Wolfsburg's hottest hatch was already a cracking car. So has the addition of some 'special' extras improved the breed? We drive the Volkswagen Golf R Special Edition to find out.
We already know the Volkswagen Golf R is something special – a deliciously driveable hot hatch with a very real and very uncompromised duality. It’s always been at, or near, the top of the hot-hatch tree, with blistering performance married to an everyday liveability few can match. Disclaimer: we bought one.
But, can you make the Golf R even better? Volkswagen seems to think so. Enter the Volkswagen Golf R Special Edition, just 400 of which have made their way to Australia.
Priced at $61,990 before on-road costs, the Special Edition commands a premium of $4800 over the regular Golf R. Yet the Special Edition features the same 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder with the same 213kW and 380Nm mated to the same seven-seed DSG transmitting power to all four wheels, for the same 4.8-second 0–100km/h sprint.
So what is special about the Special Edition?
Well, there are a couple of money-can’t-buy options unavailable elsewhere in the Golf R manifest, adding cachet, even if they aren’t immediately obvious.
The sexiest addition is the inclusion of the previously unavailable in Australia Akrapovic titanium exhaust system. The system has been offered in Europe as part of VW’s Performance Pack, but this is the first time it’s been made available in Australia. Just for fun, it’s a £2975 option in the UK, around $5500 of our dollarydoos.
Apart from shaving 7kg of weight from the standard Golf R, the handmade system not only looks the business (the exhaust tips alone are a work of art), but also adds a soundtrack that previously, while not exactly lacking, was certainly muted in standard Golf R trim.
Nestled inside the Special Edition-specific 19-inch gloss-black ‘Pretoria’ alloys is the also previously only available in Europe Performance Brake package, which boasts bigger cross-drilled rotors (340mm) and Special Edition-specific brake pads.
The wheel and brake package shaves 6kg off the regular Golf R and remains the biggest visual cue to the Special Edition’s, well, specialness. Gloss-black mirror caps and ‘Special Edition’ badging complete the look.
As an aside, despite the component parts of the Special Edition responsible for shedding a few kegs, Volkswagen claims a kerb weight of 1450kg, the same as standard Golf R models. An oversight updating the spec sheet? Or has the R Special Edition gained weight elsewhere?
Inside, the Special Edition remains as jam-packed with standard kit as the regular R, but with the addition of a premium eight-speaker 400W Dynaudio sound system, a $1000 option in standard Golf Rs.
So that’s it: a louder, sexier exhaust system; bigger brakes; a nice stereo; and some badges. Is that enough to lift what is already a great car to a higher level? And is it worth the extra $4800 ask over the regular R?
Despite not being regarded as a fully fledged premium brand, the interior of the Golf R oozes premium. The Vienna leather upholstery – complete with R branding – looks and feels classy, with the front seats heated and the driver’s seat is electrically adjustable.
The infotainment is anchored by a 9.2-inch touchscreen running VW’s Discovery Pro system with satellite navigation, Bluetooth connectivity, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring. And VW’s 12-3-inch take on the wider brand’s Virtual Cockpit driver display is a peach with clarity and functionality in equal measure.
It all works seamlessly – an intuitive interface with crystal-clear graphics and razor-sharp responsiveness. A minor gripe, however, is the lack of digital radio, with bandwidth reduced to 1980s style AM/FM. It’s a $60K-plus car and, really, how much can a digital tuner add to the bottom line? It remains a minor complaint, though, in the pantheon of Golf R goodness.
There’s a decent suite of active safety tech nestled inside the Golf R, including city-speed AEB with pedestrian detection, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, and blind-spot monitoring.
But, it’s on the road where the special nature of the Special Edition starts to shine, if only in theatrics. Sure, there’s no more power or torque (at least not officially), but that Akrapovic exhaust adds a new aural dimension to the Golf R, with a delicious bass note at idle that only intensifies as the revs climb.
There’s a symphony of pops and crackles on over-run too, the Akrapovic choir singing from the hymn book of automotive delight. It’s addictive and intoxicating; a reminder of why the sound of cars still matters.
But is there more to the Special than just the way it sounds? Well, not really. That’s not a criticism, because the Golf R is already a crackingly good car. It is, in every respect, a proper hot hatch baked in the fires of performance from a recipe well resolved by the people at Wolfsburg, who have been cooking up these types of cars for four decades. So it should come as no surprise the Golf R, Special Edition or otherwise, continues to impress in almost every respect.
Whereas some hot hatches feel compromised, sacrificing everyday comfort in the hunt for performance credibility, the R comes with no such shortcomings. Simply, it’s as adept as a daily driver and as comfortable around town, as it is a raucous and manic performance car when faced with that inviting and enticing stretch of twisting tarmac.
That it’s blisteringly fast is a no-brainer. A dash to triple in under five seconds is impressive, whichever you look at it. But while straight-line chops might mean something to some people, the real measure of the R’s worth is in the way it goes about the business of going fast.
The engine never feels underdone in terms of power and torque, with a linear delivery, either in traffic or hounding some bends with lustful glee. There’s a surge of speed available under the right foot, whether from standstill or on the move.
Simply, the R piles on speed in an entirely predictable manner, and now, in this iteration, with a theatricality missing from the standard R. That’s not to say the standard is whisper quiet – it isn’t – but that Akrapovic exhaust system dials up the noise fun factor.
The seven-speed DSG, too, is well resolved – docile enough around town in auto mode, or delightfully engaging when shifting via the wheel-mounted paddles. There’s a satisfying pop on upshifts, too, when you’re feeling playful and letting the R run free, especially when ‘boy racer’ Race mode is selected.
But, like anything fun in life, there is a price to pay for letting the Special Edition run freely. VW claims a combined fuel consumption figure of 7.2L/100km for the SE. We didn't get close, with our week of urban trawling and adventurous fun netting a figure of 11.1L. Worth every drop, though.
There is, presumably, a tangible benefit to the Special Edition-specific Performance Brake package, said to offer greater stability and less fade under heavy braking. You’d be hard-pressed to notice the difference in day-to-day driving, but a session on-track would conceivably highlight the beefier stoppers’ credentials.
Certainly, a spirited drive through some back roads inspired surety and a consistent brake pedal. No qualms there.
Thanks to its AWD underpinnings and adaptive dampers, the R remains sure-footed and nimble; an agile yet eminently ‘chuck-able’ hatch that will rarely frighten you. The chassis remains beautifully balanced, poised and unruffled, even when you’re having a proper go through some twisties.
That unruffled nature extends to the solemn drive home from a back-road adventure, the R gobbling up Sydney’s less-than-perfect tarmac with aplomb. Sure, there’s a hint of harshness after some bigger hits, but the overall experience remains refined. Balanced.
And that’s the key to the Golf R, Special Edition or otherwise. It is, and remains, a beautifully balanced hot hatch with enough performance chops to leave you grinning from ear-to-ear without the daily compromise some in the class exhibit. Sure, it might not be as manic as other altogether hotter hatches, but its duality sets it apart.
But… Commanding a near $5K premium over the regular Golf R begs the question whether the Special Edition is ‘special’ enough to warrant ponying up the extra cash. Well, yes and no. If your desires run simply to a hot hatch with blistering performance balanced by an effortless daily driver, then the regular Golf R more than nails the brief.
But, there’s also much to be said for the extra theatre your hard-earned gets you. And there’s no doubt a certain cachet for the hardcore aficionados – those who need to have the best and baddest Golf parked out the front.
The Special Edition, thanks largely to its trick exhaust, now exudes a soulful character while still staying true to what the Golf R has always been – a hot hatch for grown-ups. Now with added noise.