Before I start on the R, let’s pause to consider those cars which led us to its very creation, starting in the mid ’70s with the Golf GTI. It was truly the hero of Wolfsburg and probably did more to reinforce the image of Volkswagen than any other car before, probably even since. The MK1 GTI remains revered to this day for its lightness, simplicity and tactility, each of which were virtues that it inherited, because the basic Golf was light, simple and tactile. As the Golf matured it put on weight and complexity and the effect of this was felt hard in subsequent generations of GTI. The name, too, became less meaningful. Look at the current generation of Golf and tell me that any of today’s lineup don’t make reasonable Grand Touring cars, and try and find me one that’s any less Injected than the GTI was. Fact is, they’re all great, especially the current GTI, but none of them feel remotely like the original did. So, for now let’s sidestep the GTI and look at what happens when VW sets out to make a Golf really special in 2014. This is the new Golf R. And it’s amazing. The position that the Golf enjoys in today’s car market has changed somewhat since the ’70s. The early cars were desirable and respectable in a suburban, middle class kind of way; today the appeal is far more definitive. Golf has become a de facto luxury car, carrying a comparable image to a BMW 3 Series despite the shortfall in cost and size (somehow Jetta and Passat aren’t quite the must-have items that the Golf remains). It is therefore fitting that VW should use its basis for their stand-out performance offering. We’re going way beyond GTI here, in fact I shall mention those initials sparingly from now on as the gap between the two can’t easily be bridged. In fact, aside from the silhouette of Golf, we should forget about this car being related to VW’s middleweight hatchback to get the best possible sense of what it’s about. Indeed, a look to the four exhaust pipes astern should hint that R has about as much in common with Golf SE as I do with Lisa Minelli. Step inside and there’s a Golf dashboard, probably because it fits so well in the Golf bodyshell. If VW could justify replacing it with anything more glamorous they probably would, but in truth the shades-of-Audi edifice is more than good enough, especially with the bespoke dials with blue needles (very important). The seats grip parts of your anatomy in a slightly intimidating way: “you’re not going anywhere, sonny Jim, until the business of driving is through” and any remaining doubt that you’re in something special evaporates us soon as the key is twisted. Bwap bwap bwap bwap. I’m not sure the spelling is right, but that’s pretty much what the exhaust note said as the R settled to a belligerent idle. It speaks in a similar language to Subaru STI, actually, and it never really subsides into background chatter for all the time it’s running. At a push, the stridency of the noise could be seen as a weak point; those few people who buy an “R” and want to monopolise on its Grand Touring credentials rather than its trackday expertise might well get miffed that that power can’t come without noise. Sometimes all you want to do is cruise; even in the high sixth gear the R’s attention-grabbing voice never grows dulcet. It’s a great sound, but can you have too much of a good thing? So, having looked at and listened to the R you will already have a good idea what it’s all about, and actually driving it brings no real surprises, aside from, perhaps, the sheer speed. Dashing to 62 mph takes only 5.3 seconds of your valuable time, dropping to 4.9 seconds if you pick the DSG twin-clutch sequential ‘box, which will remain a popular choice. But opting to row your own does have a certain added appeal. Allied with body control that delivers everything you want with absolutely no excuses, the engine, the four Haldex-driven wheels and the gearbox gel into a seamless package that gets the job of driving hard done properly, and fills you with confidence to attack every mile still harder. Mid corner gear-changes are graciously dealt with giving you absolutely no excuse for getting the entry or exit speeds wrong, and the changes themselves are perfectly judged for such a deliberate, sporting conveyance. You have to work to drive the R properly. The controls carry a certain weight that the unwary might not be ready for. The steering, the brakes all need- and respond well to- firm inputs; the gearbox shift is accurate to a molecular level but still requires that you manhandle the gears home. Nothing comes easy. A good drive in the Golf R feels like a moderate cardiovascular work-out. And for me that’s where the magic lies. Drift back to the celebrated Golfs of yore and you would possibly have been more richly rewarded with fizziness and zeal through the steering wheel and the sensations which flow directly into your buttocks from the driving seat, but GTI’s were a different kind of car back then, and they aren’t coming back, much as we’d like them to. So, the feel may be reduced in extremis, the car may seem less alive, but the balance is redressed by the feelings of encouragement and reassurance that the car imparts. The controls of the Golf R goad you on, hinting that there are more MPH to be eked out of that corner next time you attack it. Any other flaws are simply the legacy of there being the bones of a Golf trapped under this bodykitted superhero costume; ergo it’s not the most inspirational looking machine of all time. The interior is Audi professional but perhaps lacks the final degree of personality, and of course you have to live with the fact that owning a Golf of any kind automatically buys you into the “Dub Scene”; a society that you either love or loathe (or are completely impartial if you represent an internationally respected motoring website). But all that negativity pales when you consider that, since the previous Golf R that young Mr Emslie covered a few years ago, the new machine has somehow become up to 18% more fuel efficient. And before you all yawn noisily and then fall into a collective coma, remember that there are now 30 extra horsepower to play with, bringing the stable to 296 heads. Phenomenal grip, total performance and economical with it. The Golf R is the gift that keeps on giving. (Full disclosure: Huge thanks to Volkswagen UK for tossing me the key with nary a concern for the rivulets of rainwater flowing all over the place thanks to “changeable” weather. Brave people). [Images: copyright 2014 Hooniverse/Chris Haining]
Review: 2014 VW Golf R. Grunt and Grip will Go Far
RoadworkUK is the online persona of Gianni Hirsch, a tall, awkward gentleman with a home office full of gently decomposing paper and a garage full of worthless scrap metal. He lives in the village of Moistly, which is a safe distance from London and is surrounded by enough water and scenery to be interesting. In another life, he has designed, sold, worked on and written about cars in exchange for small quantities of money.