The most hardcore GTI yet aims to recover some of the street cred lost to the quintessential hot hatch's hairier rivals. Does it succeed?

It must have annoyed Volkswagen that, despite the Golf GTI’s enormous global sales success, in latter years it’s been criticised as not being hairy chested enough for hardcore hot-hatch fans. This limited-edition version is therefore VW’s riposte to prove that it possesses the engineering muscle to build a car that’s as wild and capable as anything the competition has to offer.

The Clubsport S first broke cover when VW claimed the Nürburgring lap record for a front-wheel-drive production car with a time of 7:47,19. That, and the limited-production run of just 400 units, virtually guaranteed the Clubsport S cult status. Global demand was instantaneous and, of the 47 cars shipped to GTI-loving South Africa, each one of this most powerful GTI ever made was sold before landing on dealerships’ floors. And that meant there was no Clubsport S in VW South Africa’s press fleet.

However, we simply had to put one through our rigorous test programme and, to that end, put the feelers out among those 47 lucky owners and we were fortunate enough to have car number 363/400 loaned to us by a very trusting CAR reader. What you see here is the first full road test – and it will probably remain the only one – of a Clubsport S conducted on local soil.

The Clubsport S is instantly recognisable thanks to a unique (at least to our market) two-door body shape offered only in white paintwork, but has the same aero-optimised front and rear bumpers as the regular Clubsport. Look closely at the wheelarches and you’ll notice the 19-inch alloys are shod with semi-slick Michelin Pilot Cup 2 rubber. Peer through a window and you’ll pick up the absence of rear seats, with a chunky strut brace installed in their place. The rear bench, along with insulating materials, luggage compartment floor, spare wheel, rear parcel shelf and bonnet damping are just some of the items ditched as part of a strict diet. The result is that the Clubsport S tips the scales at a scant 1,3 tonnes, some 150 kg less than the Clubsport.

Between the body-hugging Recaros sits one of this car’s most attractive features, a gear shifter attached to a manual gearbox. It is mated to the most powerful factory-built GTI engine ever, with 228 kW and 380 N.m achieved through a calibration of the ECU and fitment of less restrictive exhaust system. Granted, this may not seem like a lot of power in this day of hyper hatches, but it’s more than enough.

Setting off is as easy as in any other Golf, with the fettled 2,0-litre turbopetrol firing up with a histrionic flare of revs before burbling down to a slightly throaty idle. The reduced mass and extra power endow the S with high levels of athleticism unknown in a GTI. It pulls with verve from low down and head-butts the limiter with disdain. High-rev upshifts are met with a loud crack and, on a trailing throttle, there is a volley of smile-inducing pops and grumbles from the twin exhaust outlets. Its straight-line performance, impressive as it is, pales in comparison to its cornering prowess, however…

The hefty steering action makes it feels as though the Clubsport S can be manhandled yet threaded through a set of corners or a mountain pass as the front-end snaps to apexes like a sniffer dog. Along with a revised rear-axle setup, new hub carriers allow for more negative camber to be dialled in to the front wheels, resulting in the car’s nose turning in quickly and accurately, and sticking steadfastly to its trajectory through an apex.

In the lower gears, you can get the Clubsport S to wag its tail, but as speeds rise the vehicle displays a level of surefootedness that no production front-wheel-drive car we’ve piloted can replicate. The combination of sticky footwear and effectiveness of the LSD means that you can crack open the throttle ridiculously early, both on road and track, while the lighter unsprung mass (1 kg leaner at each corner) can be felt as the suspension soaks up mid-corner bumps without upsetting the dynamic balance or slowing your progress.



TEST SUMMARY

There isn't a specific area that makes this GTI Clubsport S so special. Sure, there is the rarity factor. Some will point to the power output. Others may mention the mechanical limited-slip differential, or the semi-slick rubber. The reality, however, is that it isn't just one thing but the interaction of all these changes that creates a car that is greater than the sum of its parts.

The Clubsport S's natural habitat may be the racetrack or mountain pass but, true to its heritage, it still holds its own as a capable road car. There are some areas to mark it down - the high levels of road roar that fill the cabin, plus a lack of practicality - but we'll forgive it these foibles.

Performance and agility aside, the truly remarkable feat VW has pulled off is that the Clubsport S displays levels of pliancy and comfort that are hallmarks of the Golf GTI. Within all the chassis fettling, you can still feel that fundamental DNA in the car. Those 400 owners are very lucky, indeed.

*From the June 2017 issue of CAR magazine