Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport S. FIRST DRIVE. Nurburgring

Could be about to break a record at the Nurburgring. Hey, stop laughing! With Phill Tromans at the wheel of the Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport S, it could happen…

Engine Power Torque 0-100kph Top speed Weight Basic price
Inline 4cyl, turbo, 1984cc 306bhp @ 5800-6500rpm 280lb ft @ 1850-5700rpm 5.8secs 265kph 1285kg (242bhp/ton) $46,000 (est)

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It’s the ultimate proving ground. The place that separates the men from the boys, the fast from the slow, the wheat from the chaff. The Nürburgring Nordschleife. The Green Hell. Enough superlatives – you know what it is, and what happens here.

Today, the ‘Ring is mine, and I’m here to break records. The record in question is that of the fastest front wheel drive production car around the Nordschleife, and my steed will be the current record holder – the Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport S. It’s the most tuned, most powerful and fastest Golf ever, and only 400 are being made. Just weeks before my arrival in western Germany, it set a lap time of 7m 49.21s around the Nordschleife in the hands of one Benjamin Leuchter. Today, the young racing driver sees his moment of fame disappear as a new champion shreds his achievement into dust.

OK, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. But it’s hard to arrive at the Nürburgring without delusions of grandeur getting the better of you. Much is wrong with the ‘Ring in 2016 – a dive into the Internet will tell you all about the circuit’s recent mismanagement. But there’s a reason that races here generate massive excitement, that it’s the bucket list destination for anyone with a trace of octane in their veins, and that manufacturers flock here to test and set lap records. It’s because there isn’t a challenge on earth like the Nordschleife.

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Despite my dreams of records, I’m not actually here to break Benni Leuchter’s time. Let’s leave aside the fact that he’s a vastly more talented pedalsmith than I; he also knows the 174 corners of the 20.8km track well, and I don’t. With little-to-no run-off, accidents here tend to be fast and serious, and I suspect Volkswagen would get annoyed if the already limited edition Clubsport S becomes even more so. So, today is more to get an idea of what the car can do, and a flavour of the groinal fortitude needed to log a lap time that, just a few years ago, was the preserve of high-end sports cars. The Clubsport S now sits ahead of cars like the BMW M3 CSL (7m 50s), Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren (7m 52s) and Porsche 997 Turbo (7m 54s) – remarkable for a front-wheel drive hatchback.

As a former owner of a mk7 GTI, I’m intrigued to see what Volkswagen has done to create the Clubsport S. Three years in development, it sits at the top of the Golf tree when it comes to performance thanks to a dramatic hike in engine power and some serious fettling to both body and chassis. Power from the turbocharged 2-litre has been upped to 306bhp, more even than the Golf R, the adaptive dampers have been retuned and the chassis substantially revised with extra camber, less toe and new front knuckles. The kerb weight is 30kg down on the GTI Clubsport, thanks in large part to the removal of the rear seats and sound deadening.

“Today, the ‘Ring is mine. it’s hard to arrive at the Nürburgring without delusions of grandeur getting the better of you”

When VW engineers first brought a prototype to the Nordschleife, they found it fast, but unstable at the back, so serious aero work was undertaken to keep things stable. A rear spoiler pushes up to 17kg of downforce on to the rear axle, but more of an impact comes from the elimination of the 60kg of aerodynamic lift found on the GTI Performance model. The result, in theory, is a car with far less understeer, but with the lively rear end restrained by the aero tweaks. The tyres are specially developed Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s – essentially semi-slicks that offer tremendous grip in the dry. The only option for gears is a manual six-speed box, which will please purists but the decision was less emotional – a dual-clutch auto would have shifted faster, but weighed 20kg more.

Inside, it’s familiar GTI territory – classy, with sporty trim touches and a trademark, stylish golf ball gear knob. We’re instructed to put the car in Individual mode, which has been specially set for the ‘Ring with super-sharp everything, but relatively soft suspension to cope with the many bumps.

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Off we go. With Benni leading, driving the car in which he broke the record, we head out onto the long Döttinger Höhe straight. It’s a chance to put the foot down and the Clubsport S reacts immediately. Within a second it’s clear that its far more sharp and focused than the regular GTI. Leaving aside the extra acceleration – 0-100kph now comes up in 5.8 seconds, half a second faster than the standard GTI Clubsport – the scalpel-like throttle prompts a hard-edged bark from the exhausts and is ultra-keen to react under the right foot. The torque is plentiful and the pull continuous as the engine sings towards 7000rpm.

Through the twists at Tiergarten, past the Grand Prix circuit and onto the meat of the Nordschleife through Hatzenbach, the track comes alive, with tight corners mixing with fast, open straights and terrain that rises and plunges in a baffling assault on the senses. Although Benni’s racing line ahead serves as a very useful guide, he’s not hanging around. At slower speeds the GTI’s nose is easily adjusted on the throttle and through the keen steering, with delightful pops and bangs echoing through the cabin on the overrun. He’s hammering the kerbs so I follow suit, and the retuned dampers soak everything up with ease. It’d be easy for stiffer cars here to bounce sideways over the bumps but the Clubsport S takes it all in stride.

“I put my foot down and the Golf GTI Clubsport S reacts immediately. Within a second it’s clear that its far more sharp and focused than the regular GTI”

On faster bends I’m clenching numerous body parts as we hurtle over apexes, terrified of being spat into the barriers, but the aero work has done wonders, and while the front wheels eagerly switch direction, the back end remains planted where a lesser hatch would start to break away. For such a fast machine it’s remarkably poised and unthreatening; even non-pros like me can explore dynamic boundaries without being instantly flung into the scenery.

Credit must go to the super-sticky Michelins too. Traction out of the tighter bends is remarkable, aided by the electronically controlled limited slip diff, and it’s a joy to sample the track with a tight manual gearbox. In this day and age it’s easy to get used to paddles, but not much matches the satisfaction of hard braking, heel-and-toe downshifts and then cranking back up through the cogs in pursuit of Benni’s tailgate.

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By the time we near the end of the lap I have considerable faith in the Clubsport S’ abilities, and push it hard on the long right-hander at Galgenkopf, trying to get maximum speed onto the Döttinger Höhe. The downforce that keeps things so stable during the corners makes the car drag somewhat on the high-speed straights, but we’re pulling back into the car park anyway.

As it turns out, that was my only crack at the Nordschleife. The bruised sky starts to weep big droplets of rain on the circuit, and the powers that be at Volkswagen call an end to proceedings. With the Clubsport S’ semi-slick tyres and run off at a minimum, it’s probably the right call.

“The Clubsport S feels less exuberant and shouty than the Honda Civic Type-R, more in-keeping with the family image. But it’s still utterly ruthless”

I extract myself from the car and head to the Devil’s Diner for a sit down. I’m exhilarated. The Nordschleife is a track that gets the heart pounding, as you’re constantly aware that a small mistake will send you into the infinite, and the speeds it allows are immense. The Clubsport S, as Benni has proved, is a total weapon; confidence inspiring and ludicrously fast, and it’s a shame so few will be produced. The closest car in character is probably the bonkers Civic Type R, but even that’s more than a second slower around the Nordschleife. The Golf feels less exuberant and shouty than the Honda. In keeping with the family image it’s more efficient, precise and focused, but utterly ruthless in its pursuit of speed and completely engaging. That said, you’re not going to break eight minutes at the ‘Ring without serious talent and commitment. It’s not a track for the faint hearted, and not a place that goes easy on the amateurs if you’re chasing the clock.

Oh, my actual time lap time? I’ve no idea. I was too busy enjoying myself.

Enjoy our test drive of the Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport S?

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