– Fast little car
– Cabin space and features
– All-weather handling
– Pricey with options
– Steering feedback
– Not as fun as its siblings
The VW Golf GTI is widely regarded as the best hot hatch ever. What’s better than the Golf GTI? Why, the Golf R of course. We had the opportunity to drive two of these over the past year, and it’s every bit as good as you expect it to be.
Oddly enough, the Golf R looks more docile than the GTI, with a regular grille, simple bumpers and more generic wheels, with the only obvious clue to its potency being the quad exhaust tips. It’s still a good-looking hot hatch, but the GTI makes its intentions known better with its red grille line and funkier wheels. Otherwise the Golf R is a well-proportioned hatchback with a touch of understated class, unlike any other in its niche.
Aside from basic colours like silver, you can even get it in funky colours like the purple example we drove. It’s up to the local dealer to import one for you, but it is indeed a standard colour, even if it looks like some custom job.
Inside, it the bog-standard Golf GTI interior, save for the “R” badges. The simple black cabin design with silver accents gives off a relatively premium vibe, although no more than in any other Golf. The upper dash and window sills have soft-touch padding, with leatherette door inserts and armrests in our test cars, while everything below the waist is hard plastic. The stainless steel pedals and ambient lighting were nice additions. Our silver test car had an all-black interior like in any GTI, while our custom-ordered purple test car had a white/black carbon-fibre textured leather upholstery.
Cabin space itself is pretty good, with tons of headroom under that boxy roof. The manually-adjustable front seats are nicely bolstered and there’s enough rear legroom for most average-sized adults. The boot volume is decent, with a couple of grocery-bag hooks and an as-needed split-folding rear seat. A nice packaging touch is hiding the stereo subwoofer within the spare tyre under the boot floor. There’s enough door pockets, padded seatback pockets and cup-holders, the latter nicely hidden when not in use.
The latest infotainment system in all top-spec Golfs have a capacitive touchscreen with swipe functionality and a largely monochrome interface that integrates the good CD/MP3 stereo, Bluetooth phone and other settings, with our tester getting the optional navigation or USB ports. The 2018 model will have a larger screen while replacing the physical shortcut buttons along the sides of the screen with touch buttons, so it’s better to get this outgoing model if you want a proper volume knob.
Other features include a good dual-zone auto a/c, rear a/c vents, rear camera with sensors, HID headlights with turning fog lamps, cruise control with speed limiter, electric parking brake, tyre-pressure monitor, lots of airbags and smart keyless entry with starter button. Further features can be added, such as adaptive cruise, blind-spot monitoring and what not, but that depends on what the dealer orders.
The most powerful iteration of VW’s 2.0-litre turbocharged inline-4 can be found in the Golf R, delivering 280 hp from 5500 to 6200 rpm and 380 Nm of torque from 1800 to 5500 rpm. That’s 20 horses less than the Euro-spec version, but VW says it’s just the tuning we’re saddled with for our hot climate.
Brapping and popping on gear-changes like the GTI, a wheelspin-free launch resulted in a 0-100 kph time of 5.8 seconds on a hot May afternoon. It’s an excellent engine with plenty of low-end kick and superb passing power, but beyond the initial take-off, it feels only a little bit quicker than the regular GTI once you’re already moving. The Golf R only feels substantially stronger when putting pedal to the metal at speeds well above 100 kph, which is when the GTI starts to falter.
When launching from idle, the car bogs down for a split-second before flying off, with no torque steer. The 6-speed dual-clutch automatic’s gear changes are quick, and the manual paddle-shifters are very responsive. We were burning fuel at a rate of 13.5 litres/100 km, which are V6-grade figures, but the motor also makes V6-grade power.
There’s no obvious body roll as you navigate turns with the well-weighted power steering which benefits from a tight ratio, never feeling too heavy, but offering limited feedback. With bigger brakes than the GTI, it stops harder too.
The Golf R is planted in the twisties, but only when driven just under its limits. There is great grip from the low-profile tyres on the optional 19-inch alloys (225/40 on 18-inchers are standard). It understeers at the limit, feeling less tossable than the GTI when lifting off the throttle going into a corner. The GTI also happens to be more than 100 kg lighter. Also, if you turn the steering wheel at a stop and moderately punch the throttle at the same time, like when jumping into a fast-moving T-junction, the R has FWD-like torque steer just like a GTI before the all-wheel-drive system catches up and pulls the car in the right direction.
The little hatchback rides firmly, feeling harsh on some roads, but overall it is fairly compliant even without the optional adjustable suspension. We’d recommend ordering the latter if you truly want a smooth ride though, as it makes a noticeable difference. Of course, that won’t make your car any quieter, as the engine is always audible since it is apparently piped-in sound. Road and wind noise are moderate at highway speeds, a lot of it drowned out by the very mild engine drone.
The Volkswagen Golf R may sound like the hottest version of the legendary GTI on paper, but in reality, it’s actually a more refined grown-up version of that same car. It offers the dull safety of all-wheel-drive, and its power advantage is only obvious at illegal speeds. In fact, we had more fun in the GTI Clubsport, which falls right between the GTI and the R in terms of pricing and power.
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