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End-of-the-line seventh-generation Golf GTI is fast, precise and assured on track, but hasn’t got the attitude to usurp the hot hatch class’s most exciting front-drivers.
  • First Drive

    Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR 2019 review

    End-of-the-line seventh-generation Golf GTI is fast, precise and assured on track, but hasn’t got the attitude to usurp the hot hatch class’s most exciting fron
Matt Saunders Terminalsecurity
18 January 2019

What is it?

The extra-hardcore run-out special edition is a feature that’s become more common than red piping and chrome pedals within the model lineage of the average modern hot hatchback. 

Even the most celebrated and well-established of them all, the VW Golf GTI, can’t last for a whole model lifecycle without one. We’re lucky it can’t, by the way – or we’d have missed out on some utterly brilliant fast hatchbacks over this car’s long and illustrious history: the ‘G60’-engined supercharged mkIIs, the mkV Edition 30 and the stellar mkVII Clubsport S.

These fast Golfs are, at their best, irresistible enigmas: cars whose brilliance seems simultaneously to make both absolutely perfect sense and no sense whatsoever. The superbly adaptable Golf GTI has sat, for the past three model generations at least and arguably for even longer, precisely where real-world performance, driver reward, usability and value have met in the hot hatchback segment. Any change you make to that supreme compromise, therefore, ought to make for a lesser hot hatchback.

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And yet still Wolfsburg has tinkered – not least, you suspect, because the GTI’s ice-cool 'needn’t be the class hard man' positioning means there’s always been both the demand and the opportunity to do it. And when they’ve done it, perhaps not invariably but at least pretty regularly and so often against the odds, an even better Golf GTI has emerged.

Emerging this time, as a farewell to what we might call the GTI mk7.5, is an ode to the FIA’s now globally popular Touring Car Racing motorsport formula. The GTI TCR is also a clear attempt to keep VW’s evergreen hot hatchback competitive. In a field of increasingly powerful fast front-drivers, the regular GTI Performance version’s 242bhp (the 228bhp GTI having been removed from sale in the UK last year) doesn’t cut much Grey Poupon these days. So, here, power jumps to a peak 286bhp, and torque to 280lb ft, courtesy of a version of the 2017 GTI Clubsport Edition 40’s ‘EA888’ 2.0-litre turbo four pot that’s been updated with new software management, furnished with a couple of extra radiators, and made WLTP-emissions compliant. Unlike the pre-facelift GTI Clubsport 40, however, the GTI TCR only comes in two-pedal, DSG-gearbox form – and it uses the mk7.5’s seven-speed twin-clutch transmission rather than the Clubsport’s six-speed paddle-shifter.

Like the GTI Performance, the GTI TCR gets VW’s electronic locking ‘eDiff’ as standard, but it adds the sizable composite brake discs and 17in calipers of the old GTI Clubsport S, as well as forged 18in alloy wheels. It comes as standard with passive suspension developed from that of the GTI Performance, with revalved, firmed-up dampers, and with shortened, stiffened coil springs that drop the car 5mm closer still to the Tarmac.

“The Clubsport S was even stiffer again,” explained VW touring car racer Benny Leuchter (who had a hand in the development of the road-going GTI TCR), “but the bigger difference between them is how much more negative wheel camber the Clubsport S had. The TCR has been developed primarily for road use but also for more typical racing circuits. The Clubsport S was set up especially for the Nordschleife.” The Nordschleife – and just about any British B-road you cared to hurl it down, as it turned out.

On the GTI TCR, you can choose between two optional rolling chassis upgrade packages. The first adds forged 19in rims and beefed up adaptive dampers, the second a slightly different set of forged 19in rims, the same sports adaptive dampers and Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres (the latter appeared as standard on the Clubsport S, you may remember). Both upgrade packages also see the car’s 155mph speed limiter removed. While UK prices on the GTI TCR and its options are to be confirmed, the more expensive of the two upgrade packages is likely to add about £3000 to your order.

What's it like?

