VOLKSWAGEN GOLF R REVIEW
Not only is it lighter, faster and more technologically-advanced than the car it replaces, the MkV Golf R32, but it’s also more competitively priced.
With a retail cost of $48,490 for the entry-level three-door manual, it’s nearly $7000 cheaper than the now-superseded R32.
In the Golf R, the R32’s 3.2 litre naturally-aspirated V6 has made way for a 2.0 litre turbocharged inline four. This pocket-powerhaus produces 188kW of power and 330Nm of torque – the latter of which is available between 2400-5200rpm.
Although the R’s turbo four-pot shares its 1984cc displacement and 82.5 x 92.8mm bore/stroke dimensions with the Golf GTI’s engine, it’s not the same motor. In fact, the Golf R’s powerplant has more in common with the Audi S3’s engine, which shares the same architecture and has identical power and torque numbers.
Like the S3 and the R32 before it, the Golf R also has the advantage of Volkwagen's 4Motion all-wheel-drive system.
For the Golf R, the 4Motion system has been rejigged to improve the Haldex centre coupling’s torque vectoring capability, resulting in a constantly variable torque split that can – in extreme circumstances – send as much as 100 percent of torque to the rear wheels.
Straight line performance is suitably brisk for a hot hatch, with a 5.7 second 0-100km/h time for the DSG-equipped Golf R easily eclipsing the outgoing R32’s 6.2 second sprint time.
But what’s it like to drive? Although the suspension layout uses the same MacPherson Strut front and multi-link rear setup as the R32, weight has dropped by 34 kilograms – most of it coming out of the nose.
The result, you would reckon, must surely be an improvement in handling dynamics.
Volkswagen provided the venue - and where better than Tasmania, over some truly challenging roads and in some traction-testing weather, to demonstrate the abilities of its latest hot hatch?
On a drive route that extended East from Launceston, around Great Lake and back North to Launceston, the Golf R was subjected to countless tight hairpins, high-speed sweepers, suspension-compressing troughs, sharp crests and deeply corrugated dirt roads, as well as the occasional highway.
The weather alternated between bright sun, driving rain and light snowfall, bringing even more variety, and more than one corner that threatened to bite, to the day’s drive route.
Starting in the sleepy city of Launceston, the Golf R proved relatively benign in stop-start driving. The engine is quite docile when off boost, although the deep burble of the exhaust hints at the R’s potential.
Acceleration is fantastic. The Golf R’s rubber-band like surge, with just the briefest turbo lag, is like being launched from a slingshot.
It doesn't quite have the instant throttle response of the naturally-aspirated R32, but there’s so much more urge available in the midrange that it’s not an issue.
That said, there will be some who will be disappointed that European-market Golf Rs get a full-blooded 199kW power output while locally-delivered R’s are detuned to 188kW. You can blame Australia's hot climate for that one.
The blown four-pot sounds great, and the turbocharger is quite vocal when on song. The exhaust note is deep and bassy with a satisfying crackle on the overrun (but some VW diehards may miss the hard-edged melody of the R32’s VR6 engine).
It is the Golf R’s handling however that will win over anyone still yearning for the R32. As aurally fantastic as the R32 was, its iron-blocked V6 put a lot of weight ahead of the front axle, with understeer-prone handling the result.
The result is that it is an absolute delight to throw into a tight bend.
It will default to understeer if pushed beyond its limits, but thanks to its better fore and aft balance, the onset of understeer occurs much later. A tail-out attitude can be provoked on slippery surfaces, but, when under power, the 4Motion system prefers to rein in the slide rather than prolong it.
Cornering grip is very strong, no doubt aided by the 140-treadwear Bridgestone Potenza RE050 tyres. In both the wet and dry, the Golf R has got a tenacious hold on the tarmac.
It surprised us a little that despite its performance bent, the Golf R's ride quality is more than acceptable. It is, of course, stiff, but the 18-inch wheels and (optional) Adaptive Chassis Control of the five-door manual that we sampled proved comfortable enough for much of the lengthy test loop.
Some deep corrugations and potholes encountered on a stretch of dirt road during the launch were clearly felt through the seats, but such surfaces are far from the Golf R’s natural environment.
Aside from a smattering of alloy trim and a steering wheel borrowed from the GTI, the rest of the cabin is typical Golf fare. There’s none of the colourful stitching of the GTI, and the standard grey/black seats seem out of place in the Golf R’s cabin.
The exterior is a bit more exuberant. The front and rear bumpers, sideskirts, LED tail lamp clusters, headlamps, LED daytime running lamps, double-tipped centre-exit exhaust and 18-inch alloys are all specific to the Golf R, and make it much harder to lose in traffic.
There’s a set of 19-inch alloys on the option list (which curiously also bring all-black headlamp clusters), and they’re available in either silver or gloss black. In our opinion, the Golf R looks especially handsome in Candy White with the optional 19-inch rims painted black.
At around a $50k entry price, the Golf R is at the premium end of the all-wheel drive turbo hot hatch segment.
The cheaper Subaru WRX hatch has more power and torque; even the Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart Sportback has more torque. On the upside though, the Golf R is a far more upmarket proposition and has the refinement and interior quality to match.
Given its pricing it may be tempting to compare the Golf R with the Impreza WRX STI or Lancer Evolution, but those cars are far more 'track-day' focused and not as easy to live with as the Volkswagen.
One thing’s for certain: the Golf R definitely diminishes the argument for forking over $66,500 for the mechanically-similar Audi S3.
A proper road test will tell the full story, so stay tuned for a more in-depth appraisal of Volkswagen’s hottest of hatches, the Golf R.