Performance & drive
What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is
The Volkswagen Golf GTI’s standard six-speed manual gearbox has a shorter action than that of the regular VW Golf but the way it shifts isn’t a patch on the Honda Civic Type R for precision, or the Ford Focus ST for slickness.
That said, it still adds a layer of added interplay that no automatic gearbox can match. However, the optional seven-speed dual-clutch DSG automatic gearbox (standard on the GTI Clubsport) not only makes everyday life a doddle with its smooth-yet-swift shifts, but also allows you to take back control with the paddles behind the steering wheel. Only a slight jerkiness when manoeuvring blots its copybook.
It can’t match the brutal top-end shove of the Type R, but we like that you can use its low-end power to pull you along easily in a high gear, without having to keep swapping cogs. And, if you do want a car that more closely matches the Type R’s ferocity, the 296bhp GTI Clubsport comes very close. It’s a little faster than the Type R, at 5.6sec to 62mph, and yet it is still just as flexible and well-mannered as the standard GTI’s engine in everyday use.
The Type R will monster the GTI for pace through corners, too – the GTI was more than a second slower than the Type R around our 0.9-mile test track – but again, the GTI feels like it has the measure of the Focus ST. There's buckets of pure grip and an even-handed handling balance that inspires confidence. You can alter it from neutral to more playfully loose at the rear by fiddling with the optional adjustable suspension’s numerous settings, which are available though the infotainment touchscreen.
But even if you crank it up to its friskiest mode, the rear wheels still don't pivot around you like the castors of a shopping trolley, as they do with the Renault Mégane RS, and it’s not as agile as a Toyota GR Yaris, either. Nor is the steering as quick or as feelsome as the Focus ST's, although the GTI Clubsport’s tweaked steering does feel keener than the standard GTI’s.
For all its improved agility, that Golf GTI hallmark of approachability remains. It’s not a demanding car to drive – either slowly or quickly – and that goes for the Clubsport as well as the standard GTI. While you can feel its electronic limited-slip front differential working away to drag the nose into apexes more determinedly than the Hyundai i30 N's, there’s none of the skittishness under power that requires you to hold on tight in the Mégane RS, just the odd thump from the front end as the tyres struggle for traction.
Regardless of suspension, the GTI has less road and wind noise than the Type R at high speeds.
But does the engine sound exciting? Well, sort of: it isn’t as thrilling as the Mégane RS’s, which pops and bangs when you back off the accelerator, and nor is it as organic-sounding as the Type R's, which has no artificial tricks – just a highly tuned four-cylinder noise that’s underlined with manic turbocharger whooshes.
Instead, the GTI has a deep, gravelly note, which grows more intense when you switch the driving mode button to the raciest Sport setting. It's a digital sound, though, like it's been designed in a laboratory and honed by focus groups. Mind you, the anniversary edition GTI Clubsport 45 comes with a standard titanium exhaust and sounds every bit as flamboyant and naughty as the Type R.