I feel a pang of guilt in the pit of my stomach. This VW Golf GTI TCR cheekily cocks its rear offside wheel as the front end searches for traction to keep the squealing front tyres under control. It feels raw, perhaps a little unpolished, and very exciting. So why the angst?
It’s because when I drove the TCR for the first time earlier this year, I labelled it a ‘missed opportunity’. I wasn’t sure if VW had really done enough to justify slapping the name of its customer racing car on the boot, and it does seem a shame that the Mk7 GTI’s send-off doesn’t top the mesmerising Clubsport S of a few years ago. But does that matter when the finished product is so damn fun?
It deserves a second assessment in the UK - arguably the spiritual home of the hot hatch - and it needs a benchmark. As luck would have it, we’re running a Renault Megane RS300 Trophy currently, which - on paper at least - appears to be just what we need. Just 10bhp separates the two cars, with the RS coming out on top with 296bhp. The TCR is the quicker car, but only just, hitting 62mph from rest in 5.6 seconds vs 5.7.
It’s a similar story with the price. The Trophy starts at £31,835, while the TCR isn’t significantly more at £35,305. VW gives you more opportunities to inflate the price, however - while ‘our’ Trophy is £36,085, the GTI you see here is £41,289.19. Ouch.
It may be wearing snazzy new decals (£555 decals, at that) and using a name we’ve not seen on a road car before, but there’s not much to separate the guts of this car from the non-S GTI Clubsport of a few years ago. Under the bonnet is the EA888 inline-four turbo engine that’s used in everything, sending its power through the ‘VAQ’ locking differential which technically isn’t a differential at all.
The system - best thought of as one half of a Haldex-style four-wheel-drive system - was impressive when VW first rolled it out with the GTI Performance Pack in 2013, but the game has moved on considerably since then. It’s still effective at shuffling power between the front wheels, but the VAQ unit often feels like it’s overwhelmed by the TCR’s 286bhp. Hence the lack of polish, and has the scrabbly tyre entertainment.
The steering’s lifeless, but will be familiar-feeling to anyone who’s driven vast VW Group stuff in the past - it’s the usual variable-ratio rack which speeds up the more you turn the wheel. Body control is on the whole very good, but the Sport mode for the optional adaptive dampers is worth staying away from on bumpier bits of road.
You’d think we’d be getting bored of VW’s widely used 2.0-litre TSI by now, but it’s still one of the best high-power inline-fours out there. It’s responsive, surprisingly linear, and even though there is a little bit of fakery going on courtesy of a vibrating ‘Soundaktor’ pick living somewhere in the bulkhead, I dig the noise. Particularly as it’s backed up by some more pleasing pops and bangs from the exhaust.
Do I wish the TCR came with a manual gearbox option? Sure, but the Golf’s six-speed stick option isn’t exactly the most engaging, and the seven-speed DSG twin-clutch auto is effective enough and is for the most part compliant with your cog-based demands.
Over in the Renault, the manual transmission is present and correct (and a little clunkier than you’d like), although you can opt for a dual-clutch auto if you want. What you can’t spec is adaptive dampers, which would be fine if the Trophy’s passive shocks had more compliance. Sweet Jesus is it firm.
There’s a needless brutality to the rebound stroke that gives the car a constant and violent pogoing sensation, giving a sense of nervousness that just isn’t present in the Golf. The Cup chassis - fitted as standard here and optional on the base Megane 280 - is so stiff that the car barely rolls at all, of course, but at what cost?
The Trophy claws it back by letting you know exactly what it’s up to - that uncompromising chassis communicates beautifully. Meanwhile, the steering is loaded with information fed back from the tyres and is a much better weight than the overly-light setup in the Golf. You do need to be ready for it to fight back, too - torque steer is ever-present on a fast road drive.
Manage it, and you’ll find that the Renault has a much better front end than the Volkswagen - the former will cling on long after the latter has given up and started spinning up its front Pirelli P Zeroes.
With a punchier mid-range, it also feels a touch faster than the Golf, even though it isn’t. The noise helps too - every lift of the throttle makes it sound as though someone’s stuffed a lit firework up the Trophy’s tailpipe. The exhaust note that sits behind all the brilliantly silly pops and bangs is more muscular than the TCR’s, and also the Megane RS280 Cup.
You can thank the rowdier exhaust for that. It’s one of the Trophy’s best additions, fitted along with bi-material brakes that have better heat management properties, a more responsive ball bearing turbocharger and a lighter battery that sheds 8kg. It also develops 20bhp more than the standard Renault Sport Megane.
They don’t sound like the most major alterations, but they work together to transform a hot hatch (the RS280) we weren’t overly convinced by, into something much more enjoyable and memorable to drive. What I’m still unsure of, though, is the all-wheel steering.
The system steers the rear wheels in the opposite direction to the fronts below 37mph to make the RS all feisty and agile, turning them in the same direction above that speed in the name of stability. It can be fun at times, but the way it pivots in tighter corners feels odd and unnatural.
The last hot Megane would happily shake its ass around just because that was the nature of the chassis - it seems a shame that the new one resorts to artificial means in an attempt to achieve something similar. You also have to wonder if the performance benefits are really there - for the ultra-focused Trophy R, Renault Sport’s engineers merely ditched the system to shave 40kg.
That’s one key difference between these two. Although the Megane is more capable and more engaging than the Golf, it leaves you reminiscing about past RS products. The Golf meanwhile, may not live up the mighty Clubsport S nor quite be able better the Megane dynamically, but as far as non-limited GTIs go, it’s surely the best since the halcyon days of the MkII.
It does all this while being far easier to live with than its French rival - the TCR is more comfortable, nicer inside and has an infotainment setup that’s far less likely to make you launch into a sweary tirade. It’s gone up in my estimations considerably since the first drive.
We probably shouldn’t be surprised - the Mk7 GTI has been with us now since 2013 giving VW plenty of time to tweak and perfect. The latest RS Megane already took a big step forward with the Trophy, and the best might be yet to come. So this is our pitch to Renault: take a leaf out of the R’s book and ditch the rear-steer, fiddle with the suspension so it actually works away from race tracks and silky-smooth Alpine roads, and sit back as the RS makes its rivals look very silly.
Currently, as proven by this test and its showdown with the Honda Civic Type R earlier this year, the Trophy is a little further down the hot hatch pecking order than Renault might like. It has plenty going for it, but for now, the world-beating potential that’s surely hiding in those blistered wheel arches remains out of reach.