First Drive: 2016 Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport Euro-Spec

Golfissimo! A boombox-loud package that loves to spin its wheels.

Georg KacherwriterIngo Barenscheephotographer

WOLFSBURG, Germany -- The mood in this often dreary factory city seems bleaker than ever on this cold and blustery day. And as the morning shift lets out and the workers begin to slog through the drizzle toward their cars, not even the noisy appearance of a raucous new Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport can rock them out of a collective apathy that's only been exacerbated by the lingering diesel emissions scandal. We leave the factory and merge with the flow of traffic on the busy intra-city dual motorway, rolling past giant roadside banners on which Das Auto is pleading with the world -- inside the company and out -- for loyalty, support, and trust.

Given all that's happened recently, it's easy to understand why things seem so dour in VW's home city. But all is not lost, especially if cars like the GTI Clubsport keep rolling off the line. A boombox-loud package styled to please the aficionados at the annual Woerthersee gathering earlier this year in concept form (and later made its production-spec debut at the 2015 Frankfurt show), it loves to spin its front wheels to the point where ESP intercepts, takes great pleasure in regular in-fights with the rev limiter, and can make window panes rattle at random when trumpeting through the suburbs of Volkswagenville. Now here's the part that will put GTI fans here in the U.S. in a bad mood: The Clubsport isn't slated to come to North America.

There are now four fast Golfs. The base GTI, the GTI Performance Package, the Golf R, and now the GTI Clubsport (0-60 mph in roughly 5.7 seconds, 155 mph top speed), an attempt to split the difference between the GTI Performance and the Golf R. In terms of acceleration, the front-wheel-drive newcomer loses almost a second to 60 mph to the top-of-the-range Golf R. But don't let numbers fool you. The Clubsport is a different animal -- rawer, sharper, wilder -- positively keen on excitement. In some ways it's a back-to-the-roots GTI, but with all the modern conveniences.

In this particular GTI application, the European-spec Clubsport delivers 265 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. Not good enough? Then stick the drive mode selector in Sport and floor the throttle in third to sixth gear. The effect is an instant power boost to 290 horses and 280 lb-ft, bringing the Clubsport to within striking distance of the Golf R. That's the good news. The bad news is that it is subject to a 10-second time limit. When the turbocharger has recovered, you can repeat the process for another kick in the butt. Overboost is not a digital on-off action but a seamless process. Noticeable, yes; intrusive, no. The main real-life benefit is a small but useful dose of additional overtaking urge.

In contrast to the composed, competent, and grown-up Golf R, the Clubsport is a bag full of hornets, a pool full of sharks, a terrarium full of black widows. With ESP active, the fun is reduced to oodles of straightline grunt. With stability control switched off, however, this car dons its boxing gloves before the sparring partner can say hold on a sec, standard e-diff notwithstanding. Take off on dry tarmac is a spectacle in several acts. Wheelspin in first depends entirely on one´s tire budget and the relationship with the next-door neighbors.

The Clubsport's modular cornering attitude responds emphatically to every stab on the throttle, every tug at the wheel, in second, third, and when it rains even in fourth gear. No, this Uber-Golf is neither a 205GTi reborn, nor a meaner Megane RS or a wilder Focus ST. This car is not about overt hooliganism, but it will nonetheless capture sporty drivers, because it operates with accuracy and consideration. Kind of a less is more approach, even though on a track the Mr. Niceguy mask would come off quite quickly.

Six-speed manual or seven-speed DSG? Like the most basic GTI, this spiced-up front-wheel-drive version encourages interaction with the person in charge. If you're a perfectionist, play power piano on the two shift paddles. But if you're a purist, it's got to be the DIY box. It reacquaints the palm with the traditional golf ball-capped lever and brings back fond memories to the clutch hoof, which may require a few practice actions to adjust to pedal travel and weight. First is aggressively short, second and third are spot on, sixth has the word overdrive written all over its cog. Launch control is entirely foot-operated in this version, whereas the DSG-equipped model has a tear-away function that doubles overboost action to 20 seconds. The car's main traits can be tweaked to one's liking, from fluffy to rock firm. As one would expect from a seasoned all-rounder, every conceivable combination has its merits, some more obvious than others. While the in-between ESP sport calibration is standard on all GTIs, the desirable DDC damper adjustment costs extra.

Although it avoids crass taste violations, the boy-racer design of the Clubsport is an acquired taste. On the plus side, the front air dam, bespoke rocker panels, nasal air curtains, black rear diffuser, and the substantial roof spoiler with lateral flaps that ensure double-figure downforce on both ends and at any speed. Although no other Golf can lay that claim, its usefulness doesn't really come into play until 100 mph. But when high speed, ambitious g-force and strong vertical irritations join force, one is suddenly quite grateful for all that conspicuous wing work. Contributing feel-good factors are the 10 percent faster steering, a 10 percent higher lateral acceleration, a lower ride height by .6 inches, stiffer rear springs for reduced rebound and available 225/35 and 235/35R-19 Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 semi-slicks. Deceleration is by steel discs all-round, which blend five-star stopping power with finely dosed feedback.

Which GTI to choose? While the Performance Pack makes more sense than base model, the stealth Golf R is in its own performance class. The Clubsport is an oddball alternative for those who prefer two-wheel drive and a livery styled in high-school. Its strong points are its superior aerodynamic balance, the confidence-building high-speed stability, linear steering, and its chaste roll/yaw/pitch behavior. Unlike previous go-faster Golfs such as the G60 or the Limited, the Clubsport can be ordered while stock lasts. Which is another way of saying that the production will end next summer, when the face-lifted Golf gets into gear for an even more complete encore. Let´s hope that by then the VW group will have summoned the purifying power essential for a new beginning. Unlike the black sheep within R&D who were responsible for the software crime, Wolfsburg and the VW workforce deserve a second chance, if only to get the exciting next Golf GTI family under way.

2016 Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport Euro Spec Specifications

  • On Sale: February 2016 (Not for U.S. sale)
  • Price: $35,000 (base) (est)
  • Engine: 2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/265 hp @ 5,350 rpm, 258 lb-ft @ 1,700 rpm
  • Transmission: 6-speed manual or 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
  • Layout: 2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan
  • EPA Mileage: N/A
  • L x W x H: 168.0 x 70.5 x 56.8 in
  • Wheelbase: 103.6 in
  • Weight: 3,080 lb (est)
  • 0-60 mph:
    • 5.7 sec (est)
  • Top Speed: 155 mph

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