While it has enjoyed a certain cult following, VW’s flagship Golf, the R32, has always been a hard car to justify in print. More powerful and more expensive than its iconic GTI sibling, the V6-powered Golf has never quite managed to live up to the GTI-beating promise made by its impressive spec sheet and upscale price tag.
This time we’re assured things are different. The lads at Volkswagen Individual (Wolfsburg’s go-faster skunkworks) have changed the recipe for the new Golf R, junking the flabby and rather flaccid 3.2-litre V6 for a pumped-up 2-litre TSI motor that kicks out more power and torque and weighs 35kg less. Together with 4MOTION all-wheel drive and a raft of discreetly funky visual signatures, there’s every chance the Golf R has the wherewithal to make amends for the consistently underwhelming R32.
There’s no doubt it looks the part, especially from the rear thanks to a pair of fat, central exhaust pipes. Inside, the cloth and Alcantara upholstery is good and grippy but it doesn’t look especially expensive, which could be a problem for a car at this level.
Our test car is fitted with the optional DSG transmission. Thanks to the R’s extra grunt VW won’t fit the seven-speed version of the double-clutch ’box for fear of it tying itself in a toothy knot. On the face of it that doesn’t seem like too big a deal, but as soon as you get on the motorway you find yourself pulling vainly on the right-hand paddle for the extra gear. It cruises well enough, but it just seems a bit busier than it should at 80(ish)mph.
There are other aspects of the DSG that grate a little. In normal ‘D’ mode it feels a bit tardy, pulling away in second gear and always doing the ‘minicab shuffle’ into as high a gear as possible, as soon as possible. And because the R has a ton of torque it can pull very tall gears at very low revs, which just feels plain wrong, even if it is bang-on for fuel economy.
So you slip the selector to ‘S’ to pep things up a bit, only to find it’s a bit too lively, kicking down at the drop of a hat and generally behaving like a kid high on E-numbers. Your final alternative is to pop the selector across into full manual mode, which at least means you get the gear you want, when you want it, but after a while you begin to resent not being able to leave it to its own devices. Aaaaarrgh!
I’m sure this sounds like nit-picking, and maybe it is, but compared with the sharp immediacy of the shifts themselves, and the neat action of the dinky little spoke-mounted button shifters, the bipolarity of the gearbox mapping is frustratingly compromised.
One thing you won’t find us complaining about is the Golf R’s performance. Some will miss the appeal of the old R32 with its lusty V6 lump tucked up front, but honestly that motor never felt quite as lively as it should have, preferring a slightly lazy delivery to big-bore fireworks. By contrast this turbocharged four-cylinder is a real fizzer, with a much weightier punch and a pleasingly vocal delivery.
Without getting too trainspottery on you, this Golf R motor is derived from the old EA113 engine from the mk5 Golf GTI, not the EA888 fitted to the new mk6 GTI. Confused? Don’t be, for according to VW Individual it’s merely because the older motor lends itself more readily to tuning. And tune it they have, with a reinforced block, an entirely new alloy cylinder head, uprated pistons and conrods and high-pressure fuel injectors. It also gets a new turbo that puffs 1.2bar of boost and a more effective intercooler to deal with the increased thermal load.
The results are impressive, with 266bhp at 6000rpm and a chunky 258lb ft at just 2500rpm. Both these figures comfortably trump the old mk5 R32, as does the 0-62mph acceleration figure of 5.5sec for the DSG car and 5.7sec for the six-speed stick-shifter. Top speed remains an electronically limited 155mph. The biggest benefit comes in reduced CO2 emissions, down from 257g/km to 199g/km for like-for-like manual models, and 233g/km to 198g/km for the DSG. Fuel economy is improved too, up around 4mpg to 33.6 on the combined cycle.
Such is the difference in character between the mk5 R32 and the new mk6 Golf R that subjective comparison seems misguided. Where the R32 lacked the incisive delicacy of the mk5 GTI, the mk6 Golf R feels sharper, angrier and a whole lot faster than the current GTI. Of course, at a starting price of over £30,000 with DSG it darned well should, but whereas the potent but chunky R32 always fell victim to the law of diminishing returns, the Golf R proves that when executed well, more power can equal decisively more performance.
The same goes for the chassis. Experience suggests that switching a Golf from front-wheel drive to all-wheel drive delivers security at the expense of sparkle, yet the Golf R’s 4MOTION system seems to achieve the opposite. I should qualify that statement by saying conditions were decidedly wintry during our time with the R, but I still believe the steering response is cleaner and the general enthusiasm for corners more energetic than the beautifully polished but overwhelmingly straight-laced GTI. We’ll try the R again in more clement weather for a definitive assessent, but until then my hunch (and Mr Barker’s) is that it’ll be the most convincing drivers’ Golf in a long time.
As you’d expect, the Golf R’s suspension is stiffer and lower (by 25mm) than the GTI’s. Everything from the springs and dampers to the anti-roll bars, ESP thresholds and power steering have been tweaked. Our test car is on standard 18in five-spoke alloys wearing 225/40 Dunlop Sport Maxx rubber. Surprisingly, VW’s ACC (Adaptive Chassis Control) switchable dampers are a cost option, which seems pretty stingy on a £30K Golf. In fact they aren’t fitted to this test car, and the ride and handling compromise struck by the standard-fit fixed-rate suspension seem pretty much spot on. Whether it would retain its composure with the optional 19in rims and 235/35 tyres is a question we’ll have to duck at this stage. The brakes – impressive 345mm discs up front, 310mm at the rear – are gripped by black, ‘R’ monogrammed calipers and feel both progressive and powerful, as they need to be given the R’s accelerative urgency.
All in all, then, the Golf R is yet another hugely impressive addition to the hot hatch Premier League. It’s pricey, but you only need look inside a Focus RS to know where Ford saves money. And while Renault is closing the quality gap, the VW only gives best to the Audi S3 for premium feel. The Golf R has also got terrific pace and tractability, coupled to a memorably effervescent engine and a sport-biased chassis that exudes confidence, composure and, perhaps most importantly, genuine enthusiasm. Factor-in all the core strengths and real-world qualities of little- brother GTI and you have to conclude that Volkswagen Individual has produced a formidable range-topper. Golf R: same game, bigger balls.