► CAR drives the new Golf R hatch and estate
► It’s the most powerful Golf yet
► Has the R model finally got a soul?
With 300bhp becoming a rather common power figure amongst family-sized hot hatchbacks, it was almost inevitable that the Mk8 Volkswagen Golf R would raise the stakes somewhat.
Power and chassis upgrades are all very well and good, but the real question is whether they make the Golf R more fun or just faster.
Read our review of the VW Golf GTE hybrid
What are the headlines?
Although certainly no AMG A45 chaser, the Golf R’s 316bhp provided by the ubiquitous turbocharged 2.0-litre EA888 four still beats the AMG A35, BMW M135i and the in-house competition provided by the Audi S3 and Cupra Leon. Despite being offered in other markets UK Golf Rs are denied the option of a manual, it’s seven-speed DSG auto only, unfortunately.
Read more about the VW Golf R here
Compared to the old Golf R, the ride height is now 20mm lower, negative front camber increased by a smidgeon, springs and anti-roll bars beefed up 10 per cent, dampers and bushings are upgraded, the front subframe is now lightweight aluminium, and the rear transverse links and wheel carriers have been redesigned for a more direct response to steering inputs.
To improve traction, the R engineers increased the locking ratio of the torque-splitting clutch. Understeer is reduced by sending more oomph to the outer rear wheel while, if need be, decelerating its opposite in a move to speed up the turn-in action. This standard-fit system is called R-Performance Torque Vectoring. There’s a bunch of new software to co-ordinate the various dynamic control systems. And, along with Comfort, Sport and Race, there are new drive modes; the gimmicky-sounding Nürburgring mode and even a drift mode.
Let’s get started…
It could all so easily have ended up feeling artificial, digital and intrusive. But as the miles mount up, it’s obvious this is a car that manages to bind its disparate elements into a slick whole.
There’s a lot to take in at first. The transmission lever, for instance, has been replaced by a stubby by-wire shifter for selecting gears or toggling the box’s Sport mode for snappier downshifts. The wheel-mounted paddles for taking manual control have been elongated, making them easier to snatch when cornering, although they are still plastic.
It’s worth taking the time to get familiar with the Golf R’s drive modes which, unlike those in many cars, bring out significantly different aspects of the R’s capabilities and ask for different degrees of involvement from the driver. Sport brings a pleasingly quick throttle response, but Race mode – which can be accessed directly by pressing the R button on the left of the steering wheel – is better for avoiding premature upshifts but holds onto gears for too long.
Individual mode offers a wide choice of tweakable parameters, and lets you fine-tune via a 10-step touchslider. So, if Comfort is not cushy enough, there are minor increments to make the dampers even softer. At the other end of the spectrum, Race can be further sharpened until you’d better have the first aid kit handy. Even in Sport with ESC fully active and in a car fitted without the Performance Pack, the seat of the pants can sense that underlying loose-cannon effect the rear axle has in store for us.
The R Performance Pack is well worth considering as it brings bigger 19in wheels, a fairly useless top speed increase to 168mph and crucially two new driving programmes on top of Comfort, Sport, Race and Individual. While Drift – the dashboard lighting turns fire red – is self-explanatory, Special – the illumination switches to viper green – is also called Nürburgring. This calibration was created after hundreds of laps on the Nordschleife. Don’t dismiss this as marketing nonsense; it’s a mode that really has benefitted from intensive work on a circuit that’s challenging and varied, not least in terms of surfaces. The Nordschleife – like the roads on this trip, and like so many of CAR’s favourite roads in Britain – is all bumps and ridges, ups and downs, banked corners and surface changes.
Does it feel like the most powerful Golf?
Compared to all this, the engine doesn’t offer much to grab the headlines, being yet another evolution of the long-running GTI engine. But the reason this engine is used so widely across the VW Group is because it’s very good, and this is a particularly effective manifestation, propelling the Golf R from zero to 62mph in 4.7sec. It lays down maximum torque between 2100 and 5350rpm, with peak power arriving at 5350rpm, but it’s happy for you to approach the 7000rpm cut-out speed. It’s not an engine that relies on high revs to deliver the goods, though.
