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Volkswagen Golf R review – an appealing hot hatch without major weaknesses

Adam Towler
1 Feb 2017
Verdict:

The VW Golf R sets the standard for modern day grown-up super hatches

Evo Rating: 
Price: 
£33,935
For 
So rapid, so versatile, very satisfying to drive, feel-good factor
Against 
Uninspiring 'fake' engine noise, expensive with options
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This is the Volkswagen Golf R in ‘Mk7.5’ form, inheriting all the updates that apply to the Golf range in general, plus some model-specific improvements. The Golf R needs no introduction, surely: from quick but soulless bit-part player to the de-facto hyper-hatch choice in one generational change, it appeals to both the head and the heart. 

Engine, transmission, and 0-60mph time

The R’s familiar 2-litre TSI engine has had a minor recalibration to raise power from 297bhp to 306bhp, in the process keeping it ahead of the recently announced SEAT Leon Cupra 300 models and meaning that from now, the R has a power output that begins with a 3 even in “old” imperial horsepower terminology.

Once again an enlightened VW offers the choice of either six-speed manual or twin clutch DSG transmissions, the latter being an all-new seven speed ‘box. Equipped with the twin-clutcher, the R sprints from rest to 62mph in just 4.6sec, which frankly, is a little absurd. An R fitted with three pedals and a stick still only takes an impressive 5.1sec for the same stat.

Machinerynical highlights

There’s very little different about the EA888 2-litre TSI engine but then no changes were really required. As ever, it impresses with its blend of power, torque (at 280lb-ft, it remains unchanged) from just 2000rpm and surprising efficiency when driven gently. 

> SEAT Leon Cupra 300 review

The DSG gearbox is new, however, and now features seven speeds (instead of six as before). It’s a wet clutch unit, and VW claims that intelligent operation of the oil pump and reducing internal friction make it more efficient than the old ‘box.

Identifying a new ‘R’ will take a trained eye: the changes are minimal, in the usual Germanic facelift style, and centre on an arguably more aggressive frontal design treatment and LED lighting front and rear. There’s also a new optional 19in wheel design with a diamond-cut finish, while the standard 18in rim remains the same (the ‘Cadiz’).

Inside, the R gets all the Mk7.5 upgrades, including the full width (12.3in) high-resolution display in front of the driver, and the option of the 9.2in Discover Navigation Pro infotainment system with its glossy touchscreen. Add to that the Driving Modes available before, including the option of a programmable Individual setting, and there’s almost limitless potential for button pressing, swiping and hand gestures to the point of distraction.

What’s it like to drive?

Like the old one, and absolutely brilliant. One of the many clever things about the R is that it has such a duality of personality, particularly with the new seven-speed transmission. Indeed, drive off normally and it can be difficult to see what the attraction is from a real enthusiast’s perspective: it’s completely undemanding, comfortable, light to the touch and quiet. A long, and dull, journey, completed primarily in ‘eco’ mode with the ‘box declutching at every opportunity, elicited a high 30s mpg figure.

On the other hand, given more throttle the R positively leaps for the horizon, continuing to rev out with infectious enthusiasm with the ‘box snicking instantly through each successive ratio. It’s the kind of car that feels properly fast anyplace, anytime, especially so given it squanders nothing with the total traction capability of the four-wheel drive system. In fact, while the R isn’t a naturally flamboyant car, it’s far from inert, with the ability to go neutral and then a bit more under full power out of tighter corners. 

The more you drive the R, the more you discover a subtle and unflappable poise to its ride and handling balance that really gets you hooked. Only the spec of this car – with 19in wheels but no DCC variable damping – takes the edge off the car’s capabilities, particularly the low speed ride. The DCC dampers are a wise idea, especially if you must go up a rim size.  

Price and rivals 

The punchy list price of the R – now £445 more thanks to VED changes and easily inflatable with options – seems to have been no hindrance to the model’s success. For many buyers, though not all, there is obviously a certain kudos to owning a fast VW Golf, and given the new car is better than ever, there seems no reason its success will diminish in the future.

The three-door model with a six-speed manual gearbox kicks off the Golf R range at £33,000. An extra £500 affords you the more practical five-door version, while the seven-speed DSG is a £1300 option for both bodystyles.

Few buyers stick with the standard, non-metallic white paint finish as most usually plump for one of the six metallic options priced around £600, including the popular Lapiz Blue. However, there are two other non-metallic colours to choose from: Tornado Red (£300) and the special Oryx White at £1000.

The standard, 18in alloys can be swapped out for bigger items, at a price, there are three different designs to choose from costing between £800 and £1000. That said, there’s nothing wrong with the base-spec, five-spoke wheels, so money is better spent elsewhere.

Leather upholstery is optional, and available in three finishes: black Vienna, grey nappa and anthracite nappa. The former adds £1750 to the bottom line, whereas the other two cost significantly more at £2500 – they’re all pricey and we have no complaints with the standard cloth trim.

Fortunately the R comes well equipped: adaptive cruise control, LED headlights and VW’s digital instrument cluster (Active info display) – with integrated sat-nav – constitute the basic specification. While the passive chassis is pliant and accomplished, DDC (Dynamic Chassis Control) is worth considering for £850, adding scope to customise the driving experience.

You could argue the Golf R strikes the perfect balance between performance and everyday comfort and we’d struggle to disagree. That very point, though, stops the R being as engaging to drive as our favourite hot hatches such as the £31k Honda Civic Type R.

If all-weather performance is a priority the Golf R’s four-wheel drive system will appeal. Alternatives include the £33k Ford Focus RS. The Ford is less refined and polished than the flagship Golf but, again, it is more immersive and certainly looks more outlandish – if that’s your thing. The closely related Audi S3, wraps Golf R running gear in a more premium shell and commands a list price of only £1000 more.

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