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First drive: 2016 Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport and Clubsport S at the Nurburgring, Germany

First drive: 2016 Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport and Clubsport S at the Nurburgring, Germany

2016 VW Golf GTI Clubsport 6

Seven minutes 49 seconds. That’s how long it takes the Volkswagen Golf GTi Clubsport S to scoot around the daunting Nurburgring Nordschleife.

Apart from setting a new record for front-wheel-drive cars at the dipping, diving 20.81-km circuit, this benchmark is also more or less on par with the best times the Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera and Ferrari 599 GTB could lay down at the same venue a decade ago. It’s also a massive 37 seconds quicker than a Euro-spec GTI Performance Pack (which has a time of 8min 26sec).

Is that not a staggering feat? For a civilised four-cylinder hatchback (albeit offered solely in three-door, two-seat format) with genuine everyday usability, it’s nothing less than mind bending. The fact that its pricing in Europe puts it in the same ballpark as the Golf R only adds to the seeming incongruity of the ‘S’.

Now the bad news: while we’re destined to get 700 examples of the lesser ‘regular’ Clubsport in the Middle East, the full-house ‘S’ is a non-starter in our market. There are just 400 units of the latter set to roll out of the factory, with the majority of these earmarked for Germany and the UK.

2016 VW Golf GTI Clubsport 5

That said, this DriveArabia scribe did have the opportunity to get some wheel time in the car and that, too, at the Nordschleife, with Benny Leuchter -– the chap who set the 7:49.21 benchmark -– serving as a pace-maker.

A bit of background about the Clubsport S: development first started in July, 2013, initially with just the VW-specification Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 semi-slick tyres mounted on a regular Golf GTI Performance Pack. Three months later, a prototype with an uprated powerplant and the first suspension tweaks hit the ‘Ring.

In May 2014, an evolution with more suspension revisions and the first aero package (comprising a large rear wing) was rolled out, but this version had so much downforce that straight-line speed was severely compromised.

2016 VW Golf GTI Clubsport 4

Further development resulted in a smaller rear wing, a new aluminium front sub-frame with bespoke knuckles delivering more negative camber and less toe-in under heavy braking. There’s also adaptive damping to endow the ‘S’ with the suspension compliance to remain unflustered by the bumps and undulations of the Nordschleife.

The brake bells are made of aluminium and there are special pads to withstand the punishment of belting around the ‘Ring at race pace. Ripping out the back seat (it’s replaced by a strut brace and partition net) and sound-deadening contributes to a substantial weight-loss program, and the lightweight 19-inch ‘Pretoria’ rims and aluminium brake bells also save a kilo of unsprung mass at each corner.

The Clubsport S comes only with a 6-speed manual gearbox. Yes, the dual-clutch DSG ‘box can slip through the cogs quicker, but it would have added an extra 20 kg, so it was a no-go from the outset.

Revised mapping, a bigger fuel pump and a freer-flowing exhaust system liberates 310 hp (10 hp more than the Euro-spec Golf R) and 380 Nm from the EA888 2.0-litre turbo motor, which is tasked with hauling around just 1360 kg of kerb weight. The sprint to 100 kph takes 5.8 seconds, and the fact the Clubsport S has no speed limiter means it can hit 265 kph before running out of puff (the rear wing takes some toll here).

In line with its record-breaking job description, the Clubsport S’s ESP and traction control systems have been loosened up to be less intrusive, and the ABS system also has a heightened threshold, but the “VAQ” electronically-controlled locking differential is exactly as per the GTI Performance Edition.

2016 VW Golf GTI Clubsport

So, to the track. With the pint-sized Leuchter mounted up in the very same white Clubsport S he used to set the 7:49.21 benchmark, I trickle out onto the circuit behind him, having put the vehicle in Individual (read ‘Nurburgring’) mode, which means engine, transmission, steering and chassis-stabilising electronics are in their most hardcore settings, but the dampers are in Comfort mode to soak up the ‘Ring’s surface irregularities.

Unfortunately, the rain has started coming down, so Leuchter says speeds will need to be adapted accordingly, especially as the variable surface of the Nordschleife turns it into a skating rink in several sections the instant a layer of moisture settles on top.

Accelerating out of pitlane (the six-speed manual is an agreeably slick-shifting unit, and having three pedals really suits the character of this car), the added poke is evident from the outset, even though under throttle the sound quality from the bigger-bore exhaust system isn’t hugely different from lesser Golf GTIs (there are far more pops and crackles on the overrun though).

