James Whitbourn heads for the hills to see if the new Volkswagen Golf R really is a big step-up on the popular GTI...
Meet the quickest, most powerful Golf ever to wear the badge – the 2014 Volkswagen Golf R DSG.
It’s claimed the six-speed dual-clutch version hits 100km/h from rest in 5.0sec dead and, after belting the launch-control equipped hot hatch across Victoria’s Yarra Ranges, we don’t doubt it.
Meanwhile, the 206kW 2.0-litre turbo Volkswagen Golf flagship is a fraction slower as a six-speed manual, at 5.2sec, a fact that will be of zero consequence for anyone to whom DIY selection of gears is important.
The DSG is here, now, while Volkswagen is taking orders for the manual, which will be in showrooms around August.
If the not-quick-enough Golf MkV R32 couldn’t quite talk us out of a GTI of the same generation, the MkVI arrival of the R was certainly tempting. The adoption of a high-output version of the GTI’s 2.0-litre engine brought harder-hitting power delivery and more satisfying sonics, with less weight.
However, choosing the MkVI R over the GTI still wasn’t a no-brainer. Given that it brought visuals, traction and power, but not necessarily greater driver immersion, the price premium wasn’t a clear-cut case of money well spent – a GTI still did most of what the R did, for less money.
However, this, the second iteration of Volkswagen Golf R, at $51,990 (plus $2500 for the DSG), goes further towards justifying the extra $10K on top of a GTI.
In spite of the fact our 206kW engine is down 15kW compared with the Euro version due to Australia’s status as a hot climate market – try telling that to your average Melburnian – and a kerb weight increase compared with the GTI (1416/1435kg man/DSG) the tech-packed, big-turboed EA888 engine is a powerfully persuasive argument for spending the extra cash, and that’s before you get to the R’s real point of difference…
In the context of today’s well-sorted front-drive performance cars (such as the Golf GTI), standard electronic stability control, and the GTI Performance’s electro diff-lock, you’d be forgiven for thinking performance all-wheel drives were redundant in 2014.
But while we’ve known for decades that a front-wheel drive can carve corners with the best of them, it still can’t get away from the mark as quickly, nor can it deliver the all-surface confidence of all-wheel drive – in the case of the Golf R, Volkswagen’s next-gen Haldex 5-based 4Motion system.
The day of the launch provided the conditions for the Golf R to demonstrate its advantage. Too foggy for helicopters, we’d have to climb the slippery wet mountains by Golf…
But before we did, it was worth weighing up how much of the $10K premium over GTI bought engine and drivetrain upgrades, and how much brought equipment and features.
Witness cloth/Alcantara race seats in a piano black, brushed alloy and mood-lit cabin, keyless entry and start, unique 19-inch ‘Cadiz’ alloys, standard metallic/pearl paint, and myriad aero and aesthetic upgrades in addition to the already kitted out GTI, and it’s clear that it’s mostly the mechanicals you’re paying for.
Meanwhile, there are just three option packs – Vienna leather ($3150), a panoramic glass sunroof ($1850) and a driver assistance pack incorporating active cruise and front assist with city emergency brake ($1000).
Adding leather alone to a DSG-equipped Golf R does, however, bring the price to within $3500 of the Golf R’s more premium sibling, the Audi S3, so that’s something worth thinking about.
Meanwhile we’ll let you make your mind up about the look, suffice to say the R is from the school of styling subtlety.
Back to the hottest Golf’s drivetrain, then.
The clutch-based electro-hydraulic Haldex AWD system operates the front wheels only under low loads (or when coasting), but now brings the rear wheels into play more quickly.
However, if you’re seeking rear bias and greater throttle-adjustability than was possible in the outgoing R, you won’t find it here. The new R’s dynamic flavour and cornering attitude remain firmly front-drive, but with the benefit of all-four traction.
As with the GTI, the Golf R brings Volkswagen’s XDL system, which is an electronic stability control function that provides a limited-slip diff effect by braking unloaded inside wheels during cornering.
