What is it?
Volkswagen has a long and generally well-regarded history of celebratory Golf GTI anniversary editions. In the previous few iterations, the car has served as a run-out model and adheres to an established formula: more power, better looks. The principle has served Wolfsburg well: the Edition 30 and 35 were desirable cars, and improvements on the Mk5 and Mk6 respectively.
The latest version marks the GTI’s 40th birthday, but because it also signifies a slightly broader offering (there’s a five-door version, and also a lighter, loopier S model), the name Clubsport has been added to its moniker. Otherwise, the same recipe stands: the front-drive car getting 34bhp more than the standard model from the same EA888 engine, and a host of styling upgrades – including a rear diffuser and extended roof spoiler which the manufacturer says produces real downforce above 75mph.
At 261bhp, the Clubsport is the most powerful Golf GTI Volkswagen has yet offered – however, it’s clearly not ignorant of the fact that several direct rivals already exceed that output, because flooring the car’s accelerator accesses the ECU’s overboost function, which, for up to 10 seconds, provides an additional 25bhp – handily equaling the output of the top-spec Seat Leon Cupra 290.
Correspondingly, the interior is treated to a 10% upgrade too. Most notable are our car's optional brace of extremely good-looking racing bucket seats, partially finished in Alacantara (as are the gear lever and steering wheel). This, Volkswagen’s description of them, is slightly misleading; they’re actually supremely comfortable and conform perfectly to the usual upmarket GTI ambience - as overtly superior to its competitors as an Airbus A380 is to the 380 bus from Belmarsh prison.
What's it like?
Buying the regular Golf GTI is rather like buying blue chip stock. It’s a solid, sensible investment; good for years of dependable return on your money. But exciting? No. Put bluntly, it doesn’t produce enough poke, the differential is too timid and the handling seemingly too plain. Run-of-the-mill we called it in the 2013 road test, and we were right. Part of the reason everyone buys a Golf R is that it’s impossible to rate the standard car that highly once you’ve driven its all-wheel-drive sibling.
The Clubsport, driven here with the optional six-speed DSG, goes a good way toward correcting that imbalance. It’s most obvious attribute (surprise, surprise) is the additional power: where the standard GTI feels no more than prudently brisk, the Edition 40 is next-level fast. The EA888 engine’s usual linear usability comes with real get-me-there punch – not unlike the Golf R, in fact. When you want it, there’s a rather lovely mechanical trill, too.
Overboost sounds like a slightly muddled concept, but in actual fact, it works more elegantly than hiding the extra poke under a button (as, for example, the Renault Mégane Cup-S does). By preserving it for the moments when the accelerator pedal comes into contact with the bulkhead, the car’s front axle generally only has to manage peak power when the wheels are going straight(ish) – something it does admirably well.
The real upshot though is the invigorating effect is has on the chassis. The GTI is best-known for its comfort, refinement and crisp handling; none of these is reduced a single notch in the Clubsport Edition 40. Instead, like adding chili powder to shop-bought tikka masala, the whole concoction merely emerges spicier and that bit more fulfilling. Aided in no small measure by the addition of Bridgestone Potenza RE050 tyres in our test car’s case, the Clubsport responds sweetly to being introduced to a corner 15mph faster than before. It combines first-rate lateral grip with a meticulousness in the steering surpassed only by the outgoing Mégane.
Fused with traditional GTI strengths - on the adaptive dampers, and in comfort mode, it rides more contentedly than most conventional hatchbacks, let alone the hot versions - the Clubsport puts forward a formidable case for ownership. In fact, the only thing to rain on its parade was quite literally the rain that fell not long before we returned the car. The Edition 40 is hardly talentless in the wet, but every torque-based squirm of the wheel, flash of the traction light and slip at the nose is a reminder that Volkswagen builds another Golf far better at negotiating the default condition of British roads for half the year.
Should I buy one?
Although lessened, the real-world allure of the R continues to loom large over the Clubsport. Not least because Volkswagen has put so little space between them: the three-door Clubsport Edition 40 costing from £30,875 and the Golf R £31,185. Even allowing for the extra styling appeal and the typically strong residuals of anniversary editions, a £250 premium for yet more power and a four-wheel drive system to deploy it is hard to argue against.
Its rivals offer no great solace either. The equally-as-quick Seat Leon Cupra 290 is £2500 cheaper; worse still, thanks to the formidable bite recently taken out of its entry-level price, the frugally equipped Mégane Cup-S is almost £6500 less. Neither car compares with the Clubsport’s Swiss-watch build quality or its uncanny sense of class – although the Renault certainly is more intense to drive.
None of that prevents the Edition 40, in time-honoured tradition, from being easily the best version of the GTI currently available, and a thoroughly persuasive all-round product – but R remains the finest Golf.
Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport Edition 40 DSG 5dr
Location Surrey; On sale now; Price £33,005; Engine 4 cyls, 1948cc, turbo, petrol; Power 261bhp at 5350rpm; Torque 258lb ft at 1700rpm; 0-62mph 6.3sec; Top speed 155mph (limited); Gearbox 6-spd dual-clutch; Kerb weight 1375kg; Economy 40.4mpg (combined); CO2 160g/km Rivals Renault Megane RS Cup-S, Leon Cupra 290