REVIEW DATE: 03 Nov 2009
The GTI gets serious in R form. Steve Walker checks out VW's ultimate Golf.
Four-wheel-drive and nearly 270bhp should be enough to put the Golf R firmly in the realms of the super hatch. It's the Golf for buyers who find the excellent GTI a little too reserved and with sharpened steering, firmer suspension and upgraded brakes, offers a real step up the performance ladder.
You may have heard of the Golf GTI. One of the founders of the hot hatchback concept back in the 1970s, the car has retained a place amongst the shopping rocket elite throughout its six generations, becoming a bit of an institution in the process. Despite this lofty profile, it's been a while since the GTI was the quickest car in the Golf hierarchy. For the previous two generations, that honour has gone to the R32 and today, it's the Golf R that takes the biscuit.
As a car and a concept, the R32 never really captured the imagination in the manner of the, less powerful and ultimately less capable GTI. Though it was seriously fast, the car's V6 engine and four-wheel-drive transmission piled on weight and cost. A rethink was deemed necessary and the meaner, leaner Golf R was fashioned to better plug the gap at the top of the Golf range.
The thinking behind the R isn't difficult to appreciate. The GTI is a leader in the hot hatch market but it's a little more restrained than the majority of its rivals. Volkswagen has created a fine-handling and devastatingly quick car that's also refined and comfortable as an everyday drive. It sounds superb but the effortless pace and measured maturity of the GTI isn't quite what a certain segment of the market is looking for.
The majority of the cars we'd term hot hatchbacks feel more aggressive than the GTI, even if they are ultimately less capable, while models like the Ford Focus RS and Subaru Impreza STi have demonstrated that there's a market for real hardcore heavyweights. The Golf R is the GTI let off the leash.
Rather than a 3.2-litre V6 as favoured by the R32, the Golf R uses an upgraded version of the Golf GTI's 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine. With 267bhp, it still develops 20bhp more power than the old R32 and it's 35kg lighter. More grunt and less weight will be like music to the ears of performance car fans and the resulting 5.7s 0-60mph time makes the Golf R the fastest accelerating Volkswagen yet. Select the DSG gearbox and that sprint time is lowered to 5.5s courtesy of the twin-clutch unit's ultra-fast gear changes and the top speed is limited to 155mph regardless of the transmission that's installed.
"A formidable package."
The job of deploying the power emanating from the Golf R engine bay falls to Volkswagen's latest four-wheel-drive system. It's a hydraulic arrangement that can react to differing grip levels more swiftly than the system used on the old R32. If necessary, 100 per cent of the available torque can be directed to the rear wheels to optimise forward progress and there's a lot of torque to manage with the 350Nm maximum generated at just 2,500rpm. The GTI's electro-mechanical steering system has also been sharpened up for use in the R model.
Volkswagen isn't known for its flamboyant styling but to underline the potency of the Golf R, it has edged the car in a more dramatic direction. The quickest Golf features a deeper front bumper with enlarged air intakes, along with a revised rear bumper that incorporates centrally-mounted exhaust pipes and a gloss black diffuser. The main front grill and the wing mirrors are also finished in black, while all R models get xenon headlamps, specially designed rear light clusters and LED running lights.
Along the sides, sill extensions further lower a car which already sits 25mm closer to the ground than a GTI thanks to its revised suspension. There are also 18" alloy wheels as standard, with the option of upgrading to a set of 19" items and peeping out between the spokes are the callipers and enlarged discs of an upgraded braking system.
The R badge that crops up on the grille is mirrored inside on a set of aluminium kick plates but the cabin is dominated by the grey Alcantara and black cloth sports seats. There's more gloss black detailing and revised instruments feature needles that illuminate in blue. In general, the classy feel of the Golf's interior continues to shine through.
If the Golf R formula sounds familiar, that's because the same mix of engine and transmission was originally made available on the Audi S3. The Golf R is targeted at a subtly different section of the market, however, and behind the scenes at the Volkswagen Group, they'll be hoping that it doesn't pinch sales from the £30,000 Audi. As with that car, there's a choice of either three or five-door bodystyles. In addition to the upgraded braking system, the Golf R features its own ESP stability control settings which allow the safety net to be disabled in two stages, allowing the driver greater freedom to approach the limits of grip.
As well as enhancing performance, the Golf R's use of a four-cylinder engine instead of a hefty V6 has the happy knock-on effect of boosting fuel economy. The old R32 could eek out 26mpg if you were lucky and resisted the powerful urge to acquaint pedal with metal but the official combined economy for the Golf R is 33mpg. Owners will still be hard-pushed to replicate that in real world driving but it's a big improvement, considering the R is more powerful too. CO2 emissions drop substantially from 257g/km in the R32 to 199g/km in the R.
The MKVI Golf GTI is a tough car to improve upon but there are those who like their hot hatchbacks a little less sedate. The Golf R shows Volkswagen bearing its teeth with more purpose but signs of the marque's trademark reserve remain. It's a formidable package with the power and the technology to give the quickest hatchbacks in the world a run for their money.
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