This really is the final, final edition of the current-generation Volkswagen Golf GTI, the TCR.
The dots on the side and the initials on the flanks are a nod to the Touring Car Racing edition of the VW Golf GTI in Europe. The TCR is the most powerful Golf GTI of all time, and an exclamation point for the current generation of the world’s biggest-selling hot hatch.
If the honeycomb graphics are a bit much for you or the neighbours, you can peel the stickers off. A word of warning, though, they’re all individually applied, so you may need to make a day of it.
The pattern is designed to distinguish the TCR from other limited-edition Golf GTIs before it, so car geeks can spot it at a glance.
After a solid run over the past seven years, the world’s biggest-selling hot hatch is getting ready to hand the baton to the next model, due in Australian showrooms early next year. You can read about that model here. But before you do, hear us out on this one.
As is often the case, Volkswagen has saved the best until last for the current model – with more power than what will be available in the Golf GTI when the next generation rocks up.
While it feels like the VW Golf GTI has had more farewell tours than John Farnham, this truly is the end of the line for the Mark 7 as far as limited-editions go.
The 2020 VW Golf GTI TCR is priced from $51,490 plus on-road costs, a $4300 premium on the standard Golf GTI still in showrooms, albeit in limited numbers (from $47,190) and just below the Golf R (from $55,990).
Just 300 examples of the TCR have been imported, in a choice of grey, white or red. The only option is a panoramic sunroof ($1900). At least the standard black roof looks like you have a panoramic roof, even if you don’t.
Then, of course, there is the debate about sunroofs adding too much weight up high and a standard metal roof being the 'purist' choice. Our take? If you want a sunroof, buy one with a sunroof. You’re not exactly going to feel the difference in weight balance on the way to the shops, or on a weekend run up or down the coast.
Rather than reinvent anything, Volkswagen has used components already available to it, though they have been tailored specifically for this model.
Under the bonnet is the turbo 2.0-litre engine largely borrowed from the VW Golf R breathing through a free-flow exhaust with some extra bark; however, it has an output of 213kW/350Nm rather than 213kW/380Nm. VW wound down the torque on the TCR to favour a more potent power delivery higher up in the rev range. The standard Golf GTI has an output of 180kW/370Nm.
In Europe, the VW Golf GTI TCR has different output numbers, and a petrol particulate filter has been added to meet Euro 6 emissions standards.
In Australia, the gearbox is a six-speed DSG twin-clutch auto (as it was with the introduction of the Mark 7 in 2013), rather than the seven-speed offered in the standard Golf GTI and Golf R since the Mark 7.5 arrived a few years ago.
This has been done to better match ratios with the engine’s broader power band. Before you get your tartan knickers in a twist, trust us, it works. We’ll get to that shortly.
The fog lights in the lower front bumper of the GTI have been replaced by slim ducts that are designed to reduce air pressure around the front wheels, rather than cool the brakes.
Inside is a new seat design and a new take on the tartan seat pattern (with suede side bolsters), gloss-black highlights from the Golf R, and the awesome, widescreen digital dash display now standard on all Golf performance models.
Other touches: the TCR logo is projected onto the ground when you open the front doors at night.
The Golf’s usual practicality abounds, with large, carpeted door pockets, and good oddment storage, though the USB port is fiddly to access when trying to charge or connect a phone.
The back seat has two ISOFIX child seat mounts and three top-tether points, in case you need to get this over the line as a family car.
Under the boot floor is a space-saver spare rather than a can of tyre inflator goop. A full-size spare would be ideal, but a space-saver is better than inflator gum, which can be next to useless if you split a sidewall.
A couple of quick housekeeping items before we get to what you really want to know: how it drives.
Warranty is five years/unlimited kilometres. Service intervals are 12 months/15,000km.
The capped-price service cost over five years is the same as the regular GTI range: $2857 over five years ($389, $525, $642, $912, $389) – a touch on the high side, but to be expected for a performance car. Interestingly, this is dearer than for the Golf R: $2799 ($425, $561, $647, $807, $359).
On the road
This is no sticker pack, despite the hundreds of dots on the doors.
In addition to the 213kW turbocharged 2.0-litre engine and the six-speed DSG twin-clutch auto, the TCR retains the standard Golf GTI’s electronically actuated mechanical limited-slip differential for improved traction out of tight corners.
The suspension has been lowered 5mm and 19-inch alloys are standard (versus 18s on the Golf GTI and 19s on the Golf R). The example tested wore Continental ContiSportContact 5P AO rubber.
The exhaust has been redesigned for better flow, and the mufflers have a more distinctive crackle between gear changes, particularly in sport mode.
The fuel rating label shows an average consumption of 7.5L/100km, and the fuel flap says the car prefers 98 octane premium unleaded but it will also run on 95. On test we averaged 10L/100km in a mix of city and inter-urban driving. It dipped into the 9s once we started to hit the open road. On long distance drives it should slip into the 8s.
The adaptive dampers have comfort and sport settings. There is an individual mode in case you want to set the suspension to travel in comfort, while being a nuisance to your neighbours with a loud exhaust turned up to 11. The exhaust sounds so good between gear changes, you will want to floor it just for the sharp, crisp crackle.
