Test Drive: Five minutes with a Volkswagen Golf R

What is it?

It’s a Volkswagen Golf R and under the very wide, catch-all term ‘all the car you’d ever need’ – in which category you’ll find a number of extremely disparate vehicles – this 310hp hyper-hatch might be the strongest possible contender for that signal overall honour.

This is a motor which can do everything you could possibly want of it: it will cruise quietly along, sipping at fuel; it will fire away from traffic lights at tremendous velocity, courtesy of its four-wheel drive traction; it will accommodate four large adults and loads of stuff in its boot because, well, it is a Volkswagen Golf, when all’s said and done; and, most pertinently, it will set the keener driver’s pants on fire when it’s on the right roads, in the right conditions, at just the right time.

So it’s an all-rounder, then, but instead of being jack of all trades and master of none, it’s almost nine-out-of-ten in every discipline – and maybe full marks in others. This is presumably why you see far more examples of the Golf R out and about on our roads than you do practically any other hot hatchback at any price. This Volkswagen is clearly hugely desirable to the motoring public, and rightly so.

Why are you driving it?

The Golf is now into its seventh generation and at the end of 2016, the whole range was overhauled with slightly sharpened exterior looks, better interior equipment and some new engines. The first of these ‘Golf 7.5s’ were with customers in March this year and the R was not exempt from this refresh, gaining new LED daytime running lights and rear lamps with ‘direction sweep’ indicators, a bigger satnav system (it’s a beautiful 9.2-inch display on the Discover Nav package, while the resolution has increased from 117- to 155dpi), the glorious 12.3-inch TFT Active Info Display in place of the old analogue dials in the instrument cluster… and an additional 10hp for the mighty motor under the bonnet, which is a 2.0-litre ‘EA888’ mill that’s an absolute firecracker. This could therefore be a case of the very best just got a tiny bit better.

What do you like about it?

Practically everything. Critics have raved about the Volkswagen Golf for years but there has always been a feeling of ‘emperor’s new clothes’ from our side; we’ve never been sure precisely what all the fuss was about. Yes, they’ve always been nicely built and highly cultured, but exciting they are not and they’re usually criminally overpriced, compared to equally talented rivals.
Of course, the performance models – most famously exemplified by the ‘original hot hatch’ GTI, which has been around since the MkI and the year 1975 – are somewhat better, but they have never been uniformly brilliant; and the GTIs of the MkIII and MkIV Golfs, in truth, were actually pretty poor.

So, ever since Volkswagen decided to dump a 3.2-litre V6 into the MkIV Golf in 2003 and create the R32, the R-badging has been growing and growing in stature until we reach the point where, today, you’ll be hard-pressed to spot a MkVII Golf GTI on the roads, as the GTD (diesel performance model), GTE (part-electric performance model) and this range-topping R all comfortably out-sell the old-timer.

And with good reason, because if you’re a Golf-sceptic like us, then you should really try the Golf R. It will reorder your conceptions of what a hot hatch should be capable of, while never once dropping its super-urbane façade.
Everything we said at the top of this piece holds true. The VW never, ever feels out of its comfort zone. It will burr along motorways in a magnificent display of comfort and near-silence, dribbling the barest minimum super unleaded into its four cylinders. Conversely, it will absolutely monster any given back road you present it in a dazzling show of grip, balance, driver interaction and sheer, unbridled speed – and that’s whether the surfaces underneath are dry and adhesive, or wet and slippy; the Golf R simply doesn’t care about the weather outside.

You can potter around town in it as if it was nothing more than a 75hp Up!. And the unrelenting quality of the interior, from the way it is laid out, to the intuitiveness of its infotainment system, to the splendour of that TFT cluster, to the perfect haptics of the switchgear… the Volkswagen is simply shot through with quality in every conceivable way. It’s jaw-droppingly good.

Any issues?

