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

Our Opinion

We like
Powerful and characterful engine, AWD grip, efficiency, refinement, lightning DSG
Room for improvement
More expensive than before, leather is an expensive option

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Volkswagen logo17 Nov 2014

On the face of it, Volkswagen has a hard sell with the Golf R. After all, the base GTI — a $10,000 less expensive proposition — is almost perfect as a ‘liveable’ hot hatch.

But this new second-generation R has a few tricks in its kit bag. First, with 206kW/380Nm (between 1500 and 5100rpm) in detuned Australian form, it is the most powerful Golf in the car’s 40-plus year life span. Second, with a zero to 100km/h sprint time of 5.0 seconds, it is the fastest.

In the front-drive GTI, the new 2.0-litre EA888 turbo-four is defined by its class-leading wave of uninterrupted torque, and its almost total lack of lag.

In the R, this linearity and punch is amplified by an additional 44kW and 30Nm.

Purists may be relieved to know that this extra punch comes not just from the requisite software tweaks, but also from a bigger turbocharger and a new cylinder head, Meantime, Volkswagen’s clever electrically-controlled turbo wastegate, that only releases build-up at high boost pressure, irons out lag in reality as well as on paper.

The revised EA888 engine also adds to the mix a welcome dash of character, with its quad-pipes emitting a pleasant bark and snarl up high in the rev range and a guttural purr down low — and the odd crackle on overrun. This is one element missing from the GTI, and it is welcome addition.

Ok, it doesn’t match the menacing bark of the underrated R32, but one must move with the times… Of course with fuel consumption of 7.1L/100km (claimed, whereas we managed about 8.5L/100km under hard driving), this unit is somewhat cheaper to run than the two-generations old V6.

Matched to this engine is a six-speed DSG with paddles, or — from September — a $2500 cheaper six-speed manual. Engine power is sent via either gearbox to all four wheels, which improves all-weather traction and handling neutrality, but also comes with a circa-75kg weight premium.

The DSG is, as ever, more suited to performance models, and shines in the context under which we tested it. In S mode, its changes are crisp and immediate. So much so we rarely engaged manual mode.

The AWD is a fifth-generation wet-clutch-based Haldex-style drivetrain with a front wheel bias that allocated torque to the rear when grip is needed.

And it is this where the R should shine, because few front-drive rivals fitted with some manner of clever diff can quite replicate the off-line punch of wet-weather surety of a well-calibrated AWD rival.

We’re well-placed to say as much, since the day before we drove R we also drove the (75kg lighter) GTI Performance Pack, which features a clever new system that directs power to the outside wheel, while braking the inside wheel.

(For what it’s worth, the Performance Pack is brilliant on a track in the hands of a professional, and offers more immediacy and adjustability via the loud pedal. But the AWD system and bigger dose of power make the R the better buy, for ours.)Keep in mind too that our test roads for the R were sinuous and unforgiving, and the weather wet and forbidding.

In the hands of the average driver, the AWD R will remain neutral. It is not programmed to deliver much in the way of rear-bias or throttle adjustability, even if the new Haldex system is tuned to be more eager to send some power rearward than before.

But what it does offer is a level of stability and predictability that few cars in this class can match. The R offers excellent point-and-shoot driving.

We admit to running into a corner a little too hot for even the AWD system and its 235/35 R19 rubber to hang on properly. But the 340mm front and 310mm rear ventilated discs are sufficiently strong to scrub off any unwelcome momentum.

Standard fare is VW’s latest Driving Profile Selector, with Eco (replete with a coasting function), Normal, Individual, Comfort (softens the ride noticeably) and Race (hard — but not busy or unforgiving —ride, holds low gears) modes accessible through the touch-screen.

This system tweaks the dampers, steering, throttle response and even the headlights and adaptive cruise control (when optioned) to make them more aggressive or more sedate.

We found ourselves programming the Individual mode to give us the heavier steering and the softer ride.

Unique also to the R is a fully switchable stability control system that can be switched off for track work with a long press of a button. With so much grip, it must be hard to get too bent out of shape. The R is also lowered by 20mm over the regular Golf and 5mm lower than the GTI.

The electro-mechanical steering system is the same as the one used in the GTI, and features increasingly angled teeth to reduce the required inputs. The arc is only 2.1 turns lock-to-lock, meaning smaller inputs are required. You rarely feel busy driving the R.

Cosmetic enhancements beyond the lower body include 19-inch wheels with 10mm fatter tyres than the GTI, Bi-xenon headlights with newly designed LED day-time running lights, dark red LED tail-lights and quad chrome tail-pipes.

Standard equipment inside the cabin includes a 5.8-inch touch-screen to display satellite-navigation, media and entertainment, and the five driving modes, a reversing camera, keyless start (with a starter button) and parking sensors.

There are also excellent bucket seat with good bolstering but plenty of comfort. That said, charging $3150 for leather trim is a little rich.

So, then, to answer to questions asked of the R. First, is it worth $10k over a GTI, or $6000 more than the GT Performance? Bang-for-buck, perhaps not, but it is easy to see where the extra money goes.

All are fast, refined and feel decidedly upmarket, but the R is faster, has more grip and a more characterful engine. Not to mention more toys in the cabin.

The real rival is the Audi S3, which is $59,990 with a dual-clutch auto. Option up the Golf R with DSG and leather and you’re only about $2000 off. That’s mighty close.

Still, we’re here to judge a car on its merits, and the R does precious little wrong. It remains a decidedly different beast to many hot hatches, lacking the rough edges and throttle adjustability of, say, a typical hot Ford or Renault.

But it builds on the old R’s charms rather well.

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