The last time I drove the ‘R’ version of the Volkswagen
it was the R32 and its performance came by courtesy of a big 3.2-litre V6 engine shoehorned under the Golf bonnet. In these more environmentally-focussed days, however, big engines are no longer such an acceptable route to performance for mainstream manufacturers.
So, for its spiritual successor to the Golf R32, Volkswagen unveiled the Golf R at the Frankfurt Motor Show at the end of 2013, with sales in the UK starting in March this year.
Under the bonnet of this new ‘R’ is a two-litre turbocharged engine. But, if you think the reduction in engine size will mean a reduction in the performance figures of the new two-litre Golf R, think again.
At 300 bhp, the power output of the new car is up considerably on the 237 bhp Golf R32. Indeed, the Volkswagen Golf R is the fastest-accelerating Golf ever, with a 0-62 mph time of 5.1 seconds (4.9 seconds with the optional DSG gearbox). At least it is until the possible launch of a production version of the 400 bhp Golf R400.
To help tame this giant-killing performance the Volkswagen Golf R comes, as standard, with a Haldex 4Motion four-wheel-drive system. Under low load driving conditions, power to the rear wheels is decoupled to improve fuel efficiency. But, under load, torque to the rear wheels is adjusted according to requirements and as much as 100% of the power can be switched to the rear wheels in a fraction of a second.
If you haven’t heard of the Golf R, you are not alone. It is rather overshadowed by the much higher-profile Golf GTI. The reason for this is that the Golf R is more specialised and therefore more of a niche offering at a considerably higher price. The Golf R range starts at over £29,000, whereas the GTI starts at a more manageable £21,520.
Does that make the Golf R overpriced? Not if you stop to study the engineering that has gone into its creation.
Volkswagen, well aware of the sophisticated market that the Golf R will appeal to, have kept its looks deliberately understated. The R wouldn’t immediately stand out from a line-up of other Golf hatchbacks. Look closer and you will notice R badges, the tasteful body kit, silver mirrors and special wheels. The interior doesn’t look out of place for a £30,000 car and you also get the Golf’s proven accommodation and practicality.
The Golf R is available in three or five-door forms, with a possible estate car to follow. So this is a car with practical space for four (although the sports seats do reduce rear knee room slightly, particularly for any middle passenger). The boot is good and spacious like other Golfs, but down from 380 litres to 343 litres because of the additional space needed for the four-wheel-drive system. Good to a spare wheel (even if it is a space saver) and not just an inflation kit.
So, while much of the package may look like any Golf, power up the engine and press the accelerator and you are soon very aware this one is rather special. The surge of acceleration is instant and impressive. The power keeps coming in a smooth surge and the engine’s willingness to rev means you have to keep a wary eye on the rev counter to avoid hitting the rev limiter.
As is becoming common these days there are selectable driving modes including ‘normal’, ‘eco’, ‘comfort’ and ‘sport’ (which is changed to ‘race’ for the Golf R). There is also an individual setting, so that you can choose and save the settings you like.
But, whereas on some cars you find yourself switching the modes on and off to see if you can detect a difference, on the Golf R the difference really is notable, particularly with the £815 option of Dynamic Chassis Control. You really can set the Golf R to waft around in relaxed, comfort one minute and turn it into a firm, taut sports car the next.
The tighter suspension, more sporting steering responses and remapped engine and gearbox settings, really do give the Golf R a true sporting character. But in the belief that the soundtrack is also important, the ‘race’ setting introduces a deep, throaty engine note. It matters not that this sound track is clever synthesised, it sounds authentic and wonderful.
The Golf R feels extremely surefooted, with a tenacious grip on the tarmac, even on the greasy roads that blighted most of my test. It happened that my next drive was in a car that was almost as powerful, but with only front wheel drive and the contrast between the two was quite stark. While I felt I was tiptoeing on the wet road surfaces as the traction control light flickered, the Golf R gave such an impression of competence it hardly needed a traction control system.
Combine this remarkable feeling of security with an electronic steering system that really does provide good driver feedback and the result is a true driver’s car. The handling is remarkably neutral and – when I finally found some dry tarmac and a favourite series of bends – the Golf R even felt like a car with genuine power going to the rear wheels. No doubt this is due, in some measure, to the sophisticated electronics that reduce understeer and introduce the effect of a limited-slip differential.
The Golf R is sophisticated and practical, yet retains enough raw pleasure to make it one of the most desirable hot hatchbacks on the roads today. With an overall 28 mpg for my mixture of city driving, motorway cruising and cross-country B-roads and a best of 34mpg on a long mostly out of town drive, it is also reasonably affordable to run – but you should fuel it with 98 RON (Super Premium) petrol.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I need to phone my bank manager…
Volkswagen Golf R
Carbon dioxide emissions: 165 g/km
VED band n/a
Combined fuel economy 40.9 mpg
Top speed: 155 mph
0-62: 5.1 secs
Power 300 bhp
Engine size 1984cc petrol
Boot capacity 343/1233 litres (rear seat up/down)