Is the new Golf R Volkswagen’s ultimate hot hatch?
The GTI badge is arguably one of the most iconic designations in the motoring world, and the Golf GTI continues to epitomise the essence of hot hatch motoring.
But in Golf terms, the GTI does not represent the pinnacle of performance – that honour belongs to the Golf R, which adds all-wheel drive and more muscle to the GTI formula. VW has just released an upgraded, updated Golf R – and in South African terms, it’s the marque’s most powerful standard production Golf to date.
KEEPING THE BENCHMARK FRESH
The updated Golf R joins a recently refreshed Golf family colloquially referred to as the Golf 7.5, because it incorporates a series of refinements and upgrades. It’s certainly not the all-new Golf 8, which is expected to make its debut in Europe late next year, but will probably only reach South African shores in 2019.
So, for now, the Golf 7.5 is meant to keep the benchmark hatchback ahead of the chasing pack – and the Golf R is its undisputed flagship.
Despite its power advantage, the Golf R is an understated machine that mixes class and sophistication with an underlying menace. A subtle body kit adds a sense of purpose, together with generous 19-inch wheels, big-bore exhausts and carbon fibre-look exterior mirror housings.
Frankly, it’s hard to get excited about the Golf R in pure aesthetic terms. It’s handsome rather than head-turning, and even the lower stance and bigger alloys don’t adequately express the car’s considerable dynamic potential.
Yes, the update has endowed it with a fresher, cleaner face – especially the keener headlights and more aggressive front-end look. And yes, it’s unmistakably Golf.
But there’s nothing here that will get the heart beating faster – unless you know the significance of that subtle R badging …
The updated but understated theme continues inside. It’s a space that oozes quality, with a tactile approach that means you can see, touch and feel the quality.
Most apparent is the new infotainment system. As interfaces go, it’s pretty intuitive, and the gesture control is a novel extra.
The grippy steering wheel and form-hugging bucket seats add sporty appeal, but functionality and luxury are the overriding themes. The Active Info Display, which replaces conventional gauges with a configurable TFT display, is a standard feature.
However, the single most important aspect of this latest Golf R is the engine. It’s still a four-cylinder, two-litre turbo unit, but power has increased to 213 kW, while torque peaks at 380 Nm.
The gearbox is a latest-generation seven-speed DSG dual-clutch design, while all-wheel drive continues to ensure loads of traction, assisted by VW’s XDS electronic differential lock. The idea, of course, is to make full use of the engine’s urge, while also endowing the Golf with rock-solid composure.
Purist petrolheads will tell you that the Golf R is faster, but less entertaining than a GTI, and that’s a fair comment. The all-wheel drive system adds grip and poise – but it also robs the R of some of the crispness and agility that makes the GTI great.
The Golf R is faster and more effortless, though: with all that traction, it despatches the zero to 100 dash in just 4,6 seconds, while top speed is limited to 250 km/h. But if anything, the sheer capability of the R underplays its very real talent.
You always end up going faster than you realise, because the Golf makes it so easy to go fast. It also means that you need to drive very hard to approach the R’s considerable limits – and that’s not always possible on roads that are becoming increasingly traffic-bound.
However, if you’re lucky enough to extend the Golf R on a quiet country road, or a remote mountain pass, you’ll find it delivers levels of grip, of urge and downright grunt that translate into thrilling, heart-racing motoring.
Shove the hatch into a corner too fast, and there’s always enough urge in reserve to pull it through, with the all-wheel drive providing gravity-defying traction. And in sheer straight-line terms, the R always has the guts to slingshot you towards the horizon, regardless of gear or initial velocity.
THE BOTTOM LINE
For all its very real talents, however, I find myself wondering why anyone would buy a Golf R, rather than a GTI.
Yes, the R is faster, smoother and more composed. But it gains an aura of sophistication that dilutes the fizz and excitement so typical of the GTI.
You have to drive so much harder, so much faster to explore the Golf R’s considerable limits. And yes, it’s also a lot more expensive.
But the Golf R is a worthy flagship – a superhatch for those who demand the best, and a performance machine that rewards real intent with real, spine-tingling performance.