Outwardly, the TCR is probably best distinguished from the lesser GTI by its matt black alloy wheels, and the extended front splitter, rear diffuser and roof spoiler that make up its new TCR racer-inspired aero kit. Well, those and the car’s motorsport-tastic hexagonal side decals (which are effectively a no-cost option – so you can dispense with them if you prefer). You can add carbonfibre door mirror caps, which make for a classier-looking extra identifying visual touch; or you can opt for ‘pure grey’ paint if you like, which is exclusive to the TCR – but, in this tester’s opinion, looks about as exciting as a pallbearer’s cravat.

On the inside of the car, meanwhile, a new pair of microfibre-and-cloth sports seats appear, as does a modified steering wheel with perforated leather grips and a competition-style dead-centre marker in red. VW insiders say the interior of the eighth-generation VW Golf, which is due for a public airing later this year, is a big step on from this car. But, while that’s an entirely believable claim, it’s not as if there’s much wrong with the cabin of the seventh-gen car. The TCR’s driving position is near-perfect for a hot hatchback. Its new sports seats are almost ideally, oh-so-comfortably clenching, and its interior fittings look and feel absolutely first class, showing very few signs of age. But most of that’s also true of a regular GTI, of course, and wouldn’t be a good reason for find an extra £5000. So what would be?

Well, the TCR certainly delivers a dose more straight-line pace than the car on which it was based – though not a huge one. There is only 7lb ft of extra torque on offer here than in a GTI Performance, which probably isn’t enough to notice in terms of mid-range thrust – although the TCR doesn’t feel short on the stuff.

Where the car really delivers on its makeover is at high revs, and particularly so over the last 1500rpm of the operating rev range, when that freed-up 2.0-litre pulls with notably greater enthusiasm and venom than GTI drivers will be used to. The engine also retains a nicely balanced broad spread of potency, and has better low-range response than the old Clubsport series cars thanks to better ECU mapping. It may not quite have the measure of absolutely every engine of its kind, but the TCR’s motor effectively banishes any semblance of meekness from the GTI’s character. If you want a really fast and exciting hot hatchback, this engine just about puts the Golf GTI back in the conversation.

Whether the TCR’s ride and handling keep it in that conversation, however, is unexpectedly open to question. From an engineering team that could so easily have simply duplicated the axles of the superb GTI Clubsport S here, but for some reason chose not to, that comes as a surprise to say the least. The TCR is still a fine hot hatchback and a compelling driver’s car, but one that doesn’t have the otherworldly body control and wheel dexterity of the last extra-special GTI – and that’s regardless how you’ve got it its adaptive dampers configured. And yet – because the TCR is still a GTI at heart – it doesn’t have the hip-swivelling handling agility, tactile driver engagement or the sheer excitement value of its greatest rivals, either.

The car is totally at home on track, particularly so on the optional Michelin Cup 2 rubber on which we tested it – but with more notable precision and unflappable stability about its handling than balance and direction-changing vigour. It’s enormously capable and viceless when being driven fast, keeping its body supremely flat and working its tyres very evenly, and sticking as assiduously to a chosen line as a besieged British cabinet minister.

On the road, though, where you expect a fast Golf to be nothing short of brilliant, the TCR’s ride is guilty of the odd stumble and stutter. It can feel firm, stubborn and excitable when dealing with bigger, sharper intrusions – though it’s not so reactive as ever to deflect the car’s steering, nor is it any kind of barrier to your enjoyment of the car when the surface is good.

But now and again, when a ridge or lump in the road taken at pace makes the car’s damping bristle and grab – and when the suspension seems keener on pummeling the road and rebounding off it than engaging with it – one particularly telling and unwelcome thought may begin to interrupt your enjoyment of this car, just as it did for me: “wouldn’t a standard GTI have dealt with that better”?

Should I buy one?

Maybe. We'd be able to answer that in more emphatic fashion, however, if the suppleness and road-suitability that the GTI TCR has clearly surrendered had been traded for a more tactile, engaging, playful and vigorous dynamic character. That might have made the GTI TCR a fine alternative for a Renault Megane RS 280 or a Honda Civic Type R, and a worthy follow-up act for the Clubsport S.

But, while good, it’s not quite made it that far. Instead, and unlike its extra-special predecessor, the GTI TCR doesn't so easily escape the bounds of the ordinary.

