EVEN THE MOST CELEBRATED and well-established of them all, the VW Golf GTI, can’t last for a whole model lifecycle without an extra-hardcore run-out special edition. We’re lucky it can’t, or we’d have missed out on some utterly brilliant fast hatches over this car’s long and illustrious history.
Emerging this time, as a farewell to the GTI Mk7.5, is an ode to the FIA’s now globally popular Touring Car Racing motorsport formula. The GTI TCR is also an attempt to keep VW’s evergreen hot hatch competitive.
So, power jumps to 213kW and torque to 380Nm, courtesy of the EA888 2.0-litre turbo four pot that’s been updated with new software management, furnished with a couple of extra radiators, and made WLTPemissions compliant. Sadly, like the garden-variety GTIs, the TCR only comes in DSG form - the same sevenspeed dual-clutch used in the Mk7.5.
The TCR gets VW’s electronic locking ‘eDiff’ as standard, but it adds sizable composite brake discs as well as forged 18-inch 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.
You can choose between two optional rolling chassis upgrade packs. The first adds forged 19-inch rims and beefed up adaptive dampers, the second a slightly different set of forged 19-inch rims, the same sports adaptive dampers and Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres. Both upgrade packs see the car’s 250km/h speed limiter removed. Final spec and pricing for Australia is yet to be confirmed.
Outwardly, the TCR is probably best distinguished from the lesser GTI by its matte 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). You can add carbon-fibre door mirror caps, or you can opt for ‘pure grey’ paint if you like, which is exclusive to the TCR.
On the inside new microfibreand-cloth sports seats appear, as does a modified steering wheel with perforated leather grips and a competition-style dead-centre marker in red. The TCR’s driving position is near-perfect for a hot hatch. Its new sports seats are great and its interior fittings look and feel absolutely first class, showing few signs of age.
However, most of that’s also true of a regular GTI and wouldn’t be a good enough reason for finding the extra cash. So what would be?
Well, the TCR certainly delivers a dose more straight-line pace than the car on which it was based - the Clubsport S - though not a huge one. There is only 10Nm of extra torque on offer here over a GTI, 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 through the last 1500rpm of the operating rev range, when that freedup 2.0-litre pulls with notably greater enthusiasm and venom.
The engine also retains a nicely balanced broad spread of potency, and has improved low-range response 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 hatch, this engine puts the Golf GTI back in the conversation.
Whether the TCR’s ride and handling keep it in that chit chat, however, is unexpectedly open to question. The engineering team could easily have duplicated the axles of the superb GTI Clubsport S here, but for some reason chose not to - that comes as a surprise. The TCR is still a fine hot hatch 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 its adaptive dampers configured. And yet - because the TCR is still a GTI at heart - it doesn’t have the hipswivelling handling agility, tactile driver engagement or the sheer excitement value of its greatest rivals, either.
The car is totally at home on track, particularly on the optional Michelin Cup 2 rubber, 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 flat and working its tyres evenly, sticking diligently to a chosen line.
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 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 pummelling the road and rebounding off it than engaging with it - one particularly telling thought may begin to interrupt your enjoyment: “wouldn’t a standard GTI have dealt with that better?” 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 Honda Civic Type R. While good, it’s not quite made it that far. Instead, the GTI TCR doesn’t so easily escape the bounds of the ordinary. Which is a shame.
This is a hugely capable and complete hot hatch, which will inevitably be judged by a very high standard. The GTI TCR amounts to no more or less than the sum of its parts.
As parts go, they’re an awfully long way from shabby - but the plain truth is, those MkVII GTI bits haven’t quite come together here to make something as spectacular as you’d hope.
2.0-litre turbo inline-4, FWD, 228kW/400Nm, 0-100k m/h 5.7sec 1380kg, $51,990
A MOTOR PCOTY and BFYB winner, the Honda Civic Type R is the hot hatch benchmark. Quick in a straight line, around corners and at a track, the Type R adds an on-road duality for an enviable hot hatch