– Powerful and economical
– Great ride and handling
– Spacious well-appointed cabin
– A tad pricey
– Doesn’t look pricey
– Doesn’t like low speeds
Who would’ve thought that a carmaker could turn a family hatchback into a proper sports car. Sure, Mitsubishi and Subaru have done it before, but their creations still retain the original cheap-as-dung interiors. Considering the Volkswagen Golf had higher standards to begin with, it wasn’t hard to make their Golf R feel almost as special as the Nissan GT-R from behind the wheel. But we’ll talk more about that later.
Outwardly, the Golf R looks conservatively mean, what with the unique headlights, aggressive bumpers and middle-mounted exhaust tips. And yet, it still looks enough like a regular Golf for taxi drivers to honk at you, them ignorant of the fact that your hatchback costs as much as a basic BMW.
We actually drove two variants of the Golf R, a white one with silver 18-inch wheels and regular sports suspension, and a blue one with black 19-inch wheels and “DCC” adjustable suspension. Aside from that, the two cars were identical. Both came with nicely-padded upper dashboard and door trim, sportingly-bolstered leather seats, aluminium pedals and subtle metallic trim bits. It is the exact same interior that comes in the cheaper Golf GTI, only with the “GTI” badges replaced with “R” ones.
The VW Golf is very spacious, obviously, given its tall profile. Legroom and headroom are good even in the back. Boot space is more tall than long, but you can flip down the rear bench. There are also five or six hooks in the boot to hang grocery bags from, an uber-practical idea that no other car has so many of. A space-saver spare wheel resides under the boot floor. Covered cup-holders, door pockets and some small cubbies round out the storage options.
There isn’t any shortage of upscale gadgetry. The Golf R can be optioned up with a touchscreen navigation-multimedia system, superb CD/MP3 stereo with USB/iPod ports, cruise control, turning HID headlights, full keyless entry with starter button, decent dual-zone a/c with rear vents, front and side-curtain airbags, and rear camera with sensors. The Bluetooth worked only part of the time, although it could be a glitch with our phone too.
The Golf R isn’t just a GTI with the boost turned up. The R is powered by a strengthened 2.0-litre 4-cylinder with bigger turbochargers and a quick-reacting all-wheel-drive system. Available juice stands at 255 hp at 6000 rpm and 330 Nm of torque at 2400 rpm, unfortunately detuned compared to the European version. But the supercar-level driving experience isn’t diluted in the slightest. We managed a 0-100 kph time of 6.5 seconds in July weather, almost as quick as some V8 muscle-cars we’ve tested, with a muffled-yet-growling engine note, lightning-quick DSG automanual paddle-shifts signalled by a “boom” through the exhaust, and no GTI-style wheelspin whatsoever. The built-in launch control doesn’t make it any quicker.
The low-end torque pushes you back into your seat, unlike non-turbo cars like the Honda Civic Type-R that gradually build power. In fact, there is superb torque all through the six gears, unlike the Golf GTI which runs out of steam at highway speeds.
The Golf R also takes all corners with more confidence than a Jaguar XKR. About 25 mm lower than a GTI, our confidence in the suspension simply grew with each turn we took. Body roll is unnoticeable and understeer isn’t an issue on high-speed corners. Grip from the 225-width tyres is superb and the DSG responds instantly to manual inputs in “sport” mode. The steering is pretty heavy and offers limited feedback, but it is razor-sharp. The brakes are decent but were not as strong as we expected, although they could’ve just been worn down by earlier drivers.
Of course, there is a limit to its limits. When we took small roundabouts as fast as we could, the not-fully-defeatable stability control cut in aggressively, seemingly pumping the brakes to reduce understeer. We were fine with that, until the time we drove a Porsche 911 and saw what a real sports car could do around the same circles, without struggling like the Golf R. Stick to the longer curves.
All-round visibility is great, thanks to thin forward pillars and big windows. So daily life around the city is easy with this car. Power is so abundant that we didn’t have to gun the engine everywhere, and managed a fuel consumption of only 10.6 litres/100 km, similar to that of the Golf GTI. The DCC system is amazing, in that the ride becomes as smooth as that of a BMW when set to “comfort” mode. The car we drove without DCC had a very harsh ride quality.
Still, there are some annoying quirks. The delayed response at initial throttle tip-in from standstill is an issue of the electronic drive-by-wire pedal. The first gear response is also jumpy and rubbery around town. Drive at speed, and none of these issues are apparent. On the highway, wind and road noises are as low as in a luxury car, but the engine drones at almost 3000 rpm when doing 120 kph.
The VW Golf R is pricey, but you get what you pay for. As we said before, this is the cheapest way to get behind the wheel of a premium sports car without actually buying a premium sports car. No other car packs luxury gadgets, adjustable suspension, turbocharged speed and a smooth ride in one package at this price. About the only reason left to not buy the R is because it looks like a VW Golf.
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