2016 Volkswagen Golf R Wagon Review

Rating: 9.0
$58,990 Mrlp
  • Fuel Economy
  • Engine Power
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The Golf R Wagon has finally set to hit Australian roads and racetracks, in super-cool, limited-run Wolfsburg Edition
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Good news everybody. The 2016 Volkswagen Golf R Wolfsburg Edition Wagon is utterly fantastic.

Well, perhaps that verdict mightn’t bask every budding car buyer’s day in the glow of relief, but it might comfort the many who’ve taken a sizeable punt on one very niche enthusiast model without track record and everything to prove.

Many indeed. At the local launch of this made-for-Oz R Wagon version, Volkswagen dealers had taken enough deposits to almost certify that the limited-release, fringe-dwelling Golf is officially a sell-out.

Really? A small, family-oriented format juiced up with ultra-performance that not safe SUV haven? And wants for a cool $58,990 plus on-roads? Surely as a concept it makes your average so-called crossover look downright conventional and conservative.

Turns out that the Golf R Wagon, the first of its ilk for Oz, is exactly what many buyers are looking for. Exactly how many buyers, and indeed how many examples of this ‘limited’ car are available, Volkswagen Australia isn’t saying. But the savvy business case was there to create an ultra-niche, bespoke-for-Oz model run that was all but vouched for before it landed Down Under.

Essentially, the Aussie arm raided VW Europe’s ‘Wolfsburg’ tuning arm parts bin to create the flagship wagon and its hatchback twin, also just launched and which shoehorns the same go-fast theme into a lighter and quicker five-door-hatch format and undercuts the wagon version by $2000. Both are exclusive to our market where, currently at least, no ‘regular’ Golf R Wagon is slated to be offered.

The Wolfsburg Edition treatment – 19-inch ‘Pretoria’ wheels, black mirror caps and roof rails, Carbon Nappa leather trim – certainly adds gravitas and requisite exclusivity. But there’s little doubt that the Golf R Wagon would’ve hit the spot with a section of Aussie performance lovers without the stylisms or the ‘wolf and castle’ badge on the tailgate in homage to Volkswagen’s hometown.

The magic, then, is in 206 turbocharged kilowatts, all-wheel drive, 5.2-second 0-100km/h time and thoroughbred dynamics wrapped in a package that’ll swallow more ‘family lifestyle’ than most mid-sized SUVs. And without having to resort to driving an SUV.

Interestingly, the nature of such an enthusiast-focused model is that, surely, most early adopting depositors were aware that Aussies were to get stiffed 15kW of power due to our generally warm local climate, as the Euro Golf R Wagons get a full-fat 221kW. And this seems to have deterred very few.

Further to the geeky academia, our Wolfsburg Wagon, at 1504kg tare, is 74 kilos heftier than the hatch version, most of it in extra metal, glass and rubber plied over the rear axle. The Euro Estate, it’s claimed, is 0.1sec quicker (5.1sec) to triple figures. Officially, the Aussie Wolfsburg hatch is 0.2sec quicker (5.0sec) to 100km/h and, at 7.1L/100km, is slightly more frugal on fuel than the Wagon’s 7.2.

By the seat of the pants, though, our Wolfsburg Wagon feels thoroughly weapons grade, through vibe or sheer pace, regardless of how it’s driven. And, as the only Golf trim level to boast a Race drive mode and at over twice the price of a ($27,990) 1.4 92TSI Trendline Wagon, it would certainly want to. So during the local launch program mixing urban, highway, twisty back road and race circuit testing, it’s the last two venues where the mega-Golf would want to shine very brightly.

The tight, undulating nature of Wakefield Park Raceway favours athletic dynamics over brute force. It’s hot hatch nirvana, perfect for, say, a Golf GTI Performance Pack. And if there’s one thing VW Driving Experience lead instructor Steve Pizzati is adept at – besides spinning a yarn - it’s getting the front-driver around a lap at the car’s absolute limit.

And from the exit of pitlane through half a dozen hot laps, my Wolfsburg Wagon is welded to the Pizzati GTI’s exhaust tips.

“I wish I could turn ESP all the way off,” Pizzati spins through the two-way radio in explanation, the lively GTI bouncing off its electronic safety nets. Funny that, given I’ve left the Golf R Wagon’s ESP activated in Sport mode. Such is the estate version’s grip, accuracy and punch, and a degree safety assistance leniency that allows all of its talent to be fully exploited.

The Golf R Wagon is more than merely beyond-GTI fast. Characteristically and dynamically, it loves a racetrack. It feels tight and sharp. Handling wise, it’s as responsive to throttle and braking inputs in corners as it is to its beautifully accurate steering.

Does it need those lost 15 kilowatts? Not at all. In fact, the balance of power and dynamics is sweetly struck, in that you can really dig into the rorty turbo four as it screams to redline. And its 380Nm peak is spread so generous across the rev range that it pulls hard out of every corner, retaining full-fat potency without the need for relentless paddleshifting the six-speed dual-clutch transmission.

Is it any slower than a Wolfsburg hatchback? Well, when Wakefield’s fast downhill sweeper flat flashes through the windshield – throttle pinned flat, 235mm-wide ContiSportContact tyres howling at the edges of adhesion – and the wagon squirms under braking into the Fish Hook hairpin a metre off a GTI’s rear bumper, it really doesn’t matter. It’s so unencumbered by its wagon-ness that you simply forget that you’re not driving the hatch version.

