The thing that impressed me most when I first drove the seventh generation of Volkswagen Golf was just how good an all-rounder it was. It ticks all the right boxes for a practical family hatchback – five doors, decent boot, comfortable, safe, well-equipped, economical and good value.
It was the same story with the Golf GTI. Add some tartan seats and a turbocharged 2.0-litre engine with 230PS and you have a fabulous hot hatch. Not a track day hero like a Renaultsport Megane, but the sort of car that you can drive quickly on knackered British roads. It’s got one of those great chassis setups that allow the car to breathe with the road surface and not get thrown off line with every imperfection.
The problem with the GTI is that it is so capable you soon find yourself wanting more power, and that’s where the R model comes in. In this seventh generation we now have the most powerful Golf ever built, with 300PS from the same 2.0-litre capacity as the GTI. That’s a 30% increase and the resulting 0-62mph of under 5 seconds seems almost absurd for a five-door hatchback.
To stop the Golf from devouring its front tyres at the first sign of a roundabout Volkswagen have fitted a fifth-generation Haldex all-wheel drive system. Power goes to the front wheels in normal conditions but as soon as any slip is detected it starts transferring drive to the rear (up to 100%). The R isn’t all about extra power, it’s also got the hardware to make the most of it.
On first acquaintance the R is still unmistakably a Golf. From the outside there are a few visual embellishments (a bit of a bodykit, distinctive U-shaped LED lighting, 18-inch wheels, chrome quad exhausts and silver mirror caps) but the family DNA is clearly the same.
It’s the same on the inside. Cream and black leather seats and carbon-fibre effect dash and door trim can’t hide the R’s humble origins. Mind you, I say ‘humble’, but the Golf’s cabin is probably the best in class thanks to its quality feel and perfect ergonomics.
Everything is where you expect it to be and works just how you want it. I’ve praised the Golf’s touch-screen system before but it still staggers me that when Volkswagen can get it so right rivals can still get it so wrong.
Turn the key in the R’s ignition, select Drive on the optional six-speed DSG and the R feels as docile as any other Golf as it trundles gently out onto the open road. Straight away you realise that the dynamically controlled suspension has a similarly supple nature to the GTI, just with a touch of extra firmness. What’s even more impressive is that this quality remains even with the R’s optional 19-inch Pretoria wheels, an inch bigger than the largest diameter on offer with the GTI.
So it’s civilised at low speeds but this is the Dr Jekyll side of its character. Find a stretch of quiet, open road and you can unleash Mr Hyde by selecting ‘Race’ mode in the drive profile menu.
Now you get instant throttle response and a DSG box that holds onto the revs as long as it can. When you gun the throttle you’re pinned back in the seat as the full 300PS is transferred straight to the tarmac, the DSG reels off blisteringly quick gear changes and the speedometer needle rises at an astonishing rate. The engine takes on a harder note too thanks to the now-familiar sound resonator although I can’t shake the feeling that it sounds a bit too fake in this R.
The DCC suspension stiffens up too but the surprising thing is that the R still maintains a surprising level of ride quality. It’s flatter through corners but doesn’t take on the punishing edge that you might expect. If you think 19-inch wheels are a disaster for your spine then you need to try this Golf R.
Throw it into a corner and it feels nimble, alert and lively. Just like a GTI but with 70PS extra you can exit a corner with greater speed and even less drama as the all-wheel drive and electronic differential smother any unruly behaviour. All-wheel drive setups can sometimes make a car feel a little dull-witted but there’s a bit of magic in the way the R tackles a series of bends.
The beauty of the Golf’s drive profile system is that you can create your own setup. Want the throttle response but prefer the DSG to be less enthusiastic? Just set it up in the custom profile. It’s so easy to get the R to behave how you want.
You can have a Golf R for a shade under £30k but it would have to be a manual 3-door. Two more doors adds £655 and the DSG gearbox adds a further £1,455 taking you closer to £32k. The biggest problem for the R is that makes it £4k more than the excellent GTI. There’s a big performance gap between the two but is it really enough to justify the price difference?
Standard kit includes dual-zone climate control, bi-xenon headlights with LED running lights, front and rear parking sensors, engine start/stop, DAB radio, Bluetooth and USB, 3.5-inch colour trip computer, 5.8-inch touch-screen, adaptive cruise control and nine airbags. Just add sat-nav from the options list and I can’t think of anything else you really need in a car.
More Than A GTI?
After I’d driven the Golf R I had to remind myself that this was still just a Golf, because what it can do feels far removed from its practical, everyday roots.
It would be fascinating to put the R’s Dynamic Chassis Control to the test on track to see how much difference the various modes make but it’s hard to fault it on the road. Other manufacturers would have us believe that control and response must come with a ride that punishes car and driver, but not this Golf R. It’s probably its greatest strength.
Previously I’d have said the Golf GTI is all the hot hatch you’ll ever need and if the R was just a couple of grand cheaper I’d have no qualms about recommending that instead. However, if you’ve got the budget to stretch to an R then go ahead, you won’t regret it. It takes accessible performance to new levels, dishing out blistering performance while maintaining the easy-to-live-with nature that makes the GTI so good.
Volkswagen Golf R DSG Specs
|Performance & Economy||Volkswagen Golf R DSG|
|Engine||2.0-litre 4-cylinder turbocharged petrol|
|Transmission||6-speed dual-clutch automatic, front-engined, all-wheel drive|
|Power (PS / bhp)||300 / 296|
|Torque (Nm / lb.ft)||380 / 280|
|0 - 62 mph (seconds)||4.9|
|Top Speed (mph)||155|
|Kerb Weight (kg)||1,495|
|CO2 Emissions (g/km)||159|
|Combined Economy (mpg)||40.9|