Volkswagen Golf R first drive: The best fast Golf ever

Just how much would you be happy to spend on a Golf? It's an interesting question posed by this, the new hottest (ever) Golf ­- the R - which starts at a few quid under 30-grand in the UK. It's the latest in a long line of uber-fast Golfs, designed to go one level above the already impressive levels of performance offered by the Golf GTi and GTD.

What you get is a 2-litre turbo engine - the same capacity as the GTi, but here cranked up to 300hp. Four-wheel drive to put power down to the road and the choice of either a six-speed manual, or six-speed DSG auto gearbox.

Both the 3 and the 5-door Golf bodyshells are available, whichever you choose the results are similar - explosive performance and the kind of driving experience that is pretty astonishing for something that has the everyman "Golf" badge on the back. 

Thirty big ones

And while we're sure there'll be plenty of people who baulk at the £29,990 asking price, given that this is - we'll repeat again - just a Golf, this car ultimately makes spending 30 big ones on a Golf seem entirely reasonable.

Why? Well it starts with the equipment on offer. Our test car had only three options - the blue paint (£535), the top line satnav system (£1765), and the adaptive chassis control (£815). But you could live without any options and still get a car that wants for little in the way of equipment.

You'll get a standard 5.8-inch centre screen with DAB radio, Bluetooth, and full media streaming; then 18-inch wheels, four-wheel drive, dual-zone climate control, goodies such as radar guided cruise control, city emergency braking and Xenon headlamps are standard too - the list goes on.

Which is where the Golf starts to make sense against that oh so obvious Audi, BMW or Merc opposition. You get more stuff, and better performance, for the same price as anything from the "premium" brands.

Rocket ship

But it's how the R drives that is its piece-de-résistance. It rockets to 60mph in a smidgeon over 5 seconds (or under it if you've the DSG auto box), and seems to find the kind of traction out of corners that has your face pressing up against the side windows.

It's a terribly easy car to drive though, with lightweight pedals and relatively light steering, which means that - like every other Golf - it's a nice, comfortable and non-tiring place to sit as you grind through hours of town driving and motorway miles. This lulls you into thinking it's going to be quite boring. But then you find a nice piece of clear road, flatten the accelerator and the thing does a passible impression of a rally car.

Fast Golf fans will remember that the crowning quality of the Mk IV and V R32 was the engine noise produced by the VR6 unit. This Mk VII R isn't quite so sonorous, but it does make up for its humble four-cylinder engine with some noise that - although piped in - has a really nice burble and at times does a decent impression of an original 5-cylinder Audi Quattro. And despite fairly serious turbo-charging, the engine exhibits no lag and pulls cleanly all the way to the redline. It feels fast with a capital F.

We stepped into the R from BMW's newest M3 and the biggest complement we can pay the Golf is that it still felt fast and fun after the Beemer.

It shouldn't cost the earth either - it emits 165g/km of CO2 and is capable of 39.8mpg. Which translated to 26mpg when hammered by us around the country test route - so north of 30mpg day-to-day should be entirely achievable.

Chassis polish 

While the engine impresses, it's the chassis that shows the real development work that's gone in to taking the R a step beyond the GTi and more regular Golfs. You get four-wheel drive, so traction and grip are mighty, as you'd expect - and handy given Britain's currently experiencing an unseasonably cool and damp August.

But at speed, if you behave idiotically and just press the accelerator mid corner, rather than understeering into the ditch, the R finds traction and pivots you round the bend, before hurling you towards the horizon once you get out the other side.

What's more, the four-wheel drive system can send 100% of its power to the rear wheels, and the stability control system can be fully deactivated. We know most people won't care, or ever bother doing this. But it's nice to know that if you want to be a loon on a race track, the R permits fun in a way no other Golf can - aided and abetted by a new Race mode in the drive select system, which firms everything up to stop the car rolling around.

In reality, on the road the thing that matters is that with the adaptive chassis control system fitted, the dampers can be put into a comfort (read soft) mode, which means that you're insulated from the horrors of Britain's pot-holed roads. Even on 19-inch wheels. It rides better than the ordinary Golfs we've driven seemed to, which is saying something.

The best place to be

And even when you're stood still, or observing from the passenger seat, the Golf is a truly good place to be. The R specification is not so obvious inside the cabin as out of it - changes are limited to some new chairs (comfortably yet supportive) and some discreet R badges, blue needles on the gauges and some different dashboard trim.

This suits the Golf's discreet and tasteful demeanour to a tee, and importantly doesn't mess with what's the best cabin in its class and possibly the only in-car touchscreen system we currently get on with and find intuitive to use.

It feels like a default statement in our articles, and it frustrates to have to say it given that it's an expensive (£1765 option), but we do think that the upgraded Discover Navigation Pro satnav system with the larger 8-inch touchscreen is worth the money if you're treating yourself. It doesn't just bring a bigger display, but 64GB hard drive, European maps, traffic sign and speedlimit recognition and display, and 2 SD card readers. 

Whether you go for that or not, you still get all the feel-good Golf stuff. Pull the VW badge to pop the boot, plug your phone in via a USB slot in the dash (rather than a remote bin) then hide it away via a nice cover. Watch the side mirror automatically dip down when you select reverse so you can see the kerb. It's all nice, simple, classy stuff that just makes life easier.

Plus, there's plenty of space for phones, keys and the like - everything cubby is lined to prevent rattles, there's space for normal sized people in the back and the boot will swallow a pram system or a couple of cases - you lose about 30 litres of boot space compared to lesser Golfs because of the four-wheel drive gubbins below the floor, but in reality this means you only sacrifice the lower section of the boot that's found below the false floor in other Golfs; so it's not the end of the world for day-to-day use.

An expensive car, in a Golf body

"Thirty-grand, for a Golf?!" bemoaned some people on Twitter when we mentioned we were driving the R. It takes some getting your head around, we'll admit. But after driving it, we came to think of this car not as a 30-grand Golf, but as a car that has the capabilities, speed and equipment of a vehicle costing several thousands more, wrapped into a useful and discreet Golf bodyshell.

It won't appeal to all - its discreet, Golf-y ways probably won't have enough show for the Focus RS or RenaultSport crowd. But for others, the lack of "look at me" image will be an integral part of the appeal. To the average person, it's just another Golf - blending into the crowd out on the road.

But what it can do out on the road is truly something special. It has the performance, technology and all weather abilities to shock and delight you. As such, it makes a case for itself as the best fast Golf ever. And far from being an expensive Golf, being a bit of a bargain performance car - and ultimately, perhaps, all the car you'll ever need.



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