Front and rear GTI Performance-style electronic diff locks probably would have been prohibitively expensive, so we left to imagine how capable a true torque-vectoring Golf R could be…
And, in fact, the arrival of the GTI Performance (we drove it on the same launch program as the Golf R – stay tuned for the review) makes us again question the worth of the R, given that the 71kg-lighter Performance has a smarter diff than that of the flagship and is more easily finessed via the right pedal.
The 2.0-litre turbo brings variable valve timing for both camshafts, an electronic wastegate, and dual (direct and multi-port) injection, as found in the GTI, but adds a reworked head with revised valves, valve seats and springs, new pistons, two-stage valve lift on the exhaust cam, and a higher flowing turbocharger.
We’re not sure of the exact specs of the engine internals, but whatever VW’s engineers have done, it’s brought out a thumping bottom-end note and liberated a forceful top-end.
The electric wastegate, which differs from the common pneumatically actuated unit, brings more benefits than you might think. By keeping its flap shut, it funnels every bit of boost into the engine, which helps generate more boost… Without it, the R likely wouldn’t hit its 380Nm torque peak at 1500rpm, which it maintains until 5100rpm.
Then, on gear changes, it opens the wastegate in concert with the compressor bypass valve to keep the turbo freewheeling, to get you on boost quickly in the next gear. You can feel it in the DSG, but our experience with the GTI suggests it’ll be best felt and appreciated in a manual R.
But even in standard form, teamed with crisp, insistent paddle or automated DSG shifts, the Volkswagen Golf R storms, yet is also claimed to be capable of 7.1L/100km combined cycle economy (7.3L man). This is an impressive powertrain.
The brand’s driving profile selector brings eco, normal, individual, comfort and race modes, which increases damper force, alters DSG shift points and frees exhaust noise in its ultimate setting.
Normal proved a good all-rounder setting in terms of the way its damper calibration worked with the R’s stiffer suspension, which drops the body by 20mm compared with the base Volkswagen Golf (and 5mm compared with GTI). Where race could be too abrupt for rapid backroad touring (as opposed to thrashing, for which the setting was ideal) and comfort would occasionally let the suspension run out of travel over big hits, normal delivered a well-judged balance of compliance and control.
Individual is handy to tailor your own combination, if only because I always want the meatier steering, but sometimes don’t feel like having the soundtrack, and often find race mode’s insistence on low gears unnecessary.
Point-and-shoot is the Volkswagen Golf R’s brand of handling. It’s reassuring, and highly efficient in despatching corners. The nose is remarkably understeer resistant, and the tail is resolutely tied down. However, there is a sense of front-to-rear chassis balance to please demanding drivers.
Unlike any other Volkswagen Golf, in the R, ESC can be completely disabled if the intermediate loosening of the safety net is found to kerb your enthusiasm.
Progressive steering is a headline feature, as it is in GTI, and it’s no gimmick. By progressively increasing the angle of the steering rack teeth either side of centre, the steering quickens equally progressively, and is matched by a (subtly fed-in) increase in electromechanical assistance to cancel out the extra steering effort that would otherwise be required.
The upshot is that responses are measured about straight ahead, but sharpen as lock is wound on, and the transition feels natural. Meanwhile, 2.1 turns lock-to-lock is uncommonly quick, and means your hands can stay put on the steering wheel, even in the truly tight stuff.
Our only criticism is an absence of feel which, like the chassis’ continuing lack of playfulness, subtracts a bit of involvement of the sort you’d enjoy in other (more) affordable driver’s cars such as the Ford Fiesta ST, Renault Megane RS265 and Toyota 86.
However, the Golf GTI – especially in Performance form – continues to be the biggest thorn in Golf R’s side. Do you opt up to the hi-po Golf flagship, and enjoy the aesthetic benefits, cabin niceties, extra speed and sound, and AWD confidence? We could certainly understand why you would. But if you didn’t, you’d have 95 percent of the car in one of the R’s capable kid brothers.