Licence to thrill - Volkswagen's Golf R is a very grown-up hot hatch
Volkswagen's most potent Golf, the R, is a very grown-up hot hatch, writes Geraldine Herbert
You can tell a lot about a car by the attention it gets. Some attract onlookers, car fanatics and legions of salivating boy racers but others just get the odd admiring glance and, in the main, slip quietly in out of car parks unnoticed. The latter is the case with Volkswagen's most potent Golf, the R, one of the most discrete road warriors combining the practicality and comfort of a compact hatchback and the performance of a serious sports car.
While the R badge signifies something quite special compared with the standard Golf, VW has done little to distinguish the R and it looks a lot like the rest in the range. Look closely, however, and there are a few clues: R badges, quad exhaust pipes and new LED lighting front and rear. But this is a car that is deliberately understated; it's been designed for a very specific buyer who understands what it is.
Inside there is a nice sense of occasion and it is more than just a well-equipped Golf - the supportive sport seats, the flat-bottom, leather-wrapped steering wheel and alloy pedals speak of quality materials. It is also a practical car and adults could travel happily in the back, while the boot is a shopping-friendly 343 litres.
On the road it is comfortable, smooth and soft, soaking up the bumps well when 'Normal' mode is selected. However, knowing you have all this speed and performance at your disposal means you'll never just be happy with just 'Normal'. There are four modes to choose from that tweak engine, gearbox, steering, and throttle responses. In addition to Normal, there's also Eco, Individual and Race. Flick the mode to Race and it transforms the Golf R into a sports car that sounds like it could quite possibly launch rockets.
There is a mesmerising blend of compliance and grip with the four-wheel drive that contributes to incredible traction and it takes a strong resolve not to give into the temptation of pushing this car to the limit. And while you could still do with a bit more feedback from the steering, whether on a back road or motorway you will totally surrender to its charms.
Under the bonnet is essentially the same 2.0-litre TSI engine as the standard GTI, just with more turbo and out of which VW boffins have managed to extract 310hp and 380 Nms of torque. The Golf R comes with a choice of either a six-speed manual or VW's DSG transmissions.
Emissions and economy aren't bad at all, considering the overall performance, but are nothing to boast about; motor tax will set you back €750 per year and, depending on how you drive it, you will get up to 7.9l/100km, or 35.8mpg.
But all of this performance costs money, and the base price for the Golf R is €45,795. Our test car came with €1,488 of extras including a '171' pack (Discover Media nav system, Light Assist, rear-view camera, and winter pack), metallic paint, and 19" Pretoria alloy wheels bringing the total cost to €48,058. It is competitively priced when compared to rivals: the Honda Civic Type R starts at €48,750 and Ford's Focus RS at €52,875.
The Golf R is a sombre, mature take on a very hot hatch. There are no spoilers, no unnecessary loud noise and nothing that is flamboyant or irresponsible and, essentially, it is a five-door family hatchback. But it is also an incredible blend of beastly power and practicality. And while it may lack the drama of the Honda Civic Type R or the sheer fun of the Ford Focus RS it is, without doubt, the best car Volkswagen make.