The original flavoured hot hatch
In the mid-1970s, a handful of European auto manufacturers began offering performance-orientated version of their small economical hatchbacks. Coupled upgrades in handling and performance but yet retaining much of the practicality of the hatchback design, these vehicles quickly became very popular amongst those who didn’t need or want a dedicated sports car as a daily driver.
Volkswagen has a long and well-regarded history in this niche, starting with the arrival of their fun-to-drive hot hatch in the form of the VW Golf GTI. The boxy first-generation (Mk1) Golf was fitted with front wheel drive, a “row it yourself” manual gearbox, and a naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine.
By today’s standards, the 100+ hp engine and top speed of just 182 km/hr seem rather pedestrian. But 30 years ago, it was the bees’ knees. Remember there was an energy crisis back in the 1970s and those were solid performance numbers at the time.
Today’s hot hatch
The Golf then, has a storied history in being available in both economical form, and hot hatch form. Want something more potent? Not to worry, the GTI is still around, and these days, is available with over 200hp from its 2.0 litre turbocharged four, and also a fantastic dual clutch sequential gearbox.
The obligatory 6-speed manual transmission is also available. You can even get a trick limited slip front differential in the GTI when fitted with the performance package.
But then there’s the performance king of the Golfs. The recently refreshed Volkswagen Golf R, the ultimate of the hot hatches from Wolfsburg. Fitted with standard 4-Motion all-wheel-drive, a massaged EA888 turbocharged 2.0 litre four-cylinder pumping out 292 horsepower, an enhanced version of the dual-clutch flappy paddle gearbox, this senior model is both styled with restraint and intended for grown-ups.
To those who know and love their Golfs, this is the mack daddy and the one to lust over.
For 2018, Volkswagen Canada is offering the “R” in more than just its six standard colours. For an extra $3,000, choose from 30 other vibrant colours to suit your personal palette and imagination. My test vehicle was painted in a stunning “Violet Touch Pearl” that turned heads everywhere, and yielded positive comments from strangers. Most people actually thought that it was a vinyl wrap, versus a factory-offered paint option.
A quick walk around the Golf R reveals quad exhaust pipes on the rear fascia, subtle “R” badging on the nose and tail, bigger intakes, bigger brakes, larger prettier wheels, and meatier ground effects. VW fans will note that the red trim line that runs across the front of the GTI (spanning the headlamps and grille) is gone.
Volkswagen’s head of design describes the R as having a fantastic balance of respectability, sportiness, restraint, but yet differentiation. Historically, the R family line has produced very handsome variations and this Mk 7 version is no exception.
The Mk7 Golf is now based on the larger but lighter VW Group MQB platform, which makes the car a kissing cousin of the Audi A3/S3. Also shared with its Audi cousins is the EA888 turbocharged 2.0-litre four cylinder engine. Compared to the GTI’s EA888, there is a newly designed cylinder head, modified pistons, injection valves, and of course a new turbocharger.
The 292 hp finds its way to all of the Golf R’s wheels via either a six-speed manual gearbox, or an optional seven-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic gearbox (as fitted to our test vehicle). Volkswagen fans will note that the DSG gearbox has been fitted with an extra forward gear for 2018, allowing for even better use of the engine’s power. The broad torque curve that hits full force at just 1,800 rpms is absolutely delightful, with very little turbo lag.
The Golf R’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive is based on Haldex’s fifth-generation multi-plate clutch system and the latest suite of electronic aids, including launch control. Using an electro-hydraulic oil pump, the Golf R’s 4-Motion system can send almost 100 per cent of available torque to the rear axle when the computers deem it necessary.
Compared to the previous generation system, VW says that this latest setup has shorter response time and “an optimisation of the amount of torque sent rearwards”. The result is a more neutral handling balance than before. There are no limited slip differentials here, but the system does include an electronic differential system (EDS) that acts as pseudo transverse differential locks on both axles.