This is a hugely capable and complete hot hatchback, which will inevitably be judged by a very high standard. However unrealistic that standard is, however, it's a problem of Volkswagen's own making. The GTI TCR amounts to no more or less than the precise sum of its parts. As parts go, they’re an awfully long way from shabby – but the plain truth is, those mkVII GTI parts haven't quite come together here to make something as spectacular as they have in recent memory.

Volswagen Golf GTI TCR specification

Where Portimao, Portugal Price circa-£34,000 (tbc) On sale February Engine 4cyls in line, 1984cc, turbocharged petrol Power 286bhp at 5400-6400rpm Torque 280lb ft at 1950-5300rpm Gearbox 7-spd twin-clutch automatic Kerb weight 1410kg Top speed 155mph (limited) 0-62mph 5.6sec Fuel economy 42.2mpg (NEDC Correlated) CO2, tax band 175g/km (WLTP Combined) Rivals Honda Civic Type R, Renault Megane RS 280

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Comments
13

18 January 2019

If it goes much over £34k (which it probably will) you could get a S3 or save a bucket load and wait for Focus ST.  There seems endless competion in segment.   5th gear rated the Megane by the way.

typos1 - Just can’t respect opinion

18 January 2019
xxxx wrote:

If it goes much over £34k (which it probably will) you could get a S3 or save a bucket load and wait for Focus ST.  There seems endless competion in segment.   5th gear rated the Megane by the way.

Why get an S3 instead? It hardly sets the world alight with its well documented anodyne steering. Yes it's fast in a straight line but if that's not the be all and end all for a customer then why buy it. Don't even go into the perceived better interior - fast cars like these are meant to be fun and not about what it's like inside which is enough to make a sale. The Megane I have seen has mixed reviews BTW. I'm sure it's not a bad car but it's not said to be as good as those fast Megane's that have gone before it. 

20 January 2019
AddyT wrote:

xxxx wrote:

If it goes much over £34k (which it probably will) you could get a S3 or save a bucket load and wait for Focus ST.  There seems endless competion in segment.   5th gear rated the Megane by the way.

Why get an S3 instead? It hardly sets the world alight with its well documented anodyne steering. Yes it's fast in a straight line but if that's not the be all and end all for a customer then why buy it. Don't even go into the perceived better interior - fast cars like these are meant to be fun and not about what it's like inside which is enough to make a sale. The Megane I have seen has mixed reviews BTW. I'm sure it's not a bad car but it's not said to be as good as those fast Megane's that have gone before it. 

If I had to explain why I wanted a particular car over another one wouldn't want to understand, it's called personal choice.  

typos1 - Just can’t respect opinion

18 January 2019

The car apeals, but the £34k asking price doesn't!

18 January 2019

The last three door Golf GTI, and maybe the last one with a manual gearbox has already been built? The old icons are falling or being redefined.

18 January 2019

 I think so, VW need to do something with the Gti legend, it’s no longer mentioned in the same breath as the current top Dogs.

Peter Cavellini.

18 January 2019

Which is OK by the way - as reviewer noticed, handling is excellent on track - while not so great on road evidently due to, overtly stiff suspension. That probably means, buyer gets a car which is to degree compromized as a daily driver - but very nice drive on track. For some relatively few, this shall be fine. Others buy the more road focused so called lesser Gti's. 

18 January 2019

If more 1% of Golf GTis go on a track I'd be very surprised.  And yet a track, whose requirements are utterly alien and indeed contrary to being a good road car,  is somehow deemed to be  a measure of road cars.  

 

It is as relevant as evaluating trainers for their suitability as tap shoes.

19 January 2019

Golf gti's have got too powerful and expensive, your comment about real world performance, usability, value and driver involvement seems at odds now with the gti being so expensive, was it the mk6 that was cited as having perfect real world performance with its 200bhp for about £20k? Surely more power is unnecessary unless on a track. This level is where the new polo sits but it doesnt appear to have the involvement expected of a gti. I think if I was going to get a gti and could afford one I'd get the up as thats relatively cheap, an apparent hoot and plenty fast enough for the uk's roads, and being smaller would make it more fun and manageable in narrow country lanes.

19 January 2019

I would totally agree with scrap. By far and away the best thing about this car is it’s available as a 3 door. More important than any performance or handling tweak. A 3 door will soon be impossible to buy & all hot hatches will look like a family shopping car with a spoiler.

Not another queue.....

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