When VW revealed the Clubsport - a 40th birthday celebration for the GTI - we speculated that its sticker price would sit somewhere in between a regular, Performance Pack-equipped GTI and the range-topping R. And a few months later, we found out that we were right.
However, the trouble was where exactly the Clubsport - later given the ‘Edition 40’ moniker for the UK market - sat in relation to the R. Why? Because the entry-level three-door manual was just £245 less expensive than the equivalent Golf R.
Even with the Clubsport’s status as a limited-ish run anniversary special, the £30,875 tag seemed difficult to swallow. Why on earth wouldn’t you just spend the extra £200 quid to get the R? With 296bhp on tap (a 306bhp facelifted version will be on the road later this year), it’s more powerful than the 286bhp Ed. 40. And don’t forget, the GTI, doesn’t even make that power all the time. When you’re not enjoying the 10 second overboost function that works in gears three and up, you make do with 261bhp.
Most people could probably get over the power and overboost shenanigans, but what’s more problematic for the birthday bash Golf is where the power is sent: it’s still very much front wheel drive, while the R is four-wheel drive.
Naturally, this meant that when we announced we were taking the keys to a Clubsport for five months as our latest long-term test car, we were inundated with comments across CT’s various platforms asking why anyone in their right mind would have this pricey GTI over the R. After all, on paper the R is the clear winner, right? Perhaps, but things are rarely as simply in the real world, so we brought ‘our’ Clubsport together with an R to settle this for good.
First up, let’s take a look at the R, as somehow I’ve managed to ‘miss’ driving one until now. Once the doyenne of the motoring press, the R’s place as the affordable performance car everyone raves about has arguably been snatched by the Ford Focus RS. But it still offers up a hell of a lot of punch in a classy, comfortable package in a way few other cars can.
And it really is jolly brisk. Yes, it might not have much more power than the Clubsport, but it feels much quicker as there’s no waiting for excitable front wheels as they scrabble to find traction. Whatever the road surface is like, whatever the weather, the four-wheel drive system is happy to oblige, hurling you forward with surprising venom whenever you prod the throttle.
Being a Haldex, front-biased kinda four-wheel drive system, it doesn’t provide the power oversteer heroics of the aforementioned Ford’s trick, drift-happy setup. It’s all about grip, grip, grip, a little more grip, then understeer. And that’s fine, as you generally have to be driving like something that rhymes with ‘brick’ to unstick the front end.
The steering’s a little lifeless and doesn’t have a lot of weight to it, but it’s quick. Combine that with the sticky four-wheel drive system, and swift progress in the R is frighteningly easy. But, you do get the sneaking suspicion it’s just a little too easy.
That’s where the Clubsport comes in. It’s more stiffly sprung. The steering’s heavier, and offers up more feedback from the road. And the VAQ diff that’s not a diff? Thanks to the way it’s set up, it actually encourages you to be as rough as possible with the throttle pedal.
As a reminder, the VAQ thing can chuck up to 100 per cent of the power to either of the driven wheels. So once you start to feel the understeer - which you will feel thanks to the brilliant steering - you stick your foot down even more, and the front end is dragged back into line. It doesn’t make sense when it’s happening, but it’s addictive as hell.
Driving fast in the Clubsport is more involving than in the R, more rewarding than in the R, and more exciting than in the R. You feel much more like you’re a part of the equation.
As the icing on the Alcantara-clad cake, you get the satisfying knowledge that you’re driving something a little bit special, and a little bit rare. I like that the engine is revvier and more eager than the R’s, too. It’s the same ‘EA888’ turbo four-pot as in the R, but in the latter car it seems to be set up more for mid-range clout.
So no, you wouldn’t be mad if you bought a Clubsport over an R. The R’s the one to recommend to most people of course, with its mega all-round ability and smoother ride, but for those who’d like something a bit special and that places driver involvement a little higher up the priority list, the Clubsport is the ultimate Golf this side of the even more limited two seat Clubsport S.
Sadly, the Clubsport has now sold out, but trust me, if there’s any way you can get hold of one, you’ll find it’s a car well worth seeking out. It’s going to be hard giving up the keys in four months’ time…