For the trainspotters among us, although the brake package is the same as on the Golf R, the front discs are cross-drilled. Engineers will tell you the holes are intended to remove excess gases under extreme braking force. The marketing department will tell you it’s what the kids want. The brake calipers are red, but are the same size and provide the same swept area as the Golf R.
In our testing, the braking performance was so-so for a hot hatch, stopping from 100km/h to zero in 37.9 metres.
In comparison, a double-cab ute typically pulls up in about 40 metres, and in our testing a Ford Focus RS and VW Golf R pulled up in about 36.5 metres.
Among the current crop of hot hatches, the Honda Civic Type R aces the lot stopping in just 34.3 metres, or Porsche 911 territory. It was also on Continentals. These tests were done on different days, and in some cases years apart, but on the exact same piece of tarmac in similar conditions.
With a 0–100km/h claim of 5.7 seconds, Volkswagen says the TCR is 0.6 of a second quicker than a Golf GTI 40th Anniversary Edition (6.3 seconds) and not far off its claim for the Golf R (4.8 seconds).
Buyers of hot hatches and performance cars often recite these numbers by heart, conveniently forgetting they are claims.
Using precision timing equipment, the best 0–100km/h time we could get out of the TCR was 6.0 seconds flat – and that was using launch mode for several attempts, and then leaving it in D for 'der' for several more runs – with plenty of cool-downs in between.
Interestingly, the TCR did 0–60km/h quicker in normal drive mode than it was with launch control (when not laying a set of 11s on the tarmac), but lost out a bit in the top end due to slightly different gear changes. Both stopped the clocks at 6.0 neat.
If you were to stay at a drag strip until dark, you might fluke a 5.9, but I’m not sure where the Germans got 5.7 from.
For context, I stopped the clocks on a standard Golf GTI at 6.5 seconds a few years ago on the same stretch of tarmac. So, the TCR is quicker than the standard Golf GTI, it’s just not a 5.7-second front-drive car in the hands of mere mortals or outside VW’s test track.
For further background, Volkswagen claims the Golf R does 0–100km/h in 4.8 seconds, but at least we got close to that in our own testing: 4.9 seconds. All-wheel drive really does make a difference from a standing start.
By now, front-wheel-drive fans are rightly miffed about all this chat about 0–100km/h testing, because the times rarely reflect the seat-of-the-pants feeling and the rolling, in-gear acceleration.
The VW Golf GTI TCR is phenomenal on the right piece of road. And when you’re not on the right piece of road, you’ll be longing to find somewhere to flex its ability. Fortunately, VW bought some track time so we could experience both.
The engine has a strong spread of power across the rev range, but it gets another burst of energy between 4000rpm and 6000rpm. In the higher reaches it has glimpses of the Audi RS3’s potency.
I don’t know if it’s the placebo effect of knowing the TCR is 63kg lighter than a Golf R, or if it was all down to physics, but the combination of the more powerful engine and the slightly lighter body (thanks to the lack of all-wheel drive) did make the TCR feel a touch lighter on its feet, especially on corners with crests on Luddenham Raceway.
Quick fact check to save you searching the internet: standard VW Golf GTI with seven-speed DSG is 1377kg, the TCR is 1387kg, and the Golf R is 1450kg.
The engine is perfectly suited to the six ratios (rather than seven), because it is able to stay in its ideal power band for longer in each gear. I know seven ratios look better on paper – and can certainly be good in action – but the TCR is not lacking anything, even though it is lacking one gear. The combination of this unique power delivery and these ratios is a treat.
The steering and brakes are as precise and predictable as ever. For me, the biggest improvement is to the chassis.
The Golf GTI and R have tended to favour comfort over sharp cornering, but the TCR delivers both. It’s evident VW engineers really know this chassis well by now, and have found just the right damper tune to deliver supple ride and sharper responses when either is called upon.
In comfort mode, the ride is not as busy as you might expect with the lowered suspension. Even sport mode is rather liveable, until you hit a decent bump.
The TCR doesn't lean in corners as much as the standard GTI. And cornering grip is excellent, though these tyres are soft in our experience, and you could end up needing a new set sooner than if you were running a regular passenger-car tyre.
And finally, the LED headlights turn night into day and are superb both on low and high beam, and are worthy of a special mention. Not all cars get this part right. After all, you want to see where you’re going.
It’s been a few years since I’ve driven a VW Golf GTI in anger. Getting reacquainted with it thanks to the TCR has made me fall in love with the GTI all over again. You know a car has won your heart when you start working through the finances in your head on the drive home.
And yet, that’s where some people may struggle to come to terms with this car. It’s ‘only’ about $4000 dearer than a standard Golf GTI, but that model too has climbed in price in recent years. And the TCR is ‘only’ about $4000 away from a Golf R. I would hate to be faced with such a tough decision.
You really can’t make a bad call; it’s just a matter of how much you’re prepared to pay – in the showroom, and over time when it comes to depreciation. Will the TCR be a collector's item? Or will not enough people know what it is or appreciate its uniqueness?
The regular Golf GTI is still a blast (and the cheapest of the three options), but I reckon I’d still be tempted to opt for a Golf R if the budget stretched that far. Primarily because there’s a fair chance more people will know what it is, and therefore it has a better chance at holding a stronger resale value.
Presumably, though, that’s why companies make cars like this. So we forget about the cost and make the decision with our hearts rather than our heads.