Driven: Does the VW GTI TCR Live Up to the Hype?

We take the 286-hp Euro-only model for a spin.

Marc Noordelooswriter, photographerThe Manufacturerphotographer

Volkswagen currently offers two performance hatchbacks in the USA, the Golf GTI and Golf R. The former is front-wheel drive and makes 228 horsepower (down 14 from the max offered in Europe), while the latter is all-wheel drive and gets 288 horses (down eight to the Euro version, which itself recently dropped from 306 hp due to new emissions regulations). Both VW options carry a significant level of maturity versus the competition.

But extroverted, top-spec opposition like the Honda Civic Type R and the Hyundai Veloster N—both Automobile All-Starsas well as the recently-departed Ford Focus RS outshine both Golf models for certain buyers. But over in Europe, VW has a third choice: the front-wheel drive, 286-hp Golf GTI TCR, which slots in between the GTI and the R. The TCR adds some thunder and lightning to the discreet performance Golf lineup, at least on paper. I spent a week in the hopped-up GTI during a recent trip to England to see if VW injected the right amount of drama into the understated German hatch.

First, some background on the GTI TCR. Volkswagen has a front-wheel-drive Golf race car for the global Touring Car Racing (TCR) class. Manufacturers and their marketing departments love connecting their competition programs to their road cars, which makes the TCR badge a natural fit for the GTI. As you can see in the photos, to drive home the point, there's a questionable graphics package applied to the streetable GTI TCR. Don't worry, it's optional—stickers are best left for race cars.

Other changes versus a regular GTI include a unique body kit with a rear diffuser and a subtle spoiler, side sills, and front splitter. Forged 18-inch wheels and black mirror caps are also fitted. Unfortunately, one standard addition isn't so nice, as there's no manual gearbox offered on the TCR. We prefer the more involved experience of a row-it-yourself gearbox, and Volkswagen's dual-clutch automatic (DSG, in VW speak) can be clunky and inconsistent at low speeds. Both the GTI and R can be had in the States with either a six-speed manual or the seven-speed DSG, so should something like the TCR make its way to the States, our gearbox compliant would be an easy fix for VW of America. A limited-slip differential and the Euro Golf R's Performance package brakes are standard on the TCR, too. (The diff comes on the U.S. GTI for 2019.) Interior changes include a mix of Alcantara/cloth upholstery with red stitching, along with a red leather marker at the top of the steering wheel. It all looks great and is high quality, like the rest of the Golf lineup.

The suspension/wheel/tire department is a touch complicated on the TCR. As in the standard GTI, DCC adaptive dampers are optional. Unlike the GTI, the DCC option adds some further tricks including a 0.2-inch drop in ride height versus a mainstream GTI, more negative camber at both axles, unique springs and dampers up front, and stiffer spring rates overall. There are also two available GTI TCR performance packs, which include the upgraded DCC suspension plus larger 19-inch wheels. One package fits 225/35R-19 street-focused performance tires while the other adds wider 235/35R-19 Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 track rubber. The speed limiter is removed with either pack, raising maximum velocity from 155 to 162 mph. My test car lacked either pack but carried the standalone DCC option, keeping the stock 18-inch wheels with 225/40R-18 Bridgestone Potenza S001 summer tires. That's likely the best wheel-and-tire setup for the undulating and tired U.K. roads, as well as the horrid roads in many areas of the U.S.

Wet roads greeted my arrival into England—surprise, surprise—causing me to quickly question the logic in one choosing the front-drive Golf TCR over a Golf R. After all, the slightly more powerful all-wheel-drive car is only £845 ($1050) more expensive in this market. The traction control on the TCR is well-tuned in its default mode but flickers regularly in the wet as it reels in all that power being fed to the front wheels. There's occasional torque steer, but it's very minor and doesn't annoy. Ride quality is excellent, and the overall feel is very GTI-like, including the five-door practicality. The large cargo area easily swallows plenty of luggage and rear-seat room is plentiful. As on the GTI and European Golf R, the manually adjusted sport seats are supportive and wicked comfortable. It's a quiet car on the highway, and fuel economy is impressive as long as you respect the throttle pedal. It all made me wonder what the TCR truly brings to the table beyond the extra power and aesthetic details.

But then the tarmac dried and I spent more time on the challenging local roads around my home away from home in Warwickshire, near the Cotswolds. When properly pushed, you begin to feel the depth of the GTI TCR. Grip is plentiful and the front-drive Golf talks to you at the limit more than a Golf R, no doubt helped by weighing some 165 pounds less. It's also very quick, and the DCC dampers laugh at the extremely bumpy British roads. In the slightly weightier Sport mode, the steering is accurate and builds up feedback as the tires reach their grip limit. Braking performance is strong, even when the pedal is worked particularly hard. The whole experience is very reminiscent of a front-wheel-drive tarmac rally car. My wife was more than happy in the passenger seat, regularly commenting on how well the Golf TCR rode, even at a very quick pace. That's most definitely not the case with many other cars on U.K. roads.

Sadly, you can't drive a car like you stole it each and every day, especially in a congested country where premium fuel costs the equivalent of more than $7.00 per gallon and speed cameras are everywhere. And that's where the hole in the Golf GTI TCR proposition gets ripped wide open. Unless you're thrashing it, the TCR simply doesn't bring enough greatness to bear. It's a great car, but it basically feels like a regular GTI in day-to-day use. That's not a bad thing, but it's not what I'd want if I just spent near-Golf R money. Honestly, a standard GTI is nearly as good as the TCR—and better looking—and the Golf R is a superior all-around car. Yes, maybe adding the GTI TCR performance pack with its track-focused tires would help, but ride quality would suffer and the sticky rubber isn't particularly road- or rain-friendly. As long as you can get your head around its, uh, extroverted styling, the Honda Civic Type R offers more fun and outright sparkle at all speeds. And it has a manual gearbox.

In the end, the Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR is impressive but it could have been more. However, there is hope, as this seventh-generation Golf will soon be replaced. My anticipation is that VW delivers MkVIII GTI and R models that follow a template similar to their current analogues' but revisits the focus and theme of the GTI TCR. I see no reason why the company shouldn't take it to the next level, turning the TCR into much more of a proper Civic Type R competitor. Take out some weight and turn up the rawness—in essence, follow the mold of the actual TCR race car. Like the Honda, keep the wonderful ride quality and remember that a special GTI needs to feel special at all speeds, not just when driven in anger. Plus, the GTI TCR needs to be sold in America and offer a manual gearbox. Now, VW, you have a project. Just remember to ship a few across the pond.

Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR Specifications

ON SALE Now
PRICE €38,950 (Europe)
ENGINE 2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve inline-4; 286 hp, 280 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD hatchback
EPA MILEAGE 25/30 (city/hwy, est)
L x W x H 168.0 x 70.5 x 58.3 in
WHEELBASE 103.4 in
WEIGHT 3,200 lb (est)
0-60 MPH 5.3 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 155-162 mph