2016 Volkswagen Golf R Wagon review

Need to move a lot of gear in a hurry and hate SUVs? The Volkswagen Golf R Estate is your perfect car.
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Practical hot hatch alternative? Performance SUV slayer? Miniature Audi RS4? All of the above — that’s the brief for the first Volkswagen Golf R Wagon.

At a time in automotive history where wagons are fading in the face of a barrage of SUVs — even in their European stronghold — the spirit of Volkswagen to unleash a hardcore derivative of its passenger load-lugger just has to be commended.

That’s the benefit of shared architectures — it opens to door to making more variants of more cars, more affordably.

Rocketing to Australia in limited numbers in October — unless, that is, demand requires extra shipments — the Golf R Wagon takes all the technology from the Golf R hatch and Audi S3 Sportback, but adds a practical body to the mix.

We don’t know the full local story yet, save to say it will be priced just south of $60,000, thereby commanding a few thousand dollar premium over the hatch in return for lugging about more of your stuff.

That also puts it around the ballpark of a $61,100 Audi S3 Sportback, which squeezes an extra 4kW from the same engine. The VW wins on practicality, the Audi on style and badge cred. Either way, the Volkswagen Group gets your money.

We were fortunate enough to have a quick burn in this new member of the Golf R range at the international launch this week.

When we say the Golf R takes all the good bits from the hatch, we mean it. This means first and foremost a 206kW/380Nm 2.0-litre EA888 turbo-petrol engine matched to a six-speed DSG only. The engine is detuned from 221kW in Europe due to our hot weather. The 210kW Audi tune won't join the Golf R range.

Peak torque is available across a wide part of the rev band — 1800 to 5500rpm — and, in tandem with the DSG’s launch control, can hustle the car from 0-100km/h in 5.1 seconds, only 0.1s slower than the 64kg lighter hatch. The 0-80km/h dash takes only 3.8s.

The drivetrain sends power to the front wheels (225/40 R18s on our tester) if you’re just doddling about, but if called up to the plate when sensors detect or even project slip, a hydraulic Haldex 5 clutch couples up the rear axle and sends torque to the rear. Up to 50 per cent of the total.

This 4Motion all-wheel-drive system is helped out by Volkswagen’s XDS+ system front and rear, which clamps down on the inside wheels while funnelling torque to the outside, acting as the latitude to the Haldex’s longitude.

You also get a Race mode in the driving mode selector which along with sharpening up throttle and DSG responses, firming up the dampers and limiting rebound, and magnifying the exhaust note and downshift blips, brings an ESC Sport setting.

This system programs the stability control to kick in later. These relaxed parameters mean you can tuck out the rear end and get a little looser on a track before the electronic nannies bring you back into line. You can even hold down the ESC button for three seconds and turn it off entirely — best save that one for a track.

Which is something we did. The Ascari circuit in Spain, to be precise. It’s one thing to talk about this tech, but another to stretch it. Furthermore, we wanted to know, could a wagon really be as nimble as a hatch?

The circuit is a cracker. Your first 45 seconds holds a 10-degree uphill right-left chicane, a downhill straight into a sharp left, a flat-to-the-floor rear section into a sweeping right-hander (don’t lift off, wuss!) and into a set of 90-degree lefts. Two apexes…

The key points to take away are the port- and direct-injected engine’s (we drove the 221kW version) relative immediacy and the DSG’s brutal shift patterns in Race mode — though we’d love even more huff higher up. It still sounds the part, albeit artificially so, the amplified quad-pipes barking and snarling all the way through the rev band.

A good theoretical test of the XDS and 4Motion systems is to power into a corner a little hot. A front-drive car will scrub on and understeer. The Golf R doesn’t. At all.

You can feel the system chomping down on the inside and funnelling to the outer, and ‘pulling’ the car around the bend like an invisible hand.

The chassis balance remains excellent, though at times it almost feels too neutral in spite everything we'd just outlined. It's fabulously competent, but at the same not quite as playful as what we'd idealise.

The ESC’s raciest system helps. It’s perfectly happy to let you have as much fun as you can, and this includes hard-won lift-off oversteer (even with the 4Motion doing its thing, it's still generally a slightly front-biased car) before stepping in at the limits of adhesion and firmly pushing you back onto the straight and narrow like a German bouncer.

The extra 300mm in length, behind the rear axle, makes the wagon version more inclined to this sort of behaviour than the hatch. This, along with that 60-off kilo weight gain, ever so slightly dilutes things.

There’s no traditional mechanical diff, but these electronic bits and the hydraulic AWD clutch do a damn good job of making this humble family wagon something approximating a track weapon.

On the road, and the track, the electronic power steering remains one of the better systems out there. Ever so slightly devoid of feel, but beautifully weighted. It has a non-constant gear ratio, meaning it takes 2.1 turns to hit the end stop. Smaller inputs yield bigger returns, in other words.

If we could criticise the R Wagon for anything, it would be that for all its fabulous competence, it remains a little clinical. The engagement levels — on account of that steering and the meaty yet subtly artificial exhaust note — take a minor hit.

Having at least the option of a manual gearbox might help. Yes, it would be slower, but it would also be more engaging. Are we just behind the times there?

Of course, track work is hardly a real-world test — more of a chance to explore the car’s limits.

The adaptive dampers, which will be standard in Australia, have a Comfort mode that gives you better travel and thereby bump absorption around town. While the steering also lightens up to make parking easier, and the throttle response is toned down.

It does the Jekyll/Hyde thing well. Of course, we’d point a finger at Volkswagen for making the design a little too Jekyll and not enough Hyde, but that would be akin to telling the sun off for shining. Volkswagen will be Volkswagen — subdued by design.

Where the R Wagon comes into its own is its practicality. There’s way more storage space than any medium SUV, more than a Skoda Octavia wagon, and about 60 per cent more than a Golf R hatch.

You can store 605 litres with the rear seats in place (and a space-saver spare under the floor), expanding to 1620L with them folded almost flat 60:40, via the clever latch integrated into the rear loading area’s sidewall.

The loading area is 1831mm long in this guise. You also get all manner of cargo hooks, a sliding cover and a two-levelled loading floor.

As with all Golf wagons, you also get good rear legroom and headroom, even with a sunroof, and outward visibility. Up front, the sports seats have decent bolstering, and Alcantara inserts, or optional leather trim.

The layout is similar to run-of-the-mill Golf models, though the feeling of quality and tactility is top-class. European models get the option of Volkswagen’s excellent Discover Media Pro infotainment system, with an eight-inch screen that kills the 5.8-inch unit on Australian versions of the Golf.

We’d urge Volkswagen Australia to change its mind and offer it locally, as an option at the least.

It’s a little tricky to discuss full specifications of the R Wagon for Australia. The limited shipments mean VW will offer some equipment on this model that isn’t on the hatch, though it’s keeping its cards close to its chest.

Read about the specifications of the Golf R hatch here to get an idea of what to expect.

Beyond the still undetermined local pricing and exact specifications, though, the case for the Golf R Wagon is very clear. It remains almost every bit the weapon that the hatch, and builds on that car’s famed liveability. Bring on October.