The new Golf R is the fastest, most powerful most expensive Golf ever, thanks to 4MOTION four-wheel drive and a smidge less than 300bhp under the bonnet, yet it retains the practicality and sensible styling of its more humble siblings.
Are we, therefore, looking at the best Golf ever? Can it really justify a £30,000 price tag? We headed to the winding A and B-roads of the Cotswolds in Gloucestershire to get our answer.
By exercising restraint, VW has given us the best-looking Golf in a while, masterfully treading a fine line between understated and boy racer; classy and lairy. There’s no gigantic flared arches or huge spoiler to satisfy the Fast & Furious crowd. This is performance in a discreet package.
It’s anything but pipe and slippers. It has larger air intakes than a standard Golf, plus quad exhaust outlets, nicer alloy wheels and a new front bumper, which are sure to grab attention as it blasts on by. The R badge and silver wing mirrors complete the look.
The interior is possibly a bit too subdued. There are VW Golf R-branded sports seats and a few other subtle tweaks to set it apart, but the textured dashboard plastic is a little drab. An Audi S3 is significantly nicer in our view.
This being a Golf, the build quality is top drawer. Everything feels solid and nothing creaks or fits badly. You get a reassuring closing noise when you shut the door, just like in the adverts. Older Golfs are likely to be more bulletproof, owing to the fact there’s less technology to go wrong, but the R still has an air of dependability about it.
The VW Golf R is underpinned by the MQB platform used by the seventh-generation Golf GTI, which means practicality is a strong point, and it even comes in a choice of three or five-door body styles.
With that said, the running gear for all-wheel-drive means the boot is 343 litres – 37 litres smaller than in a normal Golf.
Fold the seats down and maximum space jumps up to 1,233 litres so you can still swing a cat in the back if you so desire. You also get a hefty glove box, big door bins, cup holders and a central armrest that can be used to stow things away from prying eyes.
The left and right rear seats have a sculpted design so your passengers can handle a more spirited drive. This is a good thing until you have to sit in the cramped middle seat.
Headroom is plentiful and rear legroom is good, for a hatchback — only those with the longest legs will complain. The front sport seats are very comfortable; supportive enough to keep you from being thrown about without making long journeys unbearable.
Performance & handling
If the Golf GTI felt quick to you (and so it should), wait until you jump in the Golf R. It borrows its four-cylinder engine from the Golf GTI, though in this case it’s been tuned to produce 296bhp (300PS).
Drive like a grown-up and it’ll reward you with a smooth, civilised ride. Drive like a child and it’ll turn into something that’s best described as unhinged. Most of the time power is delivered through the front wheels, but the power soon heads to the back when more grip is needed.
At full pelt, 0 to 62mph takes 5.1 seconds with the manual six-speed gearbox and 4.9 seconds with the six-speed DSG, with the latter providing launch control to ensure you take off perfectly every time. Torque is rated at 379Nm.
There is an element of the artificial about the exhaust note, but it’s still rewarding. A smidge of fuel is used to create an exhaust pop when you lift off in the user-selectable Sport and Race modes.
Only the £45,000 Mercedes A 45 AMG puts the Golf R to shame in the world of hatchbacks. The Seat Leon Cupra 280 manages 0 to 62mph in 5.7 seconds, while the Megane RS 275 Trophy is also slower and less practical, thanks to a lack of rear seats. An Audi S3 is only a tenth of a second faster.
Our test car was fitted with the six-speed DSG, which changes gear incredibly smoothly whether left to its own devices or when prompted by the paddle shifters behind the steering wheel, although it can feel a little sluggish when downshifting after you put your foot to the floor. Those who like full manual control can, of course, opt for the six-speed manual.
The Golf R is hugely impressive in the corners. The electric power steering feels engaging and communicative, while the grip on offer is absurdly good. There’s a meaty, old-school feel to how it drives, which inspires confidence. Brakes, uprated over the standard GTI, provide immense stopping power.
Ride quality is a little on the firm side, thanks to sports suspension, but you can always opt for a less firm option at the point of purchase. To be fair, the Golf R rides nicely over lumps and bumps without making each journey a chore.
Economy & environment
Small, efficient engines with big power outputs are becoming more common, and for good reason. Despite its epic performance, VW’s Golf R can manage 40.9mpg with the DSG gearbox (39.8mpg with the manual) mpg and 159g/km of CO2 emissions (165g/km for the manual).
A 220PS VW Golf GTI is capable of 44.1mpg and 148g/km of CO2 emissions so the difference is hardly staggering given that the regular GTI takes nearly 1.5 seconds longer to hit 62mph.
The Golf R is, therefore, relatively cheap to run and tax. Sure, a diesel or smaller petrol engine will cost less to run, but that potent mix of performance and efficiency is hard to resist.
Seat’s Leon Cupra 280 is similarly good on fuel, while the A45 AMG’s bigger output makes it a thirstier beast. There are more efficient cars out there, but few can offer up the same blistering pace.
Equipment & value
Equipment is generous in the VW Golf R. You get a 5.8-inch colour touchscreen display with DAB digital radio, air-conditioning and post-collision automatic braking as standard, so it won’t roll away if you’ve crashed and fallen unconscious.
The R badge brings with it 4MOTION four-wheel drive, bi-xenon headlights, Adaptive Cruise Control, R styling pack, front sports seats, two-zone climate control, beefier brakes, Sports Suspension (which lowers the car by 20mm), 18-inch alloys (the 19s on our test car cost £895) and City Emergency Braking.
Interior extras like blue on the dials, Alcantara on the seats and multifunction steering wheel give the Golf R a more premium feel, but it’s still some way shy of the stylish Audi S3.
Expect to pay £795 for the privilege of navigation or £1,765 as part of the Discover Pro package, which includes a bigger 8-inch display.
The VW Golf R’s competition – Megane RS Trophy, Seat Leon Cupra R 280, Audi S3 – are mostly priced around the £30,000 mark. Admittedly that’s a lot of money for any hatchback, but then the pace is more comparable with a sports car.
A VW GTI starts from £26,330 and the Golf R from £29,900, so we think the price difference is ultimately worth paying given the level of performance you get.
Safety is a strongpoint of the standard Golf and so it is for the Golf R. It helps you get four-wheel drive to keep you out of trouble if you push your luck, while the City Emergency Braking can assist in an emergency at lower speeds. It’s about as safe as you can get on four wheels, provided you can exercise restraint.
The VW Golf R sets out to prove practical and fun can live in the same sentence, a task it does without looking too much like a mid-life crisis. It can do the school run without fanfare one second, and thrill you the next. It’s a car that had us grinning from ear to ear, certainly more so than the Audi S3 and its S3 Sportback sibling.