Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport vs Volkswagen Golf R

We bring the fastest versions of the Volkswagen Golf Mk8 together to find the best performance variant

It’s taken a few months, but the high-performance versions of the Mk8 Volkswagen Golf seem to have arrived all at once. If you want something a bit more potent than the regular GTI (itself the most powerful standard version ever), then there are now two options that are as intriguing as they are appealing: the four-wheel-drive R and the front-wheel drive GTI Clubsport. Which should you choose? We’ve brought them together for an intra-brand, intra-model twin test to find out.

Head-to-head

Model:Volkswagen Golf RVolkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport 
Price: £39,270£37,215
Engine: 2.0-litre 4cyl turbo petrol2.0-litre 4cyl turbo petrol
Power/torque: 316bhp/420Nm296bhp/400Nm
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, four-wheel driveSeven-speed dual-clutch automatic, front-wheel drive
0-62mph:4.7 seconds5.6 seconds
Top speed:155mph155mph
Economy:36.2mpg38.2mpg
CO2/tax: 177g/km/£870167g/km/£540

As our two cars get together on a cold March morning, despite the obvious similarities in the proportions, not to mention the ice white hues, a game of spot the difference highlights how VW has subtly but definitely distanced the two cars when it comes to looks. The devil is in the design detail; the Clubsport gets graphics along its flanks and a gaping honeycomb lower front grille, with slightly smaller ‘fangs’ compared with its more powerful, pricier sibling.

The R has more pronounced side skirts, quad-exit exhausts that are a trademark of the top performance Golf, plus, of course, the R badge, mounted centrally on the tailgate (the Clubsport gets no additional branding beyond GTI). Some might find both a little too subtle, but we reckon the more muscular take on the Mk8 Golf’s shape is effective. Besides, the Golf has always stood for subtlety; if you want brash, buy a Honda Civic Type R.

It’s harder to tell the cars apart inside; the Clubsport has a honeycomb patterned dash, the R has a bit of fake carbon fibre. Both cars feature the familiar Mk8 stubby gear selector, but the R gets larger steering wheel shift paddles; these in particular show how the smallest details can boost tactility.

The colour treatments offer some contrast too; the Clubsport’s seat accents and digital dash skin are red, while the R’s are blue. But for all the different choices of fabrics, the sports seats are identical – and fix you in place, delivering a good driving position.

As with the regular GTI, at the heart of the two models here is the VW Group’s latest incarnation of its 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol engine. In Clubsport spec it produces 296bhp, a useful 54bhp more than in the GTI, and 400Nm of torque between 2,000rpm and 5,200rpm, broader than the regular GTI.

Underneath, there’s a fresh profile for the VAQ electronic limited-slip differential settings, larger brakes, a 15mm lower ride height compared with a regular GTI, more front camber and a lower final drive ratio for the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox. These tweaks sound techy and not all that great in magnitude, but they add up to deliver a different driving experience. It’s a shame that neither of these hot Golfs is offered with a manual transmission, though.

The R takes the Clubsport’s motor further, with 316bhp and 420Nm of torque; it’s a clear case of VW’s engineers creating just enough distance between the two cars, but of course the R channels its motive force to both of its axles using 4MOTION four-wheel drive, which modifies its character again.

The R also sits lower still, by an extra five millimetres, and gets even larger brakes, plus if you pick the £2,000 R Performance pack, you’ll step up to 19-inch alloys, and get a Drift mode.

This sends the majority of power to the rear and allows torque vectoring on the back axle, easing off the stability control to allow powerslides. Our Golf R lacks that particular feature – although like the Clubsport, it sits on optional 19-inch alloys. They’re on contrasting tyres: Bridgestones for the R, Goodyears on the Clubsport.

The extra grunt – and traction to make use of it from the 4MOTION system – means the R manages the 0-62mph sprint in 4.7 seconds, which is as rapid as you’d ever need you family hatch to be, and almost a full second clear of the Clubsport (5.6).

But there’s much more to these two cars’ characters than simply straight-line speed. Of course, with DSG transmissions both cars’ performance is easy to access, but the Clubsport makes you work harder for its handling ability, and rewards you to a greater degree if you do.

The VAQ differential’s influence is readily apparent on the kind of muck-strewn cold roads you’ll find in the UK in early March, tightening the car’s line to hook it through a corner once you’re on the throttle in mid-speed bends.

However, without the support from the rear axle and plenty of torque, the Clubsport will fizz its front wheels into wheelspin out of slow, tight corners unless you’re careful with the throttle.

In the R there’s no such problem. Be patient until you can see your exit, then use full throttle and the car deploys its performance with little fuss. It feels faster than the Clubsport, and just as grippy, but also a little more inert.

