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Car reviews - Volkswagen - Golf - R 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Jekyll and Hyde performance, stonking 188kW engine, improved fuel-economy over V6 predecessor, chassis’ tenacious grip, steering feel, DSG response, driver ergonomics, quality interior, Golf practicality, competitive price, not outshone by GTI
Room for improvement
Options make R expensive, ACC damper control should be standard, short final drive gearing on manual version, lack of urge at low revs

Volkswagen logo11 Jun 2010

AS ANY car historian can tell you, the Golf has provided a number of motoring firsts.

No matter what brand it is, if your small car has a hatch, boyracer stripes, no roof, a diesel engine, or even ‘premium’ pricing, then thank the two-box Volkswagen for at least popularising – if not actually inventing – it.

But some Golfs have come last too, namely for quality (Mk3 of 1992), reliability (Mk4 – 1998) and value (2007 Mk5 R32).

The latter was especially disappointing, stretching the series into six-cylinder BMW territory while being comprehensively outclassed by the cheaper, nimbler and more thrilling GTI, which was enjoying a dynamic renaissance while costing $20K less to boot.

We learnt that shoehorning a big V6 into a small car does not create the ultimate hot hatch, or even the best Golf. That last R32 was not a favourite.

With this in mind, things did not augur especially well for its successor. And didn’t VW know it too – the V6 has been binned, the geometry reset and even the nomenclature has changed from alphanumeric to just plain ‘R’.

So does it deserve to be first among the new Golfs?

Pleasingly, dropping two pots compared to the R’s predecessor hasn’t meant a performance fall, as the 188kW power (up 4kW) and 330Nm torque (up 10Nm) figures reveal. For the record, these figures are not quite as sharp as the European-market R’s 199kW and 350Nm – hot climate tuning is to blame – but they still outgun the excellent GTI’s respective 155kW and 280Nm outputs.

So while the R weighs about 120kg more (much of that is due to the 4MOTION all-wheel drive system), it feels stronger throughout the rev range due to a great big turbo (up to 1.2 bar boost pressure atmospheric, VW says) bolted on top.

Actually, this E113-series 2.0-litre TFSI direct-injection four-cylinder engine is not the same one found in today’s E888 GTI, but is an older motor related to the Mk5 GTI’s and still used in the Audi S3 and TTS. Now that’s a promising start.

Our test car was fitted with five doors and a six-speed DSG dual clutch gearbox, tipping the scales at a lardy 1496kg, so our expectations after the 1360kg three-door GTI manual driven earlier this year were not great – but, boy, were we in for a treat.

Slip the DSG into Drive and the R pulls forward with stupendous V6-style ease and a real conviction to motion, with acceleration then building up rapidly as the revs pile on – but perhaps not as dramatically as you might hope, as some turbo lag needs overcoming. Much like the old R32, in fact.

We starting thinking: “OK, this is good but not enough to justify the $10K difference over a GTI” and “Well, VW’s sure made a ripper little Grand Tourer but once again the Golf flagship falls short!”

Wrong!

Hours later, when the heavy traffic we were initially negotiating evaporated, we noticed a button by the transmission gate with a shock absorber icon on it. So we pressed it once.

That’s the ACC Adaptive Chassis Control damper tamperer and a somewhat unexpected personality change happens when it switches from the default to ‘Sport’, particularly when you also slot the DSG lever into ‘S’.

That’s like when a battleship goes to Red Alert, for the trannie tenses up, reacting earlier, hanging on to gears longer and upshifting later.

The exhaust growls from Barry Manilow baritone to Barry White bass, barking and burping, while the DSG slips up and down its ratios in super quick succession, double declutching like a racing car in the process and making a loutish spectacle of itself. 0-100km/h is over in just 5.7s – a full second faster than the R32 – while top speed is 250km/h. So un-Golf.

We didn’t even care that we couldn’t really drop below 12L/100km, for the blast is worth the pain at the pump.

But it’s also the way this addictive acceleration is handled by the fettled chassis (completely retuned shocks and springs as well as a 25mm ride height drop) that makes the R such a head rush.

