Delirious joy. That’s the overriding emotion right now. However, it’s tinged with another feeling, and something less welcome: sheepishness. You see, about one minute and 30 seconds after crossing into the national speed limit part of this road which snakes up into the picturesque Brecon Beacons, I got rather ahead of myself and decided I absolutely love this VW Golf GTI Clubsport S, a car which I thoroughly scoffed at upon its reveal.
This is the car that VW sent around the Nurburgring earlier this year, clocking an astonishing 7min 49.21sec lap in the process. That’s the sort of time you’d need a supercar to bag only a few years ago, and is quick enough to make the Clubsport S the fastest front-wheel drive production car at the Nordschleife.
The S had to go through some dramatic changes over the standard ‘Edition 40’ Clubsport to get that figure, though. Its 19-inch wheels are clad in sticky, dry-biased Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres. The suspension has been heavily revised and has been given some particularly conspicuous negative camber. Then there’s the aero to think about: the kit the S gets is roughly based on the Edition 40’s, but on the latter car it merely cancels out the lift. The more extreme bits and pieces attached to the S meanwhile give proper downforce: 8kg at the front and 17kg at the rear.
The bit that stuck out for me at the time of the ‘Ring announcement though, was the weight saving activities. To save around 30kg, Some of the sound deadening has been ditched, the front subframe is now made from aluminium, and the rear seats have been deleted. Wait, what?
“Great,” I remember thinking, “this once practical hot hatchback has been rendered impractical for the sake of some Nurburgring willy waving. And I bet it’ll have some daft £40k pricetag.” Fast forward to the present day, on this glorious Welsh mountain road, and figurative humble pie is being heartily, metaphorically consumed, because what VW has created here is an incredible piece of hot hatch weaponry.
Fairly soon after hitting that national speed limit sign, the tree-lined section of the road gives way to stunning views pretty much everywhere you look, and crucially, amazing visibility at pretty much every bend. Sliding the slick six-speed manual gearbox down a gear, I’m reminded that VAG actual makes some pretty darn good transmissions of the old fashioned variety.
There’s no automatic option here, but that purist-pleasing factoid is actually a happy accident: the weight penalty of fitting the usual six-speed twin-clutch DSG ‘box doesn’t make up for the quicker shifts when banging out a hot lap at the Green Hell. So, a manual it is. Good.
Along with the manually shifted cogs, the weight loss programme and the aero gubbins, the S has also been given a whole load more power. With its ‘EA888’ 2.0-litre TSI cranked up to 306bhp it’s the most powerful production Golf ever, surpassing even the all-wheel drive R. And unlike the standard Clubsport, there’s no overboost shenanigans going on here: it makes 306bhp the whole time, whenever you choose to step on the throttle and for however long you keep it pinned.
It doesn’t feel hugely fast, certainly not in the way the also-306bhp, outrageously boosty Honda Civic Type R I drove over to Wales in manages. But the EA888 here feels revvy, eager, and - with a whole load of torque you can access from well down in the rev range - hugely flexible.
"The Clubsport S is blessed with a level of steering and chassis feedback you won't find in any other VAG hot hatch"
Reaching my favourite set of switchbacks in a section of road you’ve probably seen in a million YouTube videos (it’s a popular part of the world with petrolheads and motoring journos, this), I decide to dig deep and see what the Clubsport S is made of. Pitching into a tight right-hander with a little too much gusto, the tried-and-tested VAQ ‘diff that’s not a diff’ comes into a play.
As we’ve seen with this setup (it’s essentially one half of a Haldex all-wheel drive system) countless times before, over-ambitious corner entry leads to understeer, which you un-intuitively cure by burying your foot into the carpet even deeper. The diff then shoves a load of power to the appropriate front wheel, and your line’s tightened as if by pure, Dumbledore-spec wizardry.
Impressive, but nothing we haven’t experienced before in cars like the Seat Leon Cupra, and even the Skoda Octavia vRS. But what is new is the beautiful chassis balance, and the sheer tactility of the thing. I’m talking chassis and steering feedback you won’t experience in any other VAG hot hatch, giving you the confidence to really exploit all the tools in the Clubsport’s armory.
All this entertainment, and I’ve not even tried Race Mode yet. A prod of the drive select button followed by a tap on the touchscreen, and the throttle is considerably sharper and the adaptive dampers stiffer.
The steering quickens up, making it brilliantly quick off-centre, and transforming from being far too light to just about heavy enough. The soundtrack livens up too - there’s still that unmistakable EA888 thrum under the bonnet, but now there’s more of a rort to the exhaust, and an assortment of pops and bangs that are no doubt making me the ire of every hiker within a half mile radius.
Despite the presence of VAQ and those sticky tyres, grip isn’t endless out here - it is possible to unstick the front and wash wide without driving like a complete dick. But it’s nailed down well enough for silly cornering speeds and enough lateral Gs to make your face ache.
With my time with the Clubsport S running out, I place our photographer on a more challenging part of the road route, and make multiple passes. With each pass I’m getting a little braver, trusting more in what the S can do.
Suddenly, something goes wrong. A hideous BANG BANG BANG BANG rattles out from the rear. For a split second, I wonder if something’s gone catastrophically wrong with the rear suspension, but the car’s fine. As I slow to pull over, the banging decreases in frequency, and I open the door to a loud hissing sound. Ah, I’ve just murdered the tyre.
Given that VW has just the one pre-production Clubsport S for us to play with today, the ladies and gents from the PR team did the sensible thing and positioned a friendly mechanic with a van full of spare wheels and tyres up in the mountains, and he’s only 100 metres away. He soon pulls up and gets to work, revealing the source of the puncture - an eight inch screw stabbed into the tread and sticking out of the inner sidewall. The inner wheel arch now wears a series of nasty looking scrapes - that’d be the banging, then.
It’ll take a few minutes to get the car roadworthy again, so I use the time to contemplate the Clubsport’s standing in the hot hatch world. If you could actually buy one (officially you can’t since they’re sold out, but you might get lucky with a cancellation), it’d cost you £33,995, which considering the alterations the S has over the Edition 40, is actually reasonable value.
As soon as it was revealed people made allusions to it being the Golf equivalent of a Porsche 911 GT3 RS, but it’s not quite that hardcore - the extra noise is more than bearable, and it doesn’t have some sort of bone-breaking ride. It’s not as stiff as the aforementioned Civic, nor does it grip quite as tenaciously as ‘our’ Type R, which now wears the same Sport Cup 2 boots. But the VW is a much more pleasant car to drive fast - it has a more delicate touch, and doesn’t feel like quite so much of a battering ram.
It’s not quite as delicate as the outgoing Renaultsport Megane Cup-S with its wonderfully moveable rear-end - the Golf’s rear is more tied down, but that doesn’t stop it being outrageous fun on a road like this. Add in the fact that the limited-run Golf is more of a special beast, and I’d have it over either, and probably every other hot hatch out there. Whether or not I’ll still think that when I finally get around to driving a Ford Focus RS, I’ll let you know.
It’s only been a few minutes since the dramatic tyre death, but already our speedy mechanic is almost done, leaving me just about enough time to ponder the rear seat thing. I’ve decided I’m cool with it. It’s a special edition of which only 400 will be made, so I reckon such illogical indulgences can be accepted.
With the Golf once again wearing four functioning tyres and the road ahead hopefully debris free, I head out for one last stint. When handed the keys, I was told this is effectively VW’s ‘unicorn’, and I suppose that’s right - it’s unlikely I’ll get another chance to drive one of these. Best make the most of the time I have left.