GTI has for some years now, been a legend of South African automotive culture. That’s Golf GTI by the way. There is no other GTI-badged vehicle that carries as much fandom and is held in such high regard as the Volkswagen hatch. The sales figures speak volumes of this car’s success in South Africa: 2 million GTIs have been sold in Mzansi since it was launched as a limited run in 1976. South Africa is the only market in which half the Golfs sold are the performance-bred GTI.
To celebrate 40 years of GTI, Volkswagen has launched the GTI Clubsport, a lighter, edgier, faster and altogether more exciting car. But how does one really experience how much faster or better (if so) the Clubsport is when compared to the standard GTI or the Golf-R for that matter? Thanks to VW, I was able to square up the three siblings in an inter-house challenge tracing up and down Slaaihoek Mountain Pass in Mpumalanga. It’s an exciting blend of quiet straights and fast corners, made more challenging by elevation changes and inclines that cut through some of South Africa’s most breathtaking scenery.
My first steed is the GTI itself and its just as good as I remember it. It’s a triumph of hot hatch definition and it winds up the pass in consummate comfort yet still tantalizing my adrenal glands as that DSG scrolls through the gears with that lovely staccato brpp to which SA motorists have become accustomed. The front end is composed and though it can get a little out of sorts, the XDS front is diff class-leading when it comes to managing the power delivery and steering. It’s a comfortable, well-built, excitable car that leaves me wondering how VW could possibly make a better car here? A bit more power perhaps but what else?
My next chariot up and down the 36km pass, is the popular all-wheel driven Golf-R. It looks and sounds more mature than the GTI, somewhat arrogant in its knowledge that its faster. 206kW is some way up from the 162kW of the GTI so I’m eager to stretch its legs. It does mean a slight change in my driving style in deference to the increased traction and increased weight. It’s definitely faster – but it’s also heavier and that is quite evident under hard braking and under quick changes of direction. It’s also prone to understeer but its not unmanageable. In fact the all-wheel-drive does a good job of inspiring confidence when you’re overcommitted through a bend and feel the need to touch the brake pedal. It’s a louder, faster and altogether more grown up driving experience with a penchant for belting through the gears in intoxicating acceleration. It also costs just under R600k.
I enter the Clubsport with sweaty palms, an increased heart rate and high hopes. If you’re going to celebrate 40 years of an icon, it better be good. But how good could it be when compared to such brilliant siblings?
The GTI Clubsport certainly looks the part. It’s the car that turns the most heads, partly because it is newer than the other cars, but more so because of its sharper front bumper with fins in high gloss black finishes and deeper air intakes. The Clubsport also rocks 18-inch or optional 19-inch wheels; a CLUBSPORT sticker decal on the side and a wicked multi-layer rear spoiler. The Golf GTI cabin is the gold standard in vehicle ergonomics, but in Clubsport guise, its appointed with a few more celebratory touches such as the velour, flat-rimmed steering wheel with red stitching and a 12’oclock mark dead centre. The red continues throughout the cabin along the edges of the seatbelts, atop the gear selector and the floor mats. Optional extras make up quite a list, which is surprising for a 40th anniversary model. I’d expect they’d just throw everything in – BUT – options include fantastic Clubsport Racing bucket seats; Keyless entry, PDC, 19-inch wheels, Light Assist and a rear view camera.
At the foot of the pass, I activate the launch control function and set off on what becomes one of the most memorable joyrides of my life. As I race through the gears passed the 100km/h mark(5,9 seconds) I’m left in no doubt that this car will happily fly to a claimed top speed of 249km/h. Not that I am going to test that statistic because what looms before me is a series of left-right-left combinations that would dazzle Mayweather. I’m astounded that this FWD Clubsport is so adept at power delivery and turn-in, AND being so in tune with the driver. It’s clearly lighter than the other two unfazed by hard cornering in the middle of large elevation changes with craggy road surfaces to match. It accelerates with a force that feels more visceral than the R. The Clubsport features a boost mode that accesses 213kW of power between 3rd and 6th gear for up to 10 seconds at a time before the engine settles back to a 195kW mill for a few seconds again. The experience is like riding a rollercoaster – the best rollercoaster I’ve ever sat in because I am in complete control. The Clubsport is absolutely fast yet still retains that normalcy amidst the hooliganism. It thrills without teasing of impending disaster thanks to a multitude of driver assistance systems and that XDS+ front diff.
I had the privilege of slicing through Slaaihoek in the Clubsport while chasing Jacob Moshokoa (of 947 Highveld Stereo and Epic Dubs fame) who driving the Golf-R. The results were clear as I reigned him in and easily outdrove him in the GTI Clubsport. It wasn’t down to my wealth of driver-talent (of which I have a smidgeon). It wasn’t down to Jacob’s lack thereof (he’s a talented driver actually) … it was simply down to genius engineering of the Clubsport.
After enthusiastic driving through mountain passes, I spent another 4 ‘normal’ days with the Clubsport as my daily drive and it impressed me even more. It still retains what has made GTI so worth celebrating. It does everything so well:
A comfortable, everyday, reliable companion for the work run. Brilliant.
A thrilling hot hatch to get your heart rate racing. Brilliant.
A car to travel thousands of kilometres around the country on an epic road trip. Brilliant.
The price of the best Golf you can buy today? Priceless.
No, not really. At R540 200, it’s cheaper than a Golf-R but that options list can push this car into R600 000 territory.
On a wet and rainy day, I’d choose the very capable and dynamic Golf-R because of its slight advantage in trickier traction terrain. For every other day, I’d choose GTI Clubsport.
Avon Middleton is a multimedia and digital media manager by profession and an avid car-lover. He runs Drivingsa which is a motoring content provider producing and delivering automotive insights for various high-profile media channels. He is a long-time friend and partner of Kasibiz and contributes his insights on a regular basis.