I’ve never previously been to the ‘Ring, so it’s just as well Leuchter is leading the way –- especially in the slippery conditions today. Although I’ve watched countless YouTube videos with in-car footage from the circuit, the frequency and degree of elevation changes only becomes evident once I’m actually on the track. There’s bumps and blind crests galore, so it’s easy to see why former three-time F1 champ Jackie Stewart dubbed this place “The Green Hell”.

What also becomes clear is how supple the Clubsport S’s chassis is, especially in corners where Leuchter cuts across the high kerbing. It’s obviously the quickest line, so I do the same, without any spine-jarring consequences. Even the lumpy Karussell corner doesn’t unduly unsettle the car.

Equally impressive is how effectively the 380 Newtons of twist are deployed, without any tell-tale tug on the steering or momentum-sapping traction-control intervention –- that’s the VAQ differential and sticky Michelin rubber at work. Turn-in is sharp and, although there’s the slightest trace of understeer as you push harder, it’s easily quelled by lifting off a tad or a gentle dab on the brakes to get the nose tucked in.

Although the Nordschleife gets the adrenaline pumping (it’s scary fast in parts, and there are few opportunities to get clear sight lines of what lies ahead), the Clubsport S contributes little to the drama -– it just gets on with the job of hustling down the road as quickly as possible, carrying far more corner speed than one would have thought possible.

The overriding impression is of deceptive pace and stability, even in today’s inhospitable conditions, and the car’s high-speed composure is no doubt partly down to the aero package that generates 25 kg of downforce (17 kg over the rear axle and 8 kg over the front) at top speed, whereas the standard Golf GTI experiences 60 kg of lift instead.

Its unflappable manner is in many ways the greatest victory the Clubsport S scores. To create a bone-jarring, highly compromised lap-record setter would have been a mildly worthy achievement, but the fact the ‘S’ is able to do this without sacrificing anything vis-à-vis a standard GTI –- apart from back seats and air-con (which is a no-cost option that robs a couple of horsepower and adds 15-20 kg) –- is a head-scratcher.

The somewhat manic Renaultsport Megane 275 Trophy (which we sadly don’t get here) might feel a fraction more involving from behind the wheel, but the Clubsport S’s staggering all-around capabilities are unparalleled. It’s bound to go down as an all-time great, which makes it all the more the pity that we won’t see it on our shores.

With more rain bringing a premature halt to our Nurburgring lappery in the Clubsport S, it was a fitting opportunity to nab one of the lesser (non-S) Clubsports from the carpark and peel off for a brief drive around the public roads in the vicinity.

This is in any case the more relevant car for us, as 700 units of the “regular” Clubsport will be sold in our region, with pricing slightly less than that of a Golf R.

The Clubsport gets many of the same goodies as the ‘S’, including the lift-eradicating aero package, adaptive chassis control and electronic locking diff, so it’s virtually as rapid in real-world conditions.

2016 VW Golf GTI Clubsport 2

That said, the 2.0-litre engine is in a less-extreme state of tune, eking out 265 hp and 350 Nm (although outputs are bumped up to 290 hp and 380 Nm for 10-second bursts via an overboost function).

The Clubsport is easily distinguishable from the stock GTI via its unique front bumper with ‘air-curtain’ strakes channelling air into the side intakes, and there’s also a modest rear diffuser, rooftop spoiler and bespoke side sills. Adding to its visual identity are 19-inch ‘Ruby’ rims, a black stripe on the flanks and blacked-out mirror housings.

I slotted into a manual 3-door car (obviously the 5-door DSG automatic version is the default choice in our clutch-averse market), and based on a very brief drive, the impression was of a hot-hatch that -– like its harder, faster ‘S’ sibling that I’d just sampled -– comes across as a very civilised package, so much so that it feels no different to a regular GTI at normal trundling speeds.

2016 VW Golf GTI Clubsport 7

It’s only when you chance upon a decent twisty road and begin to unfurl its dynamic repertoire that the Clubsport comes alive. There’s the same poise, balance and suppleness as the ‘S’, as well as a rich assortment of crackles and pyrotechnics from the exhaust on the overrun.

Although heavier and less potent than the ‘S’, there’s plenty of punch and traction out of tight corners, and the steering is crisp and precise, even if not delivering huge levels of feedback to your fingertips.

For all intents and purposes, the Clubsport feels a lot like the all-wheel-driven Golf R, which we already know well and rate highly. To truly separate the two would require a back-to-back test but, based on our brief first acquaintance, the former comes across as an equally tasty package -– especially at its lower price point.

Photos by Volkswagen.

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