Despite VW's claims, there really doesn't feel to be much motorsport influence in the Golf GTI TCR. No great surprise, really, because all Golf GTIs have made something of a virtue of, well, being a Golf. That doesn't stop there being some mild disappointment, though, especially after driving the actual Golf GTI TCR seen here. Because, spoiler alert: it's awesome.
For those unfamiliar with TCR - or, quite literally, Touring Car Racing - it's a form of tin-top competition that's spread rapidly across the globe since its 2015 introduction, now forming the basis of World Touring Cars. The idea, as is often the way with motorsport nowadays, is to reduce costs, to get more manufacturers involved and thus promote larger, more diverse grids. Now the TCR regulations underpin series in a host of Asian and European countries (including the UK), with eligible cars from VW, Ford, Peugeot, Renault, Honda and more.
Interestingly, while there are control parts for every vehicle, the engines are carried over from the road car, giving each model some crucial variation and something for the fans to get behind. So the Peugeot 308 TCR uses the 1.6-litre from the GTI, the Megane the 1.8 from the Renaultsport 280 and the Civic the 2.0-litre turbo from the Type R. With power limited to 350hp, a lot of the racers are within 50hp or so of the road version; the Golf even has the DSG and VAQ diff from the road car for full kudos. So in spite of what you might hear, a few race cars are still related to what you can buy in the showroom...
Anyway, back to driving this one. Of course, a roadgoing TCR exactly like the racer would be nonsensical (and dangerous), but there are bits that could really improve the production version and make it feel, to be frank, more like the car it shares a name with. Ignoring the motorsport bits in the centre, the wheel is round, thin, Alcantara and pretty much perfect; works for a racing car, and would be fantastic for a road one. Same with the paddles: chunkier, heavier, more of an event than the feeble standard ones. As more cars go automatic, getting some involvement from the paddles should be a priority. Again, harnesses and buckets aren't going to work in a regular road car, but the scope for steering wheel adjustment and seat movement is far greater here than any regular GTI, the seat lower and the wheel coming further out. The driver is more immediately connected before anything has actually happened.
This particular TCR uses the optional sequential gearbox (rather than the standard DSG of road and race car), so the comparison isn't totally fair, though once underway only two pedals and the paddles are required - just like the street version. And although it's the major differences that are unsurprisingly the most memorable - more of those in a sec - there are again small things from the race car that could be carried over: shift lights are always cool, for example, a configurable dash display beyond what's currently offered and floor-hinged pedals that are genuinely cool to look at (don't pretend like you're not sad enough to look at pedals).
So, the actual drive. On a slightly damp track early in the morning, there's no doubt the TCR requires some attention. But we all like a challenge, right? The wheels can spin (sorry VW), the brakes can lock (also sorry VW) and the rear tyres take a lot longer to warm up than the fronts - you can use your imagination for that one. That said, because the whole experience is that much more visceral, communicative and intense, in some ways it's less intimidating than pushing a road car; the driver knows what's going on almost before it happens, such is the wealth of information coming back. And how often is a lack of feedback cited as a criticism in modern fast cars?
Road cars should never be compared to race cars, really, but there we are - fact is that, on a circuit, this 2.0-litre, front-wheel drive Golf is more exciting than a lot of supercars. The turn in exquisite, not a single ounce of slack in any component up front and the car locked on line; the brakes need a push but are so satisfying to use, and a world away from numb chassis means even a novice can feel immediately comfortable. That can be endlessly tweaked, too, those after a more oversteer-y set up able to dial it in as simply as something more nose led. That it feels so tough is the most impressive (if not all that surprising) element, shrugging off the most ham fisted driving dutifully; the TCR has to compete in 24-hour races, after all, so it needs some stamina.
It certainly makes you realise how track-focused some of the very best road cars actually are, this TCR lapping (no pun intended) up all you can throw at it and eminently capable of taking very much more. Front-wheel drive and automatic it may well be, but there's clearly plentiful challenge and reward here - which is, surely, what we're all after from a great driving experience. It's a racing car and a track experience made accessible, yet no less exciting. A grid of them must be a right giggle.
But back to the point. Of course - just to make the point really clear - a Golf couldn't be sold with a sequential gearbox, no brake servo and a cage fit to contain a bear. But surely there could be one with a bit more race car in, even if it was just down to that wheel and paddles. Those TCR and Golf fans dedicated enough to buy the special edition deserve a better idea of what their car's namesake is really like - because it's absolutely fantastic fun.
SPECIFICATION - VW GOLF GTI TCR
Engine: 1,984cc 4-cyl, turbo
Transmission: 7-speed DSG automatic, front-wheel drive (6-speed sequential optional)
Power (hp): 350@6,200rpm
Torque (lb ft): 310@2,500rpm
0-62mph: 5.2 seconds
Top speed: Up to 155mph
Weight: 1,285kg inc. driver, depending on Balance of Performance
Price: €95,000 (for DSG; sequential €115,000)