Overall rating: 4/5
Fast and fun on snow and ice, Volkswagen's flagship Golf R should thrill on the road with its 300hp pace when it arrives in Ireland later this year.
In the Metal:
As relatively unassuming as any regular Volkswagen Golf, the R doesn't shout too loudly about its more exotic powertrain and mega-hatch performance. It might get a cursory glance from bystanders, but all but the most avid Golf fans will understand the significance of those small R badges, the deeper intakes on the lower front bumper, LED running lights, 18-inch alloy wheels, a 5mm lower ride height (than the GTI that is - it's a full 20mm lower than a standard Golf) and quad rear tailpipes. All relatively discrete then - the R a more stealthy approach to rapid Golf ownership than its iconic, red-pinstriped GTI relation.
That's true inside too, where the seats are deeply bolstered and sporting, but aside from the odd R badge and blue highlights (the unique instruments featuring blue needles for instance) it's all similar to any other Golf. That means impeccable build quality and an ease of operation that's difficult to fault. Sure, there are more buttons thanks to the range-topping equipment list, but there's only one that's important on this first drive, as you'll read below.
That important button is the ESC off (Electronic Stability Control) switch. It works too, as the ESC stays off if you've pressed the button to do so, rather than reactivating when you press the brake like it did in its predecessor. That gives you complete control of the Golf R's 300hp, produced by a derivation of the Golf GTI's 2.0-litre 'EA888' TSI engine. It might be a turbocharged four-cylinder unit, but the engine delivers an off-beat, purposeful note that's more reminiscent of a five-cylinder Audi lump than anything usually found under the bonnet of a Golf. That's no bad thing, bringing menace to the otherwise restraint, backed up with performance to match. The R - in manual guise - can reach 100km/h in just 4.9 seconds on the way to an electronically limited 250km/h.
Driving all four wheels via a fifth-generation Haldex 4Motion system the rear axle is decoupled when not required, though under power drive is diverted to the wheels that can best use them. Coupled to that is XDS+, a brake-operated system that brakes the inside wheels on cornering to increase agility. All that should mean neutral handling on tarmac, but our time with the R was exclusively limited to the snow and ice of Sweden, on tracks banked by snow on lakes of ice. As a result the wheels and tyres were snow specific and studded, running 17-inch wheels rather than the 18-inch rims that are expected to be standard on Irish cars.
In such conditions, with ESC turned off, the Golf R's power and those extra driven wheels meant plenty of oversteer, and the R is easily driven (i.e. steered) on the throttle and with weight transfer, something that's highly improbable on the road - or even a normal track. Real-world driving impressions will need to wait until we get the R in such an environment, but what was striking was the decent ride, quick steering, strong punch from the engine and its keenness to rev, as well as the decent shift from the six-speed manual gearbox. Experimenting with the settings of the ESC system revealed that ESC Sport allows a sizeable degree of driver control before intervening, which bodes well for those wanting to use the R's potential, but with the reassurance of a safety net if it's needed. Anything else we'd be guessing really, given the location, though as you can imagine driving the R on ice was an absolute hoot.
What you get for your Money:
Updated 30/10/14 with new pricing
For 2015 the R will cost from €42,445, a drop of €9,550 on the 2014 model. Along with the R-specific styling inside and out there are also bi-Xenon headlights, Adaptive Cruise Control, dual-zone climate control and Park Distance Control as standard. Otherwise it's all very similar to the Golf GTI/GTD. There's progressive steering, which reduces the turns from lock-to-lock from 2.75 to 2.1, while the Driver Profile Selector features Race mode that alters the throttle response, plus the transmission calibration and suspension if the optional DSG gearbox and Adaptive Chassis Control (called DDC) are specified.
Choose that DSG option and the 0-100km/h time drops from 5.3- to 4.9 seconds, while there are gains too in terms of economy and emissions. Overall the Golf R is 18 per cent more efficient than its predecessor, thanks in part to a weight drop of 46kg, though the four-wheel drive system does see it weigh in at 94kg more than a Performance Pack equipped Golf GTI. The manual Golf R emits 165g/km and returns 39.8mpg on the official combined cycle. Messing around on an ice-covered lake saw figures nowhere near that...
Volkswagen's flagship Golf R is faster, lighter, more efficient and better equipped than its predecessor, yet retains its relatively discrete looks and rounded, practical appeal. As mega hatchback packages go it's a tempting one, though we'll need to wait until we drive it on tarmac for really meaningful comparisons with its competitors - of which there are now more than ever.