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Golf R driven - poor man's S3?

2011-04-04 08:59

Lance Branquinho

RACING SPEC GOLF GTI?: Tired of having your GTI outrun by more powerful hot hatches? Get one of these new Golf R models.

Vehicle Specs
Manufacturer VW
Model Golf R
Engine 2l turbo
Power 188kW @ 6 000rpm
Torque 350Nm @ 2 500rpm
Transmission Six speed (manual/DSG)
Zero To Hundred 5.7 (5.5) sec
Top Speed 250km/h
Fuel Tank 55l
Fuel Consumption 8.5l/100km
Weight 1 521kg
Tyres 235/35R19
Service Plan 5 year/90 000km
Warranty 3 year/120 000km
Being the best at something is not always as desirable as it would appear. Take VW’s Golf GTI...
VW is celebrating 35 years of hot-hatch superiority this year (2011). It remains unchallenged as the hatchback abbreviation most synonymous with practical and family-friendly performance motoring although there's always been a groundswell of doubt about its credentials from fans of competing brands.

"Underpowered" and "too common" are comments recycled time and again by GTI haters. Factually, it would appear those opposed to its billing as the seminal hot hatch have a point about some of the GTI’s credentials.

It's never been the most powerful in its class. VW engineers are quick to point out that its exceptional all-round dynamic ability has always endowed the GTI with an innate ability to run easily with more statistically powerful hot-hatch competitors. Argument settled then? Not quite...


For years VW has produced a very limited line of hot hatches for customers requiring the ultimate in Golf-sized driving involvement. The first of these in South Africa was rolled out as part of the Golf 3 range and was called the VR6. It made a great noise, was an amazing feat of narrow-angle cylinder-head packaging (you try squeezing a transverse 2.8-litre V6 into an engine bay made for a two-litre in-line four) but was monumentally heavy on fuel and lacked the verve of its lighter GTI predecessors.

The idea of a V6 marquee model was passed on until the Golf 5 range was launched, when in 2007 VW unleashed its 3.2-litre, 184kW R32 in South Africa. It made an even more terrific noise than the VR6 but, with all that mass bolted above the front axle, it was nose-heavy and lacked the agility one would associate with a car meant to be even more symbolic of hot-hatch performance than the GTI.

There would appear to be irony in VW’s repeat engineering faux pas with regards to special-edition go-faster GTIs. Whereas the standard GTI is capable of beating far more powerful competitors the purpose-built R-line models have always been decidedly underwhelming. This is quite an issue if one considers that above the GTI there is now a rarified segment of super hot-hatches, cars such as Ford’s Focus RS, Renault’s outstanding range of Megane 250s, BMW’s 135i and even sibling brand Audi’s S3.

Since the Golf 6 GTI was launched in 2009 Volkswagen Individual (home base Wolfsburg’s in-house tuning division) has been tinkering with ideas for a new R-line hot hatch. The result is simply called Golf R and is now available in SA. Only 280 will be available in South Africa for 2011 - each a five-door. If you want a two-door R-line VW, the Scirocco R should be here in June.


So, has VW managed to execute properly its idea of an über-GTI this time around?

Well, it's not a V6, and with that design decision the weight issues of past V6 super-Golfs (especially the location of additional mass above the front wheels) have been banished. Engineers binned the idea of a V6 for the new R, opting instead for a tuned version of the Golf 5 GTI’s EA113-series turbo two-litre in-line four and not, as many might expect, the current Golf 6 GTI’s EA888.

The Golf 5 GTI engine gains a redesigned alloy cylinder head, drives pistons connected by more strain-resistant conrods and feeds via high-pressure injectors. Add to these material changes a turbocharger boosting to 1.2 bar and the peak power output of 188kW, four more than the old R32, is hardly surprising.

"Wait a moment, isn’t that supposed to be 199kW," you’ll no doubt quip, rubbing your chin while squinting at your screen. Well, yes. In Europe you can have your Golf R with 199kW but in South Africa, classed as a warm-climate market (no kidding); power is limited to 188kW in the interest of engine longevity.

Considering the quality of local fuel and the dusty high-altitude environment in which most South African performance cars run, I must conclude that this is pertinent foresight by VW’s product planners.

SENSIBLE SUPERHATCH: The Golf R, capable of 0-100 in only 5.5 seconds and with 350 litres of hatchback luggage capacity, is the family man’s performance car…

Don’t feel cheated, though. The R’s torque peaks at 350Nm at only 2500rpm, 30Nm more than the R32 at 300rpm less. Its two-litre engine is 35kg lighter and uses only 8.5 litres/100km if driven with great restraint. Plainly, when you unpack these details, the new Golf R’s warmed-over Golf 5 GTI engine is a winner.

