Everyone knows the Golf GTI: fun, practical, affordable, understated, it’s the default hot hatch. The Golf R is more complex: unravel its DNA and you’ll find traces of the four-wheel drive, supercharged Mk2 Rallye, the front-drive Mk3 VR6 with its 2.8-litre V6 and leather interior, the Mk4 and Mk5 four-wheel-drive R32 and the Mk6 R that ditched the potent V6 for a punchier, more fuel-efficient turbo four. It’d be a nightmare of a custody battle.
Designer Marc Lichte describes the R as ‘more of a gentleman’s racer – it’s more exclusive and sporty than the GTI, and you must recognise it as an R from a big distance.’ It’s costlier too: when the 2.0-litre, four-wheel-drive R returns to the UK in the middle of next year it’ll cost around £29,900 for the three-door manual, a £4k premium versus GTI.
>> Click here for the previous CAR's Most Wanted of 2014
For that you get a slightly more aggressive front bumper and headlights, flashes of matt aluminium, additional colour-coding, darkened taillights, quad exhausts and unique 18-inch alloys. It’s subtle, but combined with the optional 19-inch alloys, the R bristles with understated intent and clearly distances itself from the GTI. Inside, the difference is less convincing: the GTI’s interior is lightly made over with flashes of blue, gloss-black accents, carbon-look trim inserts and seats made of either fabric and Alcantara or optional leather.
No matter, under the skin is where it really counts. While the previous Mk6 Golf R retained a tuned version of the Mk5 Golf GTI’s EA113 engine, the Mk6 GTI switched to the cleaner EA888. Now both GTI and R models use the EA888. In the GTI it makes 217bhp and 258lb ft, but the R bursts ahead with 296bhp and 280lb ft courtesy of a larger turbo and a modified cylinder head and piston cooling nozzles – essentially the same ingredients you’ll find under the bonnet of an Audi S3. You’ll match it to a choice of six-speed manual or dual-clutch DSG ’box – the seven-speed DSG is limited to 184lb ft.
The R’s four-wheel-drive system uses fifth-generation, faster-acting Haldex hardware that can send up to 100% of the torque to one axle, but there’s also the electronic, traction-control-based XDS+ acting on both axles. The old XDS system would brake a spinning wheel and channel torque to the opposite end of the axle, where XDS+ uses throttle position and steering angle data to predict the onset of slip and proactively channel power away from the tyre that’s about to lose traction.
Four-wheel drive adds 90kg compared with the front-drive GTI, but it’s not enough to blunt the R’s performance advantage according to Volkswagen’s Dieter Schuldig. The chassis expert drove for 1000km of the new Golf R’s 5000km endurance testing at the Nürburgring, some of it alongside racer Hans Stuck who’d lap the 21km-long circuit in around 8min 50sec. Even the Performance Pack-equipped Golf GTI fell 11sec short of that.
But for all their extra speed and enhanced styling, R-model Golfs typically feel more mature than the GTIs that sit below them, not more fun to drive. Fingers crossed we get the best of both this time.