More oomph and lower suspension brings Golf GTI closer to the reward of its best rivals

What is it?

Go to a test track anywhere in the world of a manufacturer in the business making hot family cars and you’ll find a Golf GTI used for benchmarking. It has been the go-to daily-driven hot hatch for generations, with the odd blemish when Volkswagen has made something a bit fat or unsatisfying. Like, you could argue, the overly-synthetic current Mk8 GTI.

Here, driven in the UK, is VW’s alternative GTI, a more powerful and focused Golf but still one that aims to retain its daily usability. They all do, to an extent. Even the old Clubsport S, the one with no back seats, rode well and was relatively habitable.

They won’t do that this time around, by the way, despite the name – the exclusively five-door Golf’s rear doors open up to a rear bench. Only Renault lets you open the doors to nothing but carpet and red painted metal stiffeners.

The Clubsport’s power is up by 49bhp and torque 22lb ft over a regular GTI, owing to a different turbo and revised cooling, so 296bhp and 295lb ft, so a satisfying round metric 300 horses to turn the heads of those looking at a Honda Civic or Megane.

The Golf’s 2.0-litre engine drives the front wheels through a seven-speed dual- clutch gearbox that has a lower final drive than the regular GTI. There’s an electronically controlled mechanical limited-slip differential at the front too, suspension is 10mm lower all around and there are a few external indications – no Clubsport badges but a different lower grille, rear spoiler, sill extensions and graphics. Also on our test car were adaptive dampers (£785 extra) and 19in alloy wheels (£825).

3 Vw golf gti clubsport 2021 uk first drive review hero rear

What's it like?

Still, you get into a GTI on a cold winter’s morning, note that it has a 300+ mile range, find an exceptionally comfortable driving position – low enough, wheel generously adjustable – and feel pretty good about life. Until you try to change the temperature in the dark or use its touchscreen on the move. What happened to this former paragon of ergonomic excellence? Give us a couple more buttons.

One dash button changes the drive modes – with these adaptive dampers there’s a half-hidden one called Nurburgring but don’t panic, it’s actually pretty good for UK roads. They’re all fine, really, albeit it falls into the Hyundai i30 N trap of giving you too many options. Configure the Individual drive mode and it gives you 15 – fifteen – stages of damper stiffness. In case you want to stop every 150 metres and pick the right one for the next bit of road surface.

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Anyway whatever it’s in I found it pretty enjoyable, with less of the artificial feel of a regular GTI. There’s quick and responsive steering that is at least accurate and smooth, if lacking the off-centre pickup of weight that makes good Ford hot hatches or a Toyota GR Yaris feel like you’re building force in the tyres. It’s a slickly rewarding car with an easygoing nature.

Cornering is similar – very capable, with good roll control and, even in crummy conditions, decent amounts of grip and traction. Get onto the power and as the diff begins to hook up you’ll feel it tweak at the steering, subtly and intuitively, just to let you know where you are. Which will be approaching the limits of the front end, rather than those at the back.

I’d want a drier test or quieter roads before backing the Clubsport into a bend with trailed brakes to see if it unsettles the rear like the most agile hatches, but it doesn’t feel like it’s particularly inclined to. But that’s fine: standard Golf GTI behaviour, and not unpleasant.

8 Vw golf gti clubsport 2021 uk first drive review dashboard

Should I buy one?

Still a default choice as a daily driver, then? Ergonomic issues aside, I think you’d feel pretty good about the prospect of a day behind the wheel.

Reach your favourite road and it gets that bit closer to the more rewarding hatches, too.

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14 Vw golf gti clubsport 2021 uk first drive review on road nose


Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

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B. Fallon 23 February 2021

A car like this should be available in 3 door guise (it shouldn't have to look like an estate) and offer the option of having the rear seats removed. This car would be so much more special (and would weigh less) with those changes.

Deputy 23 February 2021

B. Fallon.  Help me out here.  I own a 2 year old GTi and it's awesome because it has rear seats, 5 doors etc for all the family stuff but then fun on my own.  If I could make do with a 2 seater, lower weight car then I would have bought a second hand Cayman (maybe even a new one on the right PCP)  Why would anyone want a GTi 3 door, no rear seats instead of a Cayman?

NY_69 23 February 2021

Deputy, applying your own logic let's just drop the Golf GTI and Porsche Cayman and go for a Nissan Navara 4 cab? What a pointless comparsion, do you work for Autocar?

On the point of why would someone want a 3 door Golf GTI over a 5 door- pretty simple, the 3 door is cool and the 5 door isn't, imagine a 5 door Ford Focus RS, oh but it's got Isofix points and can carry a pushchair

Deputy 23 February 2021

NY. Not sure the Navara example works. Original comment was why would you get a stripped out 3 door GTi instead of a Cayman. Clearly a person wanting a stripped out GTi is after a light weight fun to drive sports car, hence my Cayman analogy. If they wanted a GTi with a pick up boot and 4x4 then I'd agree with you