On track, that R-exclusive Race drive mode – complimenting a choice of Eco, Comfort, Normal and driver-assignable Individual – delivers exactly as promised, particularly in its sporting manipulation of Dynamic Chassis Control (handling), Drive (powertrain) and Steering (erm…steering) calibration. While that sounds terribly geeky, but it separates a truly fun car from merely a fast one that fails to engage its driver. This X-factor alone is worth a big chunk of the near $60K price tag.

If there’s one on-track gripe worth mentioning, it’s that, in fully manual mode, the DSG won’t hold the selected gear until the death.

On a country road, at a pace I’ll call eight rather than eleven tenths, the Golf R Wagon has a somewhat different character. Mike described the (221kW Euro-spec) Golf R Wagon at the international launch earlier this year as “not quite as playful as what we’d idealise,” though on evidence on Canberran back roads our local version is merely more polite at public road pace.

Again in Race mode – for lack of any actual Sport setting - the rear remains planted and there’s an abundance of surefooted grip at play, but its still a crisp handler with a lithe dynamic character that belies its tonne-and-a-half of weight. The Haldex 5 multi-clutch differential will only fire a maximum of 50 per cent of torque to rear axle - it won’t oversteer under power out of corners – but the XDS system does a fine job divvying up torque amongst the individual wheels. It’s a naturally spirited handler, if one reassuringly safe, predictable and, dare I say, idiot-proof.

For sonic fanfare, it certainly talks the talk. In any drive mode, there’s a rich rumble form the turbo four. Nudging the DSG selector into Sport introduces a bassy engine baritone that thrums through the cabin, and a neat ‘brap’ during rapid-fire upshifts transforms into a bold ‘crack’ under maximum acceleration. If there’s a chink in the powertrain armour, though, it’s that, from a standstill, there’s a pause between trouncing the right pedal and bolting out of the gate, regardless of what buttons are pushed prior.

In Normal mode, the wagon relaxes its muscles and dulls the all-round edginess somewhat, yet it retains an undertow of sportiness, transitioning from downright docile to corner-carving keen with just a flex of the right foot. Once the road opens up, Normal is perhaps a little too terse – particularly in ride – and uncomfortable for generally long-haul grand touring.

Comfort mode, though, is excellent for the balance of urban and highway driving. The steering lightens up without robbing connection and feel, the DSG shifts smoothly yet assertively, the softest-of-three ride comfort setting delivers excellent damping compliance without denigrating the chassis into wallowy malaise.

It’s a big plus that both Race and Comfort modes are so thoroughly resolved (and there’s a middling Normal mode for pedants) because the highly customisable Individual mode is overly complex and unnecessary. Do you really need a choice of Normal, Sport and Eco settings for Dynamic Cornering Lighting?

Could you live with the Golf R Wagon every day? Absolutely. The front seats are superb – tremendously purposeful in shape, with enough comfortable ‘give’ in padding – and the rears are supportive and shapely. The ‘Carbon’ fine-grain Nappa leather, too, is superb. None of the racy R-isms impinge on the smartly packaged Golf wagon’s usability and practicality, which includes a whopping 605 litres of conventional luggage space that transforms into a mid-SUV-busting 1620 litres with the 60:40 split-fold rears folded flat.

It comes with an exhaustive and properly premium list of standard equipment and feels as rich and well executed as many mid-spec Audis – impressive from what’s considered the non-premium corporate cousin. So fully loaded is the Wolfsburg Edition that the only cost option available is a panoramic electric sunroof, at $1850.

City emergency braking, blind-spot alert, rear-traffic alert with integrated automatic reverse braking, multi-collision braking, fatigue detection, adaptive cruise control…VW hasn’t skimped on safety features either.

A full rundown of specs can be found here.

If there’s a glaring markdown inside, it’s that the wagon gets the Discover Media audio and sat-nav system with 6.5-inch touchscreen rather than the higher-spec 8.0-inch ‘Pro’ system offered in VW models overseas.

Beyond what it does, another lure in the Golf ‘uber-wagen’ is simply what it is. Yes, it’s the first Golf R Wagon for Oz. Yes, the limited-edition Wolfsburg treatment brings exclusivity. But there’s really nothing else out there like it or, at least, substitutes as a truly direct competitor.

You’d think Mercedes-Benz’s CLA Shooting Brake stock is a natural nemesis. But no.

At 155kW, the pricier ($66,400) CLA 250 Sport is nothing like as powerful. And at $89,990 the (265kW) CLA45 AMG is, with its $30K-plus premium, no realistic alternative on price.

Skoda Octavia RS Wagon? It’s front-driven and twinned with Golf GTI DNA, so not hot enough. Audi S3? The Sportback version doesn’t offer anything like the Golf R Wagon’s luggage space. Even Audi’s RSQ3, as a high-performance small car, is misaligned in more areas than are worth counting.

Realistically, if absolute practicality isn’t a high priority, the hatchback version of the Golf R Wolfsburg Edition, available as a five-door only, is the closest substitute, and undercuts its wagon brethren by $1750, at $56,990 plus on-roads.

The cool factor really lies in the rare collision of virtues this mega-wagon conspires. As a card-carrying hot wagon sympathizer, I’d recommend it to like-minded petrolheads, a test drive notwithstanding. In which case, call it a solid and commendable nine out of 10.

You might want to get in quick, though, if you haven’t already ordered one.