If a car is fast around the Nürburgring, says Volkswagen suspension guru Karsten Schebsdat, it will also be fast on British B-roads. Unlike normal racetracks, Germany’s fearsome 13-mile-long Nürburgring Nordschleife is bumpy, undulating and aggressive, just like twisting British country roads. ‘Ring star cars are pretty much made for bad British roads.
And the reason why he was telling me this? Because the Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport S he’s just brought to market is, for now, officially the fastest hot hatch in the world around the ‘Ring (you can watch the lap video here). Volkswagen built the Clubsport S to celebrate 40 years of the Golf GTI.
Does that mean, however, it is the best hot hatch in the world for enthusiastic British drivers? I travelled to Germany to find out.
Building upon the special edition Golf GTI Clubsport, itself a special edition of the Golf GTI Performance Pack (a 10hp tuning pack for the regular Golf GTI), ‘S’ is the magic letter: the Clubsport S comes with a host of specific features to hone it for the Nürburgring: bespoke suspension parts, bigger wings and spoilers, extensive tuning of the dampers and a set of exotic Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 semi-slick tyres.
It’s also been on a diet: the two-door-only hatch has radically lost its rear seats, making it a two-seater with less soundproofing, a smaller battery and even the option of going without air con for ultimate weight-saving (most won’t go this far). It also only has a manual gearbox, rather than the heavier DSG automatic.
Not that it looks all that different to the regular, already-tasty Golf GTI Clubsport. Lined up outside the famous Nürburgring diner owned by new Top Gear presenter Sabine Schmitz’ family, I need Schebsdat to point out the S-specific changes: red, white or black paint, stickers on the side sills, dark rear glass and unique 19-inch alloys.
Inside, it’s special, but so too is the special edition Clubsport, whose brilliant bucket seats it shares. Two key stand-outs in ‘my’ red car: one, no rear seats, which leaves a huge open space behind the front seats, and two, no air con. This is ultimate lightweight spec and, with temperatures of 27deg C and rising, I quickly begin to swelter beneath my race helmet.
No time to wipe my brow – Benny Leuchter, the man who set the record 7:49.21s time, is ahead of me in an identical (air-con-less) Clubsport S, and will show me how to get the most from it.
First impressions are of the sheer speed of it. That’s because it produces a hefty 310hp, for 0-62mph in just 5.3 seconds and a top speed of 165mph. In a Golf!
It sounds the part too, thanks to bigger exhaust pipes, and crackles devilishly under braking – further enhanced by that ready-made echo chamber behind the front seats.
The first corners are a blur. All I know is the Clubsport S turns in ultra-sharply, certainly more incisively than the regular GTI, has epic grip from those custom-made tyres and drives hard out of corners with huge reserves of traction and barely a trace of steering wheel squirm – remarkable, given how much drive is being sent just through the front tyres.
With more miles at three-figure speeds, I get into the groove. The Clubsport S is, for all its sharpness and speed, also a very friendly and approachable car to drive.
Ring raiders like the Honda Civic Type R are stiff, intense and unforgiving: not so the Golf, which feels, well, like a Golf – just the most capable Golf there’s ever been. Intentionally so said Schebsdat – “We made sure the car’s family DNA was still there”.
It’s particularly amazing over the kerbs. To go fast at the Nürburgring, you have to use them. Leuchter launches his white Clubsport S over them while telling me on the radio to do the same.
Rather daunted, I brace myself and hammer over them, all four wheels off the tarmac.
Remarkably, the car soaks it up, doesn’t launch into the air, doesn’t crash back onto the track uncontrollably. It’s an amazing demonstration of the Clubsport S’ depth of ability.
After two laps, I’m exhausted, and roasting hot, but thrilled beyond belief. I didn’t expect the hottest-ever Golf to be this rewarding, this capable and involving; the extent of the changes and the supreme way they work so well makes it almost tragic so few will be made: just 400 worldwide, 150 for the UK, each likely costing upwards of £35,000 when they arrive here in the autumn.
One thing’s for sure though – it’s a future classic in the making alright.
And of course, it has that Ring record in its pocket to boot. A much-envied trophy that you can bet other rivals will be plotting to snatch back. The most likely challenger? Why, Renault Sport, with that amazing R.S.16 275hp-Clio launched this month.
Ever-respectful of the opposition, Schebsdat wouldn’t be drawn on rivals, simply pointing to the three years of work that’s gone into fanatically tuning this Golf to secure the record.
Ring records are not the work of a moment (remember, the Clio thus far has had just five months of development…). Sounds like the firm’s hopeful the fastest lap trophy will be in its cabinet for a good while yet: over to you, Volkswagen’s rivals, to beat the remarkable new star that is the Golf GTI Clubsport S.
- Cost: Upwards of £35,000
- Engine: 1999cc, turbocharged petrol engine, 306bhp
- Top Speed: 165mph
- 0-62mph acceleration: 5.8 seconds