The Golf R is on paper essentially just a Golf GTI with more power and four-wheel drive, but contrary to that simplistic explanation, VW has in fact created a genuinely rapid all-weather hot hatchback with that rare knack of feeling totally secure and, at the same time, fantastically biddable. It’s a talent that is unique in the Golf 7 R, as if it were always working out the best way to extract the most pace from any given input on any given road.
Think of it as a Golf GTI with a reprogrammed ability map that comes into its own beyond 8/10ths, where the less powerful front-drive car would be starting to get distinctly ragged, the Golf just inhales and keeps on pushing, using all of the ability engineered into its chassis.
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Later 7.5 models might appear to have just sweetened the deal with improved infotainment and an even sharper design, but thanks to that ever-present threat of rising emissions regulations killed off the six-speed manual transmission and ten bhp, leaving the Golf R a 296bhp DSG-only affair.
To make up for this, later models were able to be optionally equipped with a Performance Pack and an expensive Akrapovič exhaust system, but none reached the heights of those early manual 7s. The all-new Golf 8 R has since been revealed, which although maintaining its DSG-only status has bumped power back up to 319bhp and adopted a torque-vectoring rear differential, which together with a clever new centrally-controlled electronic brain could well bring the model back to the heights of the original.
Volkswagen Golf R: in detail
- > Performance and 0-60 time - Far quicker than a Golf GTI, with extra power and traction offsetting the increase in weight.
- > Engine and gearbox - Four cylinders, a turbocharger and a dual-clutch transmission. It's all-wheel drive too.
- > Ride and handling - Belies the sometimes staid Golf image. Great to drive fast, even better to drive at its limit; always fun and engaging.
- > MPG and running costs - Combined economy of around 40mpg makes the R a reasonably sensible purchase, enhanced by strong residuals.
- > Interior and tech - Little to excite visually and it loses the GTI's neat tartan trim, but this is a cabin you'll never become irritated with. Comfortable, well-equipped and well-built.
- > Design - Subtle but purposeful. Some may call it dull, but if you don't want to shout about performance then there are few better cars.
Prices, specs and rivals
Amongst the Golf 7.5’s updates, so too was the cull of any real diversity to the Golf R range. Available only as a five-door DSG (and estate), the Golf R is priced at £36,180 – a fair chunk above many rivals, and on the doorstep of the Audi S3 and BMW M135i.
Attractive as the Golf R hatchback is, you might be tempted instead by the Golf R Estate, launched in 2015. It offers 605 litres of room with the seats up and a whopping 1620-litres with them folded flat. It loses few of the regular hatchback's abilities - with a 79kg weight gain it's only two tenths slower to 62mph, at 5.1sec, but it's handsome to behold and very practical. The only real problem is the lack of a manual gearbox option - though since so few opt for this in the hatch, it didn't make sense offering it in the estate.
All versions come with air-conditioning, a Driver Alert system, seven airbags, including a driver's knee bag, five three-point seat belts, ABS with ESP, XDS electronic differential lock and ISOFIX preparation for two rear child seats. There's also an 8-iinch touchscreen media system, DAB radio, a CD player, MDI interface (for connecting iPod or MP3 player), Bluetooth telephone preparation and audio streaming and eight speakers.
The Golf R costs nearly £3000 more than an equivalent GTI with its optional Performance Pack. It’s for you to decide, of course, but we think that with 60bhp extra, two more driven wheels and an extra heap of character, it justifies that money.
Main rivals are of the premium derision, with the closely related Audi S3, four-wheel drive BMW M135i and Mercedes-AMG A35 all almost perfectly aligned. The Audi is the newest, and shared much of its hardware with the Golf, with a slight 10bhp advantage and a £1800 premium. While the Audi might appear to have the edge in numbers, the S3 has almost become an incidental model in the range with the RS3 above it, making it a very underwhelming hot hatch, instead it’s more of just a high-powered S3.
The BMW M135i is slightly more interesting to drive, with a tenacious engine and a high-quality interior. It’s issue (looking past the gurning face) is the dreary engine, slow transmission and front-led all-wheel drive system that despite a great turn in, presents almost no indication of being all-wheel drive. At £37,490 it’s only a tad more expensive than the Golf, but does come with plenty of standard kit as a consolidation.
As it stands, it’s actually the AMG that offers the most entertaining package in this little premium bubble, which despite the least tractable powertrain, makes the best of it with a chassis that while not interactive is still entertaining and crispy changes from the dual-clutch transmission. At £38,850 it is the most expensive, mind and with one of its option packages bundled in takes that to over £40k.
The Honda Civic Type R, Renault Megane RS, Ford Focus ST and VW’s own GTI and GTI Clubsport represent front-wheel drive rivals that are all universally more entertaining to drive, with the Honda particularly exceptional, honestly driving like a front-wheel drive Porsche 911 GT3 in the greatest possible sense. Of course the Civic’s aesthetics and the image associated might well preclude it from being on the same shopping list as a Civic Type R, but if you can overlook that, there’s no greater hot hatchback on sale right now.