There is no Volkswagen Golf warm-hatch — the Golf GTI is hot, while the Golf R verges on scalding.
However, there is this — the Volkswagen Golf R-Line 103TSI — which is a sportier take on the regular Golf 103TSI Highline (priced at $32,790 plus on-road costs) with a number of performance-inspired upgrades that make it feel more purposeful on the road.
The extensive changes are incorporated into a $2200 option pack, which pushes the price to $34,990 plus on-road costs.
They include lowered sports suspension, new-look 18-inch alloy wheels with Continental Sport Contact 2 tyres and exterior styling changes including a lower body kit and R-Line badges. The R-Line models also get VW’s “Progressive Steering” system that alters the steering ratio based on driver inputs.
The interior is perhaps more overt in terms of the changes — indeed, it feels not too dissimilar to the actual Golf R.
The R-Line models gain a black headlining, flat-bottomed R-Line leather-trimmed sports steering wheel and sports pedals, steering wheel-mounted paddleshifters, sports seats finished in “Race” cloth with microfibre side bolstering, aluminium front door scuff plates (front) and “Black Lead Grey” inlays on the dash and doors.
Inside and outside there are changes, but in the engine compartment things stay the same, with the 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder powerplant pumping out 103kW of power and 250Nm of torque.
Those figures put the Golf down on power, but better in terms of torque in comparison to warm hatches such as the Nissan Pulsar SSS (140kW/240Nm) and Holden Cruze SRi-V (132kW/230Nm). Indeed, the 2.5-litre Mazda 3 SP25 is the only car that can match the Golf’s torque figure, as well as smothering it for power (138kW), albeit from an engine that isn’t turbocharged and is a full 1.1 litres larger in capacity.
On top of that, the Golf tips the scales at just 1265 kilograms, meaning its power to weight ratio is top notch: in auto guise the Pulsar weighs 1340kg, while the Cruze is on the tubby side, up to 1467kg.
The 103TSI’s little 1.4-litre turbocharged engine is a sprightly and willing little thing, offering lively performance from low in the rev range. The power band is broad, with torque available from 1500-3500rpm, while max power is hit from 4500-6000rpm.
As a result, this is an engine that never feels like it's short of power, particularly matched to this more tied-down chassis setup.
The standard seven-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic gearbox manages shifts with superb intuition, swapping cogs quickly and decisively under pressure — and the paddleshifters on the R-Line wheel make for snappy selections, too.
When the going wasn't as tough, the gearbox did a commendable job — and while there is a small amount of indecision from a standstill, coping with the hesitation is learnable.
The nature of the regular Golf 103TSI Highline model is a controlled and composed yet comfortable ride, and the lowered suspension of the R-Line — which dips the body of the car 15 millimetres closer to the tarmac — gives it more purpose, but largely not at the expense of cushioning.
During our time in the car we found the body control and bump response to be exceptionally good, smoothing out quickly even following a few large country road pothole hits.
Through corners the Golf R-Line felt considerably more taut and responsive than a regular Golf, particularly in terms of its turn-in response. The progressive steering system means it requires less effort to hook through a corner, and the feedback through the wheel is weighty.
There’s no doubt the level of daily-drive comfort is a little lower than in a standard Golf, but the blend of compliance and cornering ability is impressive.
The interior of the Golf R-Line models is near the same level you find in the considerably dearer Golf R.
The R-Line’s unique finishes and R embossed seats — which are nicely bolstered and offer good adjustability — add enough flair to put actual hot hatches to shame, though niceties such as keyless entry and push-button start don’t make the cut, and they probably should at this price point.
The Golf’s 5.8-inch touchscreen media system — which includes satellite navigation and doubles as a display for the standard reverse-view camera and front and rear parking sensors in the Highline models — remains one of the better units in the price range, but there is no denying the game has moved on somewhat in the two years or so that the Golf VII has been on sale.
The display on the mapping system and menu screens is quite low resolution, and we found it could be extremely slow to load when you’re inputting a destination or awaiting instructions from the nav system — though the driver info display between the instrument clusters helps in that regard. As we said when we reviewed the VW Golf R-Line diesel, the German brand should check out what’s on offer over at Hyundai/Kia — the 7.0-inch touchscreen in the i30/Elantra/Cerato/Pro_cee’d GT is larger, faster and much clearer.
In terms of ownership, Volkswagen offers capped-price servicing on the Golf, and the R-Line doesn’t affect its pricing. Maintenance is required every 12 months or 15,000km, and the car is covered for six years or 90,000km. The average annual cost over that time is $397 per annum. Volkswagen offers a three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty.
In summary, the petrol R-Line is a proper warm hatch, one that gives VW a competitor to the likes of the Mazda 3 SP25, which trumped similar rivals in our recent comparison test.
It's worth considering for buyers who can't stretch the budget to a GTI. And, to be frank, even those that can afford the "proper" performance model should probably have a look at an R-Line 103TSI if they can look beyond the red badges and tartan trim.