Road Test: Volkswagen Golf R
Volkswagen’s Golf GTI faces just one rival, its sibling, the Golf R, writes Thegandra Naidoo.
It’s funny. I’ve been really looking to this all month but just before I turn the key, I hesitate. I hesitate because I know that once that key is turned, my entire perception towards hatchbacks is going to change. Up until now, the Golf VII GTI was my favourite hot hatch. It has impressive styling, a superb interior, tidy handling and ample performance from its 162kW turbocharged engine. But this…this is going to wipe it out.
This is the latest Golf R. This has got 206kW. And four-wheel drive. It’s not anything unusual to find a 4WD DUB. South Africans have embraced both the Golf V and VI variants in 4WD guise – both wearing the R badges.
But, long before Volkswagen’s introduced 4WD or 4MOTION – as it’s known – the planet was graced with four-wheel driven hot hatches such as Ford’s Escort Cosworth and Lancia’s Delta Integrale. And that thought makes me hesitate a fraction longer.
However, comparisons with the classic rally-bred specials and more modern ones like Subaru’s Impreza STi, are perhaps unfair, yet inevitable. So I turn the key anyway.
The engine chugs into life with a disappointingly agricultural clunk and, to be honest, I’ve heard John Deere’s and Massey Ferguson’s wake up to their day’s work with more enthusiasm. It’s just the initial fire-up sound that’s the problem, for thereafter the four-pot engine settles to a smooth idle. But, sadly, on the move the slightly hard-edged engine note never reaches a satisfying or machine-gun wurrrrrp of Subaru’s boxer engine.
To be fair though it does sound a lot better if you are listening to it from the outside, especially with the car going away from you. As the DSG box cog swops just before redline, the exhaust kerfuffles with a pleasing burble. It looks good too, with the 19″ Cadiz wheels and angry headlights flashing across the countryside.
At first glance a Golf R doesn’t look vastly different from its GTI sibling. But there are many differences to set them apart. The R is fitted with sportier bumpers, double-exhaust tailpipes on either side of the rear bumper, side skirts, a lowered stance thanks to a revised sports suspension, an integrated boot spoiler and smoked taillights. While the changes may be subtle, they do give the Golf R an undeniably mean look, although, it doesn’t feel the some from the inside, at least not initially.
Power is provided courtesy of a turbocharged 2.0L engine, with the engine codenamed AE888. It’s the same unit that the powers the standard GTI, but it differs significantly from the GTI. It receives new pistons, a new cylinder head, bigger injectors, larger intercooler and a bigger turbocharger that provides the extra oomph. The Golf R’s four-wheel system and Haldex differential ensure that it leaves the line cleanly and efficiently, no matter how wet the tarmac.
And with 206kW and 380Nm, it bursts forward with the raw urgency that you expect. While it’s claimed to accelerate from 0-100kph in just 5.0 seconds, I managed to record 5.3 seconds from zero to a 100 – about a second faster than the previous R which dashed from 0-100kph in 6.28 seconds.
The thing with the Golf R is, it much faster than you’d come to expect. The DSG gearbox has been refined with to provide lightning quick gear changes. Most buyers would argue that you could live with the standard GTI’s less powerful engine because you will never really be able to make full use of the R’s 206kW.
Well, you are wrong. This is in fact a very fast car; and once it is going, it just keeping sailing. Right through fourth, fifth and sixth, the acceleration never seems to stop building until a governed speed of 250kph is reached.
There’s never any sense of turbo-lag and in sixth you will be deeply impressed with the responsiveness and the amount of torque available.
So too are the brakes. The ventilated discs peeping out through the thick-spoked wheels may only look average in size at the rear, but the ones at the front are large enough, if not perhaps clean enough, to eat your dinner off. Pedal feel is pretty perfect and it is reassuring to know that it’s equipped with ABS and EBD.
Admittedly the brakes did begin to fade slightly at one point, but this was only after rapidly repeated high-speed stops with little time between to cool.
When the road is clear and doesn’t run so straight or terribly smooth, the Golf R does a convincing job of commanding it. There’s no real body-roll, just a very high level of grip that you are unlikely to unintentionally break on any road, dry or damp. If there is a criticism, it’s that you are not always able to feel what is going on.
The steering is very good, and provides decent feedback, especially when the car is being driven with a measure of intent. For the first time, the R model feels like a real driver’s car.
The Golf R rides incredibly well, and not just at high speed. It shrugs our nasty pothole-strewn streets with ease. There’s plenty of legroom at the front and it feels almost as roomy at the rear as well.
The rear window looks terribly small though, like something that you’d expect to find in a cabriolet. There is an option for a reverse camera that could to be quite useful. Although – the idea sounds almost ridiculous – especially on a hatchback!
The bucket seats are superbly comfortable and offer lots of lateral support as well. There isn’t much that is new or different about the Golf R’s interior. But a Volkswagen dealer described the Golf R’s interior as “appliqué” with its carbon fibre-look seat bolsters and door panel trim, nicely integrated LED light strips in the doors and sills, a chunky R-badged steering wheel and a large touch-screen display for the infotainment system, among others.
And, it’s fairly frugal. It’ll return 9.5-litres/100km in traffic but it becomes very economical with 6.5-litres/100km on the extra-urban drive – a vast improvement over its predecessor which averaged 8.9-litres/100km on the open road.
So, it’s fast, it’s civilised and it’ll leave a grin on your face. After driving it, stepping back into a GTI will feel like coming back from a week’s holiday with Eva Mendes to long evenings of playing chess with your grandfather.
It’s a great four-wheel-drive hot hatch but it doesn’t quite offer the raw-edged hot hatch feel of the Subaru Impreza and those old, aforementioned stormers the Integrale and the Cosworth.
Unfortunately, the R498 000 base model price for the DSG version might seem a little steep. And, that price quickly rises when you add the optional Adaptive chassis control (R10 200), and sunroof (R9 000), among others. The price does include a five-year/90 000km service plan which is decent enough, although, I would advise buyers to opt for a full maintenance plan.
As a potential buyer, you do question yourself, is it worth spending more than R500 000 on a VW Golf? Alas, most buyers would attest that you could live with the GTI at R100 000 less.
The obvious modern rival the Golf R will face is the Audi S3. While they are identical in architecture, the ride is completely different. The S3 carries a R30 000 premium over the Golf R, and even at this price, I might be drawn to the S3.