WELL ROUNDED. PROBABLY the two words most often used to describe the last two generations of the Golf GTI. Although the benchmark was not always the quickest (Audi S3,) the most charismatic (Ford Focus ST) or the most engaging to drive (Opel Astra OPC), the GTI almost always emerged victorious in comparisons around the globe due to the breadth of its talents. It was the sum of its parts that made it so special.
VW went a step further and gave us an all-wheel drive, naturally aspirated V6 alternative in the R32. This was an equally ‘well rounded’ package, but in this instance due to the extra weight of its 4Motion system, it felt more stout than special compared to the agility of its front-wheel drive counterpart.
Now VW has launched a new R derivative, with a 2.0-litre turbocharged powerplant and the choice of either a six-speed manual or the original six-speed dual-clutch (DSG) auto transmission. We opted for the two-pedal version and headed to our test facility to see how the newcomer rated against the R32 and the GTI benchmark.
It was surprising to see how the R polarised opinion among our testers. For most the understated demeanour was a classier counterpart to the boy racer crowd, while others argued that as an ‘R’ derivative it should look more of a beast than a bowtie, breathing aggression from every curve. Most would agree however that the R cuts a fairly handsome, if somewhat staid figure. The first design aspect one notices is the revised front bumper with its three gigantic air scoops, there to meet the cooling demands of the 188kW engine. Other things to set the R apart from its GTI siblings include ‘Talladega’ style alloy wheels, black R-logo brake callipers, gloss black air intake louvres and mirror housings, and colour-coded sideskirt extensions. LED daytime running lights complement the standard bi-xenons. From the rear, the R telltales are the redesigned tail lights, diffuser, centrally located exhaust exits and large roof edge spoiler. Not that subtle, then.
Step inside the R and you are greeted by a luxurious, premium cabin that’s typically German, notably VW. Small tactile touches abound from the perforated leather top and bottom of the three-spoke multifunction steering wheel to its piano black spokes and chrome R-logo. The contrast of gloss black, chrome and leather add elegance to the R’s sporty intent. Other model specific touches include the R-labelled gearshift knob, optional sports seats and aluminium door tread plates that together with stainless steel pedals further enhance the interior ambience. Niggles? Luggage space could be better. Fold the seats down though, and things improve if you don’t need to carry passengers in the rear.
Although dubbed the ‘most powerful Golf model ever built’, South African specification Rs produce 188kW, down 11kW on the versions available in Europe. VWSA says hot weather countries like us and Australia have had to remap the 2.0-litre turbocharged units to provide more engine cooling. Gripe over, we have to compliment the linear power delivery of the R. It’s punchy with virtually no noticeable lag (even at altitude), offering immediate response particularly when mated to the manual (our pick of the transmissions). While the DSG version we had on test felt less intuitive around the track, it is likely to prove its worth in a traffic-laden daily commute.
The R’s power is 4kW up on the outgoing R32, plus gains more torque to make 350Nm and a higher 205kph top speed. Put it down to efficiency gains in downsizing from a 3.2-litre six to a turbo four with direct injection. Claimed fuel consumption is also better, ranked at 8.4ℓ/100km compared to the R32’s 9.7, while CO2 emissions are down to 195g/km from 231g/km.
Although the R and R32 are both all-wheel drive, the R’s Sport suspension (now 10mm lower) and revised 4Motion drive system add agility in spades. Unlike the R32’s Haldex system (called Quattro in Audi products and 4Motion under the VW badge), the latest iteration is less front-biased and able to apportion 100% of torque to the rear if necessary. The result: it feels both safer and more dynamic. Around Killarney, the Golf R’s meaty steering feel, linear power delivery and immense lateral grip are highlights of a rewarding yet unflustered drive. But one can still feel the R’s 1515kg kerb weight, 170kg more than the likes of Renault’s front-wheel drive Megane RS Cup. In isolation the R’s steadfast dynamic talents inspire confidence, but against front-drive competition it tends to lack the ultimate agility of the likes of the GTI or even the raw energy of the Ford Focus RS or Renault’s Megane RS. The R’s compliant, velvety handling prowess is best explored and enjoyed on the open road.
It’s not easy to fault the R. It’s a huge improvement over the R32 and, like the GTI, it’s the sum of its parts that will endear it to many. It’s a solid option which offers exclusivity (read bragging rights) over all your GTI-owning mates.
But ultimately it’s not the best buy in this segment. It’s not more than R80 000 better than the equivalent GTI, nor is it better value than either the Sport or Cup versions of the Megane RS. If you have to stay German, rather wait for the forthcoming R version of the Scirocco which is likely to offer the sense of emotion that the Golf lacks. (Audi’s tantalising last hurrah RS3 also turns the performance benchmark up a notch, as does BMW’s forthcoming baby M. Turn to page 58 for a full comparison of these future highlights.)