Drive Thru: Volkswagen Golf R

VW Golf R

Details of the all-paw Golf R first came to light in September last year. Since then there’s been a sense of anticipation building here at AUSmotive HQ. On paper, Volkswagen’s 188kW hero puts forward a compelling case. As with any car the final judgement can only be revealed through first hand experience.

First, a quick glance at how Volkswagen have set the R apart from its lesser siblings. Up front there’s an angular lower grille with large open vents. Fog lights have made way for LED daytime running lights; the only Golf in the range to feature the latest in lighting fashion. Xenon headlights, with cornering assist, are standard fitment, too.

At the back of the car centre-mount twin exhaust tips have carried over from the Mk5 R32. Continuing the nod to current lighting trends are trick LED rear lights, as well.

The front grille, wing mirrors and rear skirt feature gloss black paint detail. Likewise the brake calipers, which are adorned with R badges up front. Model specific 18” alloys complete the look and 19” wheels in the same style can also be optioned.

Inside, think Golf GTI without the tartan seats and red contrast stitching. The steering wheel loses the GTI’s metal insert in favour of a gloss black finish. There are three seat trim choices, including cloth/micro fibre standard trim and optional leather. There’s also racing-style Recaro buckets to tempt your cash reserves.

The overall look of the Golf R is classic Volkswagen and, in this case, the term velvet sledgehammer is perhaps most appropriate. Actually, inside and out, the Golf GTI offers more drama with its splashes of red detailing and standard tartan seat fabric. Despite that, the Golf R gets it pretty much bang on in the looks department.

Under the skin is a 2.0 litre turbocharged four cylinder with peak numbers of 188kW and 330Nm. The engine was first seen in Australia in 2007 under the bonnet of the Audi S3. Like the current model S3, the Golf R is fitted with the latest Haldex IV all-wheel drive system.

But, the real story of the Golf R is told out on the road.

VW Golf R

VW Golf R

The test car was fitted with a 6-speed DSG transmission. As usual, Volkswagen’s cog-swapping hardware was clinically efficient. The common DSG delay at take off in D mode was still apparent. Long term, though, I expect this would be something one could adapt to with no great fuss.

The Golf R uses a bigger turbo than the current Golf GTI and by rights it should exhibit some lag. It was there, but not really a source of any frustration. A tick to VW’s engineers, then, and perhaps a small nod to the effectiveness of the DSG.

In general terms, the ride quality around town was very good for a car fitted with 19” alloys. Although, the Adaptive Chassis Control being set to Comfort certainly helped. On the twisty stuff the Comfort setting is a big no no. The steering is just too light to afford any sort of confidence. Especially in the damp conditions experienced during the test.

Switch the ACC to Sport and when you get serious and so does the car. The ride firms up to the point that it’s probably too harsh for daily duties. The steering weighs up nicely, though. And on a mountain pass you begin to appreciate the benefits of being able to alter the Golf R’s settings on the fly. In this context, there’s no cause to complain about the ride.

Although, there is one small caveat to that last comment. With the ACC still in Sport mode I did experience some unwelcome kickback through the steering wheel. It only happened a couple of times and both times were through quite bumpy corners driven at about 6/10ths. A combination of the harsher ACC setting and 19” wheels perhaps?

In full attack mode the Golf R offered plenty of grip, the factory fitted Dunlop tyres did an admirable job in varying weather conditions. Steering feel was quite good and the overall handling of the R was very impressive for what is, we must remember, a volume selling hatchback.

It’s no surprise that the R is pretty rapid, but the real surprise of the day was seeing how the car’s speed was masked. When you’re pushing through an open sweeper, for example, you don’t get a huge sensation of outright pace. However, you do need to keep an eye on the speedo in this car; before you know it you are quickly in licence losing territory.

VW Golf R

VW Golf R

Once up and going the power delivery was quite linear, which was nice. But as good as the Golf R was, there was something missing. A spark, some life or some real character. Maybe it’s because everything comes too easy in this car? All-wheel drive, plenty of power and a DSG box so good its almost anodyne. In truth, though, this is a common trait for hot Golfs. They do serve the driver well for the vast majority of the time, but when approaching the absolute limit they start to lack a bit of feel.

Volkswagen have tried hard to tune a pleasing exhaust note for the Golf R. A four cylinder is never going to have the warmth and depth of the old narrow angle V6, of course. Never mind the R32’s gutteral rasp that was so endearing. And so it proved, with the note inside the cabin being a touch tinny and almost fabricated. I must acknowldge I am being overly harsh on this point, only because I have previously read a number of positive comments about the sound of the R.

So, when it came time to hand back the keys was I disappointed? A little. But not as much as I was expecting. I was hoping the raw thrills provided by the R would excite the senses more than it did. Okay, launch control with the DSG box is a genuine hoot. But driving enjoyment is about so much more than straight line acceleration. If you want a proper seat of the pants ride the R may not be for you.

However, let me state this clearly—the Golf R is a cracking car. It’s extremely capable and it will serve its owners with great distinction. For this reviewer the mix of looks, power, grip, all round ability and keen pricing offered make the Golf R a car I would highly recommend. Indeed, if I was in the market for a car right now the Golf R would be towards the very top of my short list. I’d make mine a 6 speed manual, though.

Thank you to Lennock Volkswagen for their assistance.

VW Golf R

Further reading