The transmission options are each six-speed (manual and DSG); VW was unwilling to mate its new seven-speed dual-clutch transmission with the Golf R’s engine due to its 350Nm torque peak being in excess of the seven-speed DSG’s mechanical toughness.


Drive is apportioned to all four wheels via the latest Swedish-engineered Haldex coupling system, adding notable benefits. Whereas most all-wheel drive systems require a difference between front and rear wheel rotation speeds (plainly, wheels slip) for the clutch to engage and move torque around, the fourth-generation Haldex system is powered by an electric pump which ensures a constant working pressure of 30 bar in an hydraulic reservoir – which releases pressure as it is required.

All very technical but, for keen drivers (which Golf R owners are expected to be), there's now the guarantee of 100% torque going to the rear wheels in extreme lift-off oversteer. Nice.

Beyond its increase in power and all-wheel drive traction security, the Golf R rides 25mm lower than the series production Golf 6 (and 10mm lower than a GTI) and has specifically calibrated shock absorbers and springs. Frustratingly, adaptive chassis control is not standard; if you want the ultimate in driver engagement (and adaptability to all road surfaces) you’ll have to add to your budget for continuously variable custom damping.

From an engineering perspective, VW has delivered a finely-honed package. Styling is neat with the R-line accessories looking fantastic - tasteful without looking aftermarket. 19" alloy rims are standard, the LED daytime running lights frame the headlights (instead of being integrated), a subtle rear spoiler and dual central exhausts add just enough differentiating styling details to assure enthusiasts don’t ask a silly question of the "is that a GTI sport pack?" variety.

Inside, you’ll have to add options to for friends and family to notice any fundamental difference between your Golf R and a stock GTI. The instrument dials have blue needles and there are R-specific chromed badges on the transmission shifter and steering wheel but, unless you opt for the bucket seats, sunroof or high-end Dynaudio system, it's very much GTI fare.


So, it looks good, makes plenty or power, and benefits from all-wheel drive. Should be a stellar drive then? Well, VW provided the Kyalami race circuit for evaluation and even at altitude the Golf R'S performance was notably keener than that of a GTI.

In all gears (especially third and fourth) there is an accelerative sensation that intimates the idea of a more powerful magnet nestling at the lower right of the tachometer, pulling that blue needle across those white numerals with quite a lot more urgency than a GTI. It feels faster than the current GTI in a manner the R32 never did in relation to the Golf 5 GTI.

LOOKS THE SAME: Blue needles are a clue to the Golf R’s greater performance; the rest of the cabin is pretty much standard GTI…

The R’s recalibrated steering is a touch too light at speed but is accurate, quick and supported by outstanding suspension compliance. Ride quality is good and body roll absent, even at racing circuit speeds.

The fourth-generation Haldex all-wheel drive system is brilliant, too.

OK, there's a touch of understeer if you leave your braking too late, but if you match your corner entry speeds properly the R is impeccably balanced, has outstanding traction out of slower corners and a very forgiving nature with regards to suicidal throttle lift-off high jinks - as was demonstrated to me by one of VW's driving instructors.

I'm hardly a pole-position threat at Kyalami (it remains a daunting circuit for me to drive at speed, in all honesty) but I managed to tip the Golf R into, down and through the mineshaft time and again without lifting-off in fourth - and that's as much validation as is I’ll ever need of its benign high-speed cornering characteristics.

You feel the helm writhe slightly as the multi-plate Haldex system’s centre clutch sets about squeezing torque to the wheels most likely to need it, which adds to an element of driver involvement. 

In real-world driving its composed ride (despite those standard big alloys), all-weather/road condition dual-axle traction security (all accessed form the superb ergonomics of the Golf 6 cabin) make the Golf R a really compelling über hot-hatch. Again, it's not the most powerful offering in its class, but it does way more things better than most – a definitive strength of the GTI that is the R’s core value, too.

Purists will miss the signature V6 soundtrack of the R32 but the R's blend of performance and economy is infinitely superior, though I’ll admit its four-cylinder forced-induction acoustic signature is not the last word in sonorous petrolhead appeal.

At R408 930 for the manual and R423 430 for the DSG, the Golf R’s prices appear a touch chunky in absolute terms; relatively, it's on par for this level of performance. Curiously, the DSG is cheaper by R570 than the last R32, which retailed at dealers late in 2008.

After years of bravely trying to make the V6 concept work in a Golf hot hatch, VW’s engineering about-turn (for that's what the Golf R is) has at last delivered a GTI-based über hatch worthy of its exalted position in the Golf range.

Watch our video below:


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