The hottest Golf available has been given a mid-life refresh and it’s as good as ever
|In-line four cyl, turbocharged, 1984cc
|290bhp @ 6500rpm
|280lb ft @ 1850rpm
|Subtle, exceedingly fast, well sorted chassis
|Engine note is a bit fake, gets pricey with options
For as long as I can remember, the world of the hot hatch has been ruled by Volkswagen’s Golf GTI – it’s the car that invented the segment, after all, but it hasn’t always been the absolute best. In recent times, however, every version I’ve driven has left me convinced that nobody does it better. But the R, for me, has always been a mixed bag. Weighted down by its four-wheel drive underpinnings, it’s never really felt as fleet-footed as the normal GTI, never felt quite as enjoyable when caning it on a decent ribbon of tarmac.
Perhaps, though, the problem is that I should have viewed the R all along as a different kind of Golf entirely. Indeed, this new version generates 290bhp from its blown 2.0-litre four-pot, which is significantly more than most GTIs out there, so the power would be a bit much for just the front wheels to manage on their own. Torque steer isn’t as much fun as it sounds.
This is a proper performance car, make no mistake. With the seven-speed DSG fitted, the 0-to-100kph sprint can be despatched in a frankly ridiculous 4.6 seconds and, depending on the spec you opt for, it can reach the dizzy heights of 267kph. In practically any given scenario, this thing would worry a new Porsche 911, then. But its skill set is much broader than sheer speed. It’s the effortlessness with which it takes on any task, any road and any journey that makes it such an appealing prospect. It’s hugely talented for one so small.
Part of the car’s magic is its mild appearance. Unlike some hot Renaults or the bonkers new Civic Type R, the Golf R operates in stealth mode, not drawing attention to itself and that, to some might be off-putting. For the rest of us, though, it’s most welcome because it’s a car for grown ups who haven’t given up on life but wish to retain a lower profile.
For this mid-life refresh, the top Golf has received minor cosmetic upgrades like a new front bumper treatment and new alloy wheel designs, but it’s only the four sizable exhaust pipes protruding from its rear end that really give the game away. Inside things are more noticeably different, with the old analogue instrumentation jettisoned in favour of high definition digital displays, with a new 9.2-inch infotainment screen sat in the dash centre ground.
On the move it excels, with a strong delivery of torque in the mid-range. It’s not the most revvy unit, but it does offer plenty in the way of refinement and good road manners, managing to feel at once both entertaining and mature. There are three driving modes – Comfort, Normal and Race – but the R never feels like it’s trying too hard no matter which you opt for. The exhaust note does come across as manufactured somewhat, though, which is one of its very few failings.
Does anyone need any more than what the new Golf R offers? I doubt it. It’s exceedingly fast, subtle enough to use as business transport and offers plenty of old school thrills but without feeling nervous or jittery even at high speeds. It’s practical, too, feels incredibly well screwed together and shows that, when it comes to making a world beating hot hatch, the maker of the original still knows best.