End-of-the-line seventh-generation Golf GTI is fast, precise and assured on track, but hasn’t got the attitude to usurp the hot hatch class’s most exciting front-drivers

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The extra-hardcore run-out special edition is a feature that’s become more common than red piping and chrome pedals within the model lineage of the average modern hot hatchback. 

Even the most celebrated and well-established of them all, the VW Golf GTI, can’t last for a whole model lifecycle without one. We’re lucky it can’t, by the way – or we’d have missed out on some utterly brilliant fast hatchbacks over this car’s long and illustrious history: the ‘G60’-engined supercharged mkIIs, the mkV Edition 30 and the stellar mkVII Volkswagen Clubsport S.

The TCR is still a fine hot hatchback and a compelling driver’s car, but one that doesn’t have the otherworldly body control and wheel dexterity of the last extra-special GTI

These fast Golfs are, at their best, irresistible enigmas: cars whose brilliance seems simultaneously to make both absolutely perfect sense and no sense whatsoever. The superbly adaptable Golf GTI has sat, for the past three model generations at least and arguably for even longer, precisely where real-world performance, driver reward, usability and value have met in the hot hatchback segment. Any change you make to that supreme compromise, therefore, ought to make for a lesser hot hatchback.

And yet still Wolfsburg has tinkered – not least, you suspect, because the GTI’s ice-cool 'needn’t be the class hard man' positioning means there’s always been both the demand and the opportunity to do it. And when they’ve done it, perhaps not invariably but at least pretty regularly and so often against the odds, an even better Golf GTI has emerged.

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What sets the TCR apart from the standard Golf GTI?

Emerging this time, as a farewell to what we might call the GTI mk7.5, is an ode to the FIA’s now globally popular Touring Car Racing motorsport formula. The GTI TCR is also a clear attempt to keep VW’s evergreen hot hatchback competitive. In a field of increasingly powerful fast front-drivers, the regular GTI Performance version’s 242bhp (the 228bhp GTI having been removed from sale in the UK last year) doesn’t cut much Grey Poupon these days. So, here, power jumps to a peak 286bhp, and torque to 280lb ft, courtesy of a version of the 2017 GTI Clubsport Edition 40’s ‘EA888’ 2.0-litre turbo four pot that’s been updated with new software management, furnished with a couple of extra radiators, and made WLTP-emissions compliant. Unlike the pre-facelift GTI Clubsport 40, however, the GTI TCR only comes in two-pedal, DSG-gearbox form – and it uses the mk7.5’s seven-speed twin-clutch transmission rather than the Clubsport’s six-speed paddle-shifter.

Like the GTI Performance, the GTI TCR gets VW’s electronic locking ‘eDiff’ as standard, but it adds the sizable composite brake discs and 17in calipers of the old GTI Clubsport S, as well as forged 18in alloy wheels. It comes as standard with passive suspension developed from that of the GTI Performance, with revalved, firmed-up dampers, and with shortened, stiffened coil springs that drop the car 5mm closer still to the Tarmac.

“The Clubsport S was even stiffer again,” explained VW touring car racer Benny Leuchter (who had a hand in the development of the road-going GTI TCR), “but the bigger difference between them is how much more negative wheel camber the Clubsport S had. The TCR has been developed primarily for road use but also for more typical racing circuits. The Clubsport S was set up especially for the Nordschleife.” The Nordschleife – and just about any British B-road you cared to hurl it down, as it turned out.

On the GTI TCR, you can choose between two optional rolling chassis upgrade packages. The first adds forged 19in rims and beefed up adaptive dampers, the second a slightly different set of forged 19in rims, the same sports adaptive dampers and Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres (the latter appeared as standard on the Clubsport S, you may remember). Both upgrade packages also see the car’s 155mph speed limiter removed. While UK prices on the GTI TCR and its options are to be confirmed, the more expensive of the two upgrade packages is likely to add about £3000 to your order.

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Exploring the TCR's visual upgrades

Outwardly, the TCR is probably best distinguished from the lesser GTI by its matt black alloy wheels, and the extended front splitter, rear diffuser and roof spoiler that make up its new TCR racer-inspired aero kit. Well, those and the car’s motorsport-tastic hexagonal side decals (which are effectively a no-cost option – so you can dispense with them if you prefer). You can add carbonfibre door mirror caps, which make for a classier-looking extra identifying visual touch; or you can opt for ‘pure grey’ paint if you like, which is exclusive to the TCR – but, in this tester’s opinion, looks about as exciting as a pallbearer’s cravat.