Umm… very few, if we’re honest. OK, as tested, this Golf R five-door hatch was getting close to £40,000 and that was without the DSG gearbox, which most people will option up. Costly, for a Golf? Maybe, but it is a 155mph Golf that’ll do 0-62mph in 5.1 seconds with the excellent six-speed manual gearbox, as equipped here (the DSG is quicker still, stopping the clock at a remarkable 4.6 seconds).

Furthermore, since this Golf R arrived in 2014, the hyper-hatch landscape has changed: Ford has launched the latest RS and it’s a belter that’s quicker than the Golf, more drifty, arguably more fun and it’s cheaper; both Audi and Mercedes-AMG have facelifted and significantly improved their land-going missiles, in the form of the RS 3 and the A 45; and then there are cars coming up on the rails, like the 320hp Honda Civic Type R and the ever-so-closely-related-to-the-Golf-R SEAT Leon Cupra 300. So it’s not like it is alone as a shining star any more, if you’re after a brutally quick hatchback ahead of anything else.

And, as wonderful as the hatchback is, we’d have the cooler-again Golf R Estate, which only commands a £600 premium or so over its five-door sibling.
But, as you can see from this list, we’re rather clutching at straws. In all honesty, to drive a Golf R is to fall hopelessly and utterly in love with it.

What’s it like as a business vehicle – are there any tax benefits?

Not as bad as you might think, given its blistering performance credentials. Its key weapon here is the 2.0-litre engine, which – when the turbo’s not blowing hard – is actually decent on fuel. Volkswagen claims it can do nearly 41mpg and that is not a preposterous number, as we saw 37.2mpg on a long motorway run back from Cardiff and 33.7mpg overall from 414 miles in its company. That couples to a relatively good CO2 figure of 180g/km, which at least moves it a few percentage points down (at 35 per cent) from the top band of Benefit-in-Kind tax. And there can only be a handful of cars available today which have better residual values than the Golf R, which is a car craved by the vast majority of petrol heads.

Where does it rank in class right now?

This is tough – if you’ve read all the sections above, you’ll see this is a eulogy to the Golf R. And yet we can’t incontrovertibly call it the best thing in this sector. All of its four-wheel drive, turbocharged rivals (the Ford, the Audi and the Merc) are more powerful and even quicker than the VW, while two of them have even more prestigious nose badges and the third (the Focus RS) has one of the all-time great chassis set-ups.

Then there are further complications, in the shape of that Honda Civic Type R – it’s a much better car for extroverts and it is quite astonishingly fast and composed for a front-wheel drive vehicle – and the SEAT Leon Cupra 300, which is essentially the old pre-facelift Golf R in an interesting, edgy Spanish suit and for a starting price of around £30,000.

But not one of these cars listed here, as superb as they all are in their own ways, has such strength in depth as the Golf R does. You can find a weakness fairly easily with all of them; the RS 3 and the A 45 are fearsomely expensive; the Focus and the Leon have sub-standard interiors; the Honda is just… well, it’s a bit much visually, in the eyes of most observers.

Yet you can sit there, racking your brains for hours to try and expose a chink in the Volkswagen’s armour. And you won’t. It’s not exactly cheap and it’s certainly not rare, but the Golf R is an absolutely splendid car in every respect… and that’s why it’s therefore surely all the car you’d ever need. See?

TECH SPEC

  • Model: Volkswagen Golf R (five-door)
  • Price: Golf five-door starts from £18,420; Golf R five-door from £32,965, car as tested £38,165
  • Drivetrain: 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol, six-speed manual transmission, four-wheel drive
  • Economy: 40.9mpg
  • CO2 emissions: 180g/km – £800 VED first 12 months, £140 annually thereafter; 35% Benefit-in-Kind tax
  • Top speed: 155mph (limited)
    0-62mph: 5.1 seconds
  • Power: 310hp at 5,500-6,500rpm
  • Torque: 380Nm at 2,000- to 5,400rpm