wheel, chubbier tyre and more expensive damper introducing a level of pliancy that it wasn’t clear the regular one lacked. In addition, there’s also the feistier side: i.e. a Golf GTI that’s now one of the fastest front-wheel drive cars on the road.
It makes the Litchfield interpretation feel like a neatly struck compromise; any more power surely would overwhelm the driven axle, while any less could feel too close to a punchy stock model. This Golf always feels like a modified car, but in the best way possible: always more willing to go, more willing to turn, more willing to make a racket and, crucially, desperate to put a smile on your face. It’s not a time attack special, and it’s not merely dropped on a set of smart wheels; it feels like a methodically optimised version of a good hot hatch that was crying out for some fire in its belly. Litchfield has proven that it’s possible - now if only we could get VW to see the light...
Finally, while kitting out a Clubsport with all the goodies available would be an expensive endeavour - not least with VW asking £42k for a new one - there is a more affordable solution. There are used ones, of course, that would save some outlay, but this very car is also for sale right now. It’s £35,995 with everything included and less than 15,000 miles, which doesn’t look bad when there isn’t a Clubsport around for less than £33k. While the interior and the gearbox may still put some off buying a Mk8, there’s no doubting the calibre of what's been achieved here; Litchfield’s car is the best-driving Golf of this generation by a distance. Anyone disillusioned by the current cars but still loyal to the badge could do a whole lot worse than seeking it out.
SPECIFICATION | LITCHFIELD VOLKSWAGEN GOLF GTI CLUBSPORT (MK8)
Engine: 1,984cc, four-cyl turbo
Transmission: 7-speed DSG auto, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 300@5,300-6,500rpm (standard, now 405hp)
Torque (lb ft): 295@2,000-5,200rpm (standard, now 390lb ft)
0-62mph: 5.6 seconds (standard)
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 1,461kg (VW 'unladen weight')
MPG: 38.3 (WLTP, standard)
CO2: 167g/km (WLTP, standard)
Price: £41,890 (price as standard, 2023. Used Clubsports from £33k, this car fitted with Litchfield Stage 2 EA888.4 upgrade with OEM downpipe for 405hp at £3,990, Litchfield-Nitron NTR Road Sport suspension for £2,536 (plus £534 installation, alignment and ADAS certification), Milltek 80mm OPF/GPF back system for £1,191.20, RacingLine R600 intake for £404.35, 4x Protrack 18x8.0-inch alloy wheels @ £273.70 each (£1,094.80) plus £427.20 install, corner weight and alignment. All prices including VAT)
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