Notably, because it cannot be performed in the GTI or any other Golf, the electronic stability control system can be fully deactivated in the Golf R if the ESC button is held for three seconds.
On the inside
If you’re looking for a radically different interior, you’ll have to look to the Audi S3. But for those who want to use the Golf R as both a daily driver and a weekend cruiser, or the occasional track machine, the interior’s lack of excessiveness should be wonderful news.
Like the regular Golf, the cabin is inviting and upscale enough. There are well-bolstered “Vienna” leather seats, a fantastic D-style sports steering wheel (not unlike those in Lamborghinis), and the switchgear is easy to use. Perhaps my only complaint is that some of the controls could use a little more weight to them to enhance the quality feel, particularly the climate control knobs and the turn signal stalk.
The upgraded Discover Pro GPS satellite navigation system infotainment system has a larger than standard 8.0” LCD screen and supports Apple CarPlay. My test vehicle was also equipped with a nice sounding Fender-branded sound system.
Perhaps the biggest difference is with the Golf R’s centre console, borrowed from the European Golf. Unlike the GTI, it has an electronic parking brake versus an actual handbrake lever.
There is good visibility, a commanding driving position, and excellent all-round visibility. Although this is a compact car, the rear seats are spacious enough to accommodate six-footers for shorter road trips.
Selectable drive modes (Normal, Individual, Comfort, and Race), allow the Golf R’s owner to tweak anything from engine response, shift points, steering weight, and even the voracity of the exhaust/engine note. Wünderbar!
How does it drive?
At only 3,400 lbs, the Golf R feels very quick off the line. The 280 lbs-ft (380 Nm) of torque comes on strong and the flappy paddle gearbox makes the most of it.
One of my favourite parts of the Golf R is how assuming it is. Leave the car in “Comfort” mode and the suspension, gearbox, steering, and engine mapping will be tailored for everyday family car comfortable. Go to the other end of the spectrum in “Race” mode and you’ll find that the transmission bangs through the gears a lot more aggressively and the suspension firms up considerably. Moreover, in Race mode, the interior soundtrack is noticeably louder, partially thanks to a sound-generating device at the base of the windshield.
While some boy racers have complained that about the lack of authenticity, engineers have purposely not opened up the exhaust to rival the Fiat 500 Abarth. After all, nobody’s wife would let them spend this much on a Golf and yet have to put up with the droning of a sport exhaust on a family road trip.
The “Individual” mode, which allows the driver to pick and combine any of the settings a la carte, was the mode that I preferred most of the time as it allowed for the best of both worlds. My ideal combination of settings included the sportier exhaust note, the “Race” mode’s quicker transmission shifting, and heavier steering weight. Yet, I could still leave the suspension on its most comfortable setting for my daily commute.
Basically, this is a very well-rounded car, and no matter how aggressively I drove it, I never saw more than 12L/100 kms of fuel consumption. I averaged around 9.9L/100 kms over the course of a week, despite my admittedly heavy foot.
There is a reason why the Mk7 Golf has earned so many awards. Despite its performance tuning, the Golf R doesn’t sacrifice much in the comfort department. It provides its occupants a firm, yet never harsh, ride down the road. With 292hp on tap, you can point-and-shoot your way through traffic. But find a secluded canyon road and you’ll find yourself carving the corners till the cows come home.
My biggest complaint about the front-wheel-drive Golf GTI was wheel spin. The Golf R’s standard 4Motion all-wheel-drive eliminates any of that, allowing the power to be effectively put down on the pavement all the time. In poor weather, it also provides an extra measure of safety and practicality.
All things said, driving the Golf R is a ton of fun, and it is perhaps one of my favourite vehicles that I have driven this year. Thanks to its over-engineering, it is polished and refined. A true gentleman’s hot hatch.
Its biggest rival is perhaps its sibling, the GTI. While the Golf R is double the price of the cheapest Golf, it is surely twice the car. But whether it is or not worth its price premium over the GTI, only consumers can decide.
In my case though, I only have one question. Which dotted line do I sign on?