The Haldex part-time AWD set-up is not the same as in the R32, since it employs new electronics and hydraulics to speed up torque transfer to the rear wheels and even allows for almost 100 per cent rear-drive in certain conditions.

Whether the roads are drenched or dry, grip is phenomenal the 225/40 18-inch rubber steadfastly sticks to the surface while the body keeps its composure under pressure with poise and aplomb.

Massive vented four-wheel discs that wash away speed with effortless ease further ram that sense of control home – and hard.

Only the lack of initial bite from the steering keeps the R from hot hatch greatness. Linear? Yes. Measured? Responsive? Absolutely. Intimate? Never.

Experience tells us that at 220km/h there is more than enough sharpness and feedback from the helm, but in Australia where most drivers will be carving up corners at about one quarter of that speed, the Golf feels, well, just like a Golf – secure and a tad remote.

But don’t think it isn’t fun – this car drives a very fine line between hot-hatch alacrity and GT cruiser – it’s all in the ACC button. While not quite black and white, the transformation means the Golf R is that rare beast – a true companion for whatever mood you may be in. A GTI on steroids stands before you one moment a cut-price BMW 335i is brought to mind the next.

Some occupants found the level of exhaust and tyre noise intrusion annoying when in Sport mode while others thrilled at the non-PC pleasure of it all, but back in Comfort mode all that is rapidly forgotten, because the resulting suspension absorption and ride quality is first class.

The $1500 that Volkswagen charges for the ACC is worth every penny. Don’t buy a Golf R without it, for we fear the towering isolation that helps set this interior apart from every other hatch will vanish.

Speaking of which, familiarity has not diminished our admiration for the latest Golf’s cabin, which already enjoys the distinction of feeling at least one rung above any peer right now.

Ensconced in leather ($3300 extra) and fitted with ($2500) satellite navigation, it is as solid, cocooning and sumptuous as any Audi… a true tactile, aural and olfactory feast, from the moment you open the weighty door and breathe in that unmistakable VW odour. Going for the R simply makes it look like a (couture) Diesel-branded sports shoe.

For starters, deep blue lighting returns to the Golf in the instrument needles (which make a welcoming sweep on start-up, Subaru-style), while further go-faster cues are found in the (taste questionable) flat-bottomed steering wheel, carbon-fibre-style horizontal spears for the dash and door cards, stitched-leather inserts for the wheel, gearlever, hand brake, armrests and console lid, alloyed pedals and heavily bolstered seating.

Mercifully the ‘R’ embossment is limited to the headrests, front door sills and above the glovebox.

Yet none of this actually gets in the way of functionality or practicality – unless you are especially wide in which case the seats will pinch – and that is one of the fundamentals of a hot hatch.

As with every Golf VI, the driving position is nigh-on perfect, with an unusually broad range of adjustability to accommodate small and tall alike. Seat comfort is second-to-none for all outboard occupants. There are no ergonomic issues with any of the switches or controls. And everything from an iPod Nano to a pair of 100cm-plus LED TVs can be transported with a bit of furniture rearranging.

Only the usual rear-vision impairing thick C-pillars – a signature Golf item since 1974 – is a cause for complaint inside.

Remember, the Golf series is 37 years old in 2011 so the Germans have had time to refine all the vital stuff.

But it is what has just been added this year that makes the R one of our favourite Golf experiences of all time.

The changes to the headlights are cartoonishly aggressive – it is as if Marvel Comics was hired out of a Tokyo nightclub to come up with a Japanese animated version of the GTI. The Talladega alloy wheels are gorgeous enough to eat, the LED tail-lights look stoned and the integrated body kit actually borders on the tasteful.

Which with its chromed goatee grille, you could never say about the R32 – or any previous V6-powered Golf for that matter.

Developing a lighter, less nose-heavy and faster AWD version of the GTI, while pricing it within reach of buyers, is a masterstroke.

It has also created yet another icon within the Golf family that – once again – adds to the number of firsts for the long-lived small-car series.

The R is the number one hatch in our books.

Let’s see if you can make lightning strike twice with a Polo R version, VW!

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