For most petrolheads, the quintessential hot hatchback is Volkswagen’s Golf GTI – a car that not only pioneered the genre, but also continued to set the standard. Now in its seventh generation, the current GTI is one of the best yet – but as it turns out, one of its most daunting rivals is also a close relation. DEON SCHOEMAN meets the VW Golf R.
There is a gruffness to the exhaust note of this Golf that demands attention from the moment you turn the ignition key. It’s a menacing, deep-throated burble that sounds almost too bold, too muscular, for a four-cylinder, two-litre engine.
Engage first gear, hit the loud pedal, and the next impression is a blur. Well, perhaps not quite as dramatic as that, but there’s a resolve and intensity to the way this Vee-Dub gathers speed that is more sports car than hot hatch – and certainly more concentrated than the urge of a ‘normal’ Golf GTI.
Yes, the car in question is a standard production model. And yes, it’s a Golf. But despite its very obvious performance character, this is not just another GTI. Meet the VW Golf R.
The notion of a kind of Super GTI is nothing new in the VW world. The previous, sixth-generation Golf also hosted an R model at the very top of the Golf performance ladder. And the drivetrain combined turbo power with all-wheel drive – just like the new, Golf 7-based version I’m driving.
But this new Golf R is a far cry from that first iteration. For starters, it benefits from VW’s new-gen MQB chassis, which provides levels of grip, handling and composure that are impressive in standard, bread-and-butter Golfs, let alone a performance variation on the theme.
Secondly, the Haldex-supplied 4Motion all-wheel drive system is the most sophisticated to date, allowing normal (and economical) front-wheel drive when driving normally, and feeding urge to the rear instantaneously when extra traction is required.
The 4Motion system reacts so quickly and incisively that its action is actually pre-emptive, preventing wheel spin and optimising the transfer of power from wheel to tar.
Indeed, it’s the 4Motion system, together with individual electronic diff locks on each wheel, that allows the Golf R to catapult off the line with all the veracity of a scalded cat. The forces pin you to the bucket seat while the scenery starts rushing past at ever-increasing rate.
That would not be possible without a healthy dose of muscle. And that’s exactly what the Golf R’s mill is capable of. Yes, it’s still a four-cylinder, 2,0-litre turbocharged engine. But it’s good for 206kW of muscle, combined with 380Nm of torque – figures that would have made Porsche proud not that long ago.
Even more impressive than the stats is the way the four-potter delivers its power without any sign of lag or hesitation. The turbo spools up very early, and very quickly, so that the transition from no boost to full boost goes almost unnoticed.
The shove in the small of your back never stops, and the acceleration is relentless, punctuated only by the rapid-fire shifts of the six-speed S-tronic dual-clutch transmission.
You need to drive the Golf R in manual mode, using the shift paddles for gear changes, to extract maximum driver enjoyment. There’s a slight pop of pre-detonation from the dual-pipe exhausts when changing up at full bore, and the shift action has a positive, percussive edge that’s reminiscent of a real sequential transmission.
Of course, the DSG gearbox will operate in full auto mode, which isn’t nearly as much fun, but becomes a welcome option when you’re stuck in stop-start traffic.
Not surprisingly, the combination of lots of power, all-wheel drive and a quick-shifting DSG gearbox suggests that the Golf R should be a fast car – faster certainly than the iconic GTI, which is by no means a slouch.
And yes, a 5.0sec 0-100km/h sprint time confirms the Golf R’s tar-ripping status, shaving off well over a second off the GTI’s time. Top speed is limited to 250 km/h.
But frankly, the straight-line stuff is child’s play. It’s the way a car’s performance potential is applied in real-world driving conditions that separates the mundane from the magical.
The Golf R indisputably belongs in the second category. And while its sprinting capabilities are impressive, the hatchback’s real appeal lies in the broader driving experience: the urban commute, the highway cruise, the bumper-to-bumper traffic and, finally, the weekend mountain pass onslaught.
Around town, the ready supply of instant acceleration allows swift, incisive overtaking. The ride is taut but not harsh, ensuring an unencumbered exchange of information between car and driver. In-gear tractability is impressive, and when you need them, the big discs front and rear squeeze all the speed from the car in a jiffy.
Out on the open road, the Golf R gathers speed with a certain glee that’s hard to rein in. It’s a car that was born to be driven with enthusiasm, and you can’t help but heed that call when the opportunity presents itself.
As for the twisty bits, the Golf R shows its class with a rock-solid composure that allows true, confident tracking through the tight. The new car shows off an inherent agility absent from its predecessor, and uses the traction of the 4Motion system wisely.
Dynamic Chassis Control is an added cost option that allows steering action, damping, throttle response and even the exhaust note intensity to be adjusted and set. You can opt for softer damping and quicker steering, for instance.
The electronic stability control can be relaxed, or even switched off completely, allowing the Golf R’s chassis to show of its real qualities. Don’t expect an unbridled monster, though: while the rear is livelier, and the steering becomes crisper, there are still huge reserves of grip and composure, providing a confidence-building safety net.
Like the GTI, steering assistance is electro-mechanical, and for once provides decent feedback, especially when the car is being driven with a measure of intent.
The interior is plush with a hint of sportiness. Carbon fibre-look seat bolsters and door panel trim, nicely integrated LED light strips in the doors and sills, and a large touch-screen display for the infotainment system are particular highlights, while the grippy steering wheel feels racy and alive.
The packaging is pure Golf 7, with decent rear head and legroom, the convenience of four-door accessibility, and a 343-litre boot. The overall execution is smart, with a brand-typical understatement that some would suggest is too plain for a car this exciting.
But here’s the million-dollar question: at R486,000 and change, the Golf R costs just about R90k more than a vanilla, DSG-equipped GTI. That premium has to be offset against the R’s superior power and a brilliant chassis, a longer list of standard kit, and a certain level of exclusivity.
The answer is simple: in purely pragmatic terms, the Golf GTI’s mix of driver appeal and value means it’s still king. But the Golf R is technologically superior, technically more sophisticated, and a lot quicker in performance terms. It’s also a very special, very engaging car to drive. And that’s enough to tip the balance in its favour.
Besides, it also sounds the part. DM
VW Golf R 2.0 TSI 4Motion DSG
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