The GTI’s front end feels slightly pointier and its damping better finessed, no matter which mode you’re in. In the sportier settings it’s firm, but there’s compliance in the special Nürburgring mode, set up to deal with the famous track’s bumpy tarmac, aggressive cambers and unforgiving curves, so it works surprisingly well on UK roads.

The quality of the suspension tuning means that even on 19-inch wheels the Clubsport doesn’t feel bouncy. It makes you work harder to uncover its character, whereas the R reveals its performance earlier in your relationship with it. The Clubsport’s motor likes being worked hard and revved. So does the R’s, but there’s less need to. It’s the more easy-going hot hatch, but with Dynamic Chassis Control adaptive dampers fitted to both, they can be dialled back in Comfort (or even a few steps softer still for the suspension beyond this) to the point where the two cars slip into the usual Golf mould of being one car suitable for many occasions.

But in truth both of these cars are brilliant hot hatchbacks, with subtly different characters that offer subtly different experiences. The GTI Clubsport delivers keen drivers a more rewarding package, while the Golf R is the unburstable all-weather all-rounder.

When it comes to practicality, there’s nothing in it, with equal room in the rear and plenty of boot space. Efficiency is as near as makes no difference so that driving style will likely have a bigger impact on the actual economy figures you’ll see, too.

You can see our full breakdown on the finance numbers (below), but it’s a simple mix of affordability and exploitability that means the Clubsport just edges it here. It’s cheaper but also more engaging, and while it sacrifices the last bit of performance, subjectively it’s the more fun car.

Finance: deals close the gap in terms of cost

The GTI Clubsport is around £2,000 cheaper than the R on list price, but going beyond that and looking at finance figures shows how these numbers can ebb and flow depending on offers and deposit contributions.

On VW’s PCP (36 months/10,000 miles per year), you’ll need a £5,771 deposit to get into a Clubsport, with monthly payments of £446 (a total of £21,382). The R requires around £700 extra up front, and a further £33 a month, so over the three years, the four-wheel-drive model will cost you an extra £1,621 – still less than the gap in list price.

Switch to VW’s Personal Contract Hire and the Clubsport’s price advantage widens. Indeed, give up the PCP’s flexibility, and the option to buy at the end of your contract, and you can save a tidy packet on both models; the Clubsport comes in at £15,914 over the same three-year, 30,000-mile terms, while the R will set you back £18,469.

Reputable brokers, meanwhile, seem keener to deal on the R than the Clubsport (maybe showing its wider appeal) – so again, the gap between the pair narrows. Leasing.com’s best three-year, 10,000-mile contract hire numbers on the range-topper are £16,575 – almost £2k less than VW’s – while the Clubsport drops by less, to £14,892.

It’s worth remembering, though, that these figures are based on the bare models themselves, without options such as metallic paint, the DCC adaptive dampers, or the R’s Performance Pack, even if both cars do get a great level of standard equipment.

Verdict

The tenacious hatch: VW Golf GTI Clubsport

The Clubsport feels like what we wanted the Mk8 GTI to be all along. It’s engaging and rewarding, and just a little more visceral in its dynamic repertoire compared with the ultra-polished R. Yet it still carries off the fast Golf traits of comfort, refinement, tech and image superbly well. We still long for a manual option, but in Clubsport trim, the GTI is a great hot hatch.

The all-rounder: VW Golf R

If you’re after a more easily exploitable hot hatchback, the Golf R defines this niche. It’s ballistically quick, and with four-wheel drive it’s so easy to tap into this huge performance – but it doesn’t quite offer the rewards the GTI Clubsport does, plus it’s pricier. For some, though, this will be the perfect combination of usability and thrills, and who could blame them?

Best hot Golfs ever

VW Golf GTI Mk1

VW Golf GTI MK1
  • Power: 108bhp
  • 0-62mph: 9.1 seconds

This is the car that helped define the hot hatchback. The original GTI created the niche when it comes to a quick, enjoyable family machine with an upmarket image. It handled like a sports car yet remained practical.

VW Golf GTI Mk5

VW Golf GTI Mk5
  • Power: 197bhp
  • 0-62mph: 7.2 seconds

After a few years in the doldrums with the Mk3 and 4 GTIs, the Mk5 was a real return to form. It was a great driver’s hot hatch with a sweet chassis and plenty of performance, while the design really moved the GTI into the modern era.

VW Golf R Mk7

VW Golf R Mk7
  • Power: 296bhp
  • 0-62mph: 5.1 seconds

This wasn’t the first four-wheel-drive Golf, but it was the car that really made the formula appealing, with blistering performance and an affordable starting price of around £30,000 when new. It looked great, too.

VW GTI Clubsport S Mk7

VW GTI Clubsport S Mk7
  • Power: 306bhp
  • 0-62mph: 5.8 seconds

The Clubsport S was extreme, with no rear seats, but this limited-run car was the most focused and best-driving Golf to date in 2017. It was a fitting car to celebrate the famous GTI badge’s 40th birthday.

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