On the inside of the car, meanwhile, a new pair of microfibre-and-cloth sports seats appear, as does a modified steering wheel with perforated leather grips and a competition-style dead-centre marker in red. VW insiders say the interior of the eighth-generation VW Golf, which is due for a public airing later this year, is a big step on from this car. But, while that’s an entirely believable claim, it’s not as if there’s much wrong with the cabin of the seventh-gen car. The TCR’s driving position is near-perfect for a hot hatchback. Its new sports seats are almost ideally, oh-so-comfortably clenching, and its interior fittings look and feel absolutely first class, showing very few signs of age. But most of that’s also true of a regular GTI, of course, and wouldn’t be a good reason for find an extra £5000. So what would be?

Well, the TCR certainly delivers a dose more straight-line pace than the car on which it was based – though not a huge one. There is only 7lb ft of extra torque on offer here than in a GTI Performance, which probably isn’t enough to notice in terms of mid-range thrust – although the TCR doesn’t feel short on the stuff.

Where the car really delivers on its makeover is at high revs, and particularly so over the last 1500rpm of the operating rev range, when that freed-up 2.0-litre pulls with notably greater enthusiasm and venom than GTI drivers will be used to. The engine also retains a nicely balanced broad spread of potency, and has better low-range response than the old Clubsport series cars thanks to better ECU mapping. It may not quite have the measure of absolutely every engine of its kind, but the TCR’s motor effectively banishes any semblance of meekness from the GTI’s character. If you want a really fast and exciting hot hatchback, this engine just about puts the Golf GTI back in the conversation.

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Does the TCR drive better than every other hot Golf?

Whether the TCR’s ride and handling keep it in that conversation, however, is unexpectedly open to question. From an engineering team that could so easily have simply Volkswagen duplicated the axles of the superb GTI Clubsport S here, but for some reason chose not to, that comes as a surprise to say the least. The TCR is still a fine hot hatchback and a compelling driver’s car, but one that doesn’t have the otherworldly body control and wheel dexterity of the last extra-special GTI – and that’s regardless how you’ve got it its adaptive dampers configured. And yet – because the TCR is still a GTI at heart – it doesn’t have the hip-swivelling handling agility, tactile driver engagement or the sheer excitement value of its greatest rivals, either.

The car is totally at home on track, particularly so on the optional Michelin Cup 2 rubber on which we tested it – but with more notable precision and unflappable stability about its handling than balance and direction-changing vigour. It’s enormously capable and viceless when being driven fast, keeping its body supremely flat and working its tyres very evenly, and sticking as assiduously to a chosen line as a besieged British cabinet minister.

On the road, though, where you expect a fast Golf to be nothing short of brilliant, the TCR’s ride is guilty of the odd stumble and stutter. It can feel firm, stubborn and excitable when dealing with bigger, sharper intrusions – though it’s not so reactive as ever to deflect the car’s steering, nor is it any kind of barrier to your enjoyment of the car when the surface is good.

But now and again, when a ridge or lump in the road taken at pace makes the car’s damping bristle and grab – and when the suspension seems keener on pummeling the road and rebounding off it than engaging with it – one particularly telling and unwelcome thought may begin to interrupt your enjoyment of this car, just as it did for me: “wouldn’t a standard GTI have dealt with that better”?

Maybe. We'd be able to answer that in more emphatic fashion, however, if the suppleness and road-suitability that the GTI TCR has clearly surrendered had been traded for a more tactile, engaging, playful and vigorous dynamic character. That might have made the GTI TCR a fine alternative for a Renault Megane RS 280 or a Honda Civic Type R, and a worthy follow-up act for Volkswagen the Clubsport S.

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But, while good, it’s not quite made it that far. Instead, and unlike its extra-special predecessor, the GTI TCR doesn't so easily escape the bounds of the ordinary.

This is a hugely capable and complete hot hatchback, which will inevitably be judged by a very high standard. However unrealistic that standard is, however, it's a problem of Volkswagen's own making. The GTI TCR amounts to no more or less than the precise sum of its parts. As parts go, they’re an awfully long way from shabby – but the plain truth is, those mkVII GTI parts haven't quite come together here to make something as spectacular as they have in recent memory.

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Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.