The gears are well-spaced and changes swift, but it can only be coaxed to coast in Comfort and Sport. Manual mode is pretty obedient, although the automatic upshifts at the redline can frustrate, and the car is happy to coast where it can to save fuel if you stick it in Comfort mode.
Don’t expect a particularly memorable exhaust note, with more and more fakery coming from the speakers to try and make the EA888 sound like a five-pot as you move through the modes from Comfort to Race. Thankfully this can be turned off, leaving a fairly flat four-cylinder drone interspersed with the odd pop and bang from the exhaust when in the racier modes. An optional titanium Akrapovic exhaust might save 7kg, but it’ll lift over £3000 from your bank account and just makes the car louder rather than any more musical.
Let’s get sideways!
It takes a while before we can deploy Drift mode with aplomb. On dry tarmac, it needs a wide yet tightish second-gear kink, clear visibility through the corner and beyond, plus a full day’s build-up of confidence.
Drift mode leaves the ESC partially engaged should things start to get too Cars and Coffee, although even with it ‘turned off’ you’ll still feel it tweaking brakes at and over the limit.
How does the Golf R handle?
The steering is very direct at 2.1 turns from lock to lock, but the variable-rate and variable-effort system actually relays a little road-to-palm feedback. Likewise, the brakes (cross-drilled discs up front) maintain a reassuring balance of Herculean stopping power, delicate dosage and seemingly infinite stamina.
Spend an extended period of time with one, and the Golf R starts to feel like a friend. And like all friends, you’re aware that it has faults – mainly with the cabin that’s obsessed about you swiping, scrolling, zooming and talking to an art form, while all the driver wants is to have his commands converted into a job well done, with no delay and no distraction. We’ve griped about this infotainment system already.
The in-cabin disappointments you can learn to live with. And it’s worth doing so, when the reward is a car that’s so good to drive. Become familiar with what the various drive modes can do and you get to experience the breadth and depth of the Golf R’s abilities.
Accelerating hard out of third-gear sweepers, the progressive torque transfer loads up the rear wheels, begging them to unhinge. Through second-gear bends tackled at nine-tenths, turn-in instantly alters the balance from near-understeer to near-oversteer, with the emphasis on ‘near’.
Yes, it’s proudly a Golf – the DNA is still there. But it’s very much a Golf R. When you think, see and feel ‘Golf’ your subconscious will automatically prepare you for certain familiar Golf characteristics: early understeer and some steering fight, for instance. But this Golf R moves the game on. Early understeer? Not at all. True, depending on the selected drive mode, one end of the car will eventually cave in to the law of physics. But it ain’t the front.
Late apexing for an early straight-line exit? No need to recap that forgotten geometry lesson. In the R, braking, turning in and accelerating are three scalable stages of the same smooth, uninterrupted curve. That’s what the uprated four-wheel-drive system, the new rear-axle side-to-side diff lock, the adaptive dampers and the software inputs co-ordinated by the Driving Dynamics Manager do for you.
What about the wagon?
Despite a longer wheelbase and rear overhang not to mention the added weight, you can still have an awful lot of fun in the Golf R Estate. It’s also available with the Performance Pack, but even without it, our DCC equipped test car could still paint a large grin across our faces.
Naturally, it’s a little slower taking 4.9 seconds to get from 0-62mph and it’s not quite as keen to change direction as the hatch. Even so, it still has the same dependable front end and gently arcing rear that makes the hatch so much more entertaining than its predecessor.
Given the vastly superior boot and usefully increased rear passenger space, it’s an easy pick for anyone that appreciates the extra practicality.
VW Golf R: verdict
Quantifiably quicker and more sure-footed, the 316bhp jack-of-all-trades is first and foremost awesome on back roads. The new Golf R is less demanding than the GTI but even more fun. And for speed, on every kind of road, it’s on another level.
It might be the most exciting Golf R yet, but it is still at heart a Golf R. That means it forgoes ultimate thrills for an easier-going nature on the everyday grind, something we suspect many potential buyers will be glad of.
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