The long-lived Volkswagen Golf dates back to 1974 and is possibly the most imitated small car in automotive history with countless automakers coming up with versions of their own. It’s hard to believe today that it was VW that virtually created the small hatchback configuration we’re so familiar nowadays.
Over the years, there have been many high-performance versions of the Golf and the most famous of these is the GTI, which kick-started the world’s interest in “hot hatchbacks.” But for 2016, VW has a performance Golf to outdo every preceding variant, even the old V-6 model. It’s the Golf R and it’s certainly one of the most desirable cars ever developed in this class - and I’ve owned one or two of them myself.
One of the great things about performance Golfs like the R and GTI is their anonymity. They are by no means ‘showy’ cars and only enthusiasts will know what they’re all about. You can burble along in the traffic like any other small sedan or hatchback, but find a quiet open road, preferably twisty, and the modest-looking Golf R somehow turns into a Porsche. This car is a real joy to drive and driven well, it can show a clean pair of wheels to many serious out-and-out sports cars. As some auto writers have noted, the ‘R’ must stand for ‘rocket!’
Part of the secret can be found under the hood. Power is supplied by a 16-valve, 2.0-litre, turbocharged 292-horsepower 4-cylinder engine and although this can be mated to a 6-speed manual transmission, mine was fitted with the 6-speed DSG auto. This was frankly the best performance gearbox I can ever remember trying on any car. According to some reliable tests, the DSG shifts faster than the manual regardless of who’s using it. Shifts can also be made using steering wheel paddles, but I found that under most circumstances, the automatic shifts are in exactly the right place. Since the car is equipped with all-wheel drive, power gets to the road with great efficiency and as there’s so much of it for a light car, it’s a lot safer to drive fast in wet weather.
Thankfully, the car handles as well as it drives in a straight line and the suspension is outstanding. The design team must have spent a lot of time on the track and on Germany’s countless mountain roads to get it so right. The suspension can be switched to a comfort mode if the driver isn’t in any particular hurry. My test Golf R was equipped with VW’s “technology package” which includes adaptive cruise control, blind spot detection with useful cross-traffic alert and other safety upgrades. It also throws in a bigger touchscreen and better audio and is worth the $2,000 or so that’s asked for it.
Perhaps above all, this is a very practical sportster. For starters, it will take five people and the hatchback means a huge amount of luggage space, especially with the back seat folded. The cabin is roomy and comfortable and the controls very well laid out indeed. I have to say that few small cars feel as comfortable to me at first drive as VW Golfs. The sporty leather-wrapped steering wheel is flattened slightly at the bottom to allow a little more clearance. I should also add that the car has lots of stowage spaces around the interior - something you don’t get with a ‘pure’ sports car. As with all VW products these days, the Golf R is very well finished inside and out and has a high-quality feel about it.
The Golf R is not a car for show-offs. As I pointed out earlier, it’s not going to turn many heads among anyone else but car fans and if it’s flash you’re looking for, there are many other choices. But for drivers seeking exhilarating response, taut handling and a car that’s a joy every time you climb behind the wheel, the Golf R is close to perfection.
SPECS AT A GLANCE…
BODY STYLE: Four-door hatchback
ENGINE: 2.0-litre 4-cylinder turbo
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed DSG (automatic). Manual box optional
PERFORMANCE: Zero to 100 km/h in approx 5.2-seconds
FUEL ECONOMY: 10.9-litres/100 km city; 7.7-litres/100 km highway
PRICE: $43,410 MSRP, as tested with $2,000 worth of options