Good: power, poise, steering, looks, quality, practicality, smoothness.
Not so good: lacks excitement of Focus RS or Civic Type R, Golf GTI is more fun and cheaper to buy.
There are a number of good reasons to buy a Volkswagen Golf R and one honking great big one not to, to which we'll come in a moment. For now, though, here is the updated Golf R, which joins the rest of the seventh-generation Golf family in having a facelift that is hardly noticeable at all. Which, as any Hollywood actress will tell you, is kind of the whole point.
OK, so there have been a few changes. The lights are new (and check out the LED antlers of the daytime running lights) and there are some very small adjustments to the exterior body kit and wheels. You probably won't notice them much, but the Golf continues its quest to be the most understatedly handsome car on the block. And it succeeds, frankly.
Inside, there are two big changes, starting with the new eight-inch touchscreen (which thankfully retains a physical button for the on/off and volume control). It looks great, is easy to use and the smartphone connectivity frankly rocks. Apple CarPlay has never looked better. There's also the new all-digital instrument pack, the 'Active Info Display', which is supposed here to be uniquely styled for the R model, but which we couldn't discern any actual difference in.
Perhaps we were distracted by the actual major change - a new engine. Well, not new exactly; it's the same EA888 engine as used by the Golf GTI, SEAT Leon Cupra, Skoda Octavia RS and Audi S3, but it has been tweaked to yield an extra 10hp, bringing the total to 310hp, although if you can tell the difference between that and the old Golf R, then you have more sensitive buttocks than us. Suffice to say that this is a staggeringly rapid car, which uses its Haldex clutch-controlled 4Motion four-wheel-drive system to launch the R up the road in the manner of a small child chasing a runaway ice cream van. Enthusiastically, in other words. Torque, at 380Nm, is perhaps not all that impressive (well, not when you've gotten used to 400Nm diesels of late), but the way the Golf R picks up pace is just wonderful, and makes you think that the 5.1-second 0-100km/h time might be a touch of sandbagging from Volkswagen. Nail the throttle and get the gearshifts just right (our test car had the sweet-shifting six-speed manual) and it feels faster, like close to BMW M2 fast.
Much of that is simply down to a traction advantage of course. As with the Ford Focus RS, the Golf R sends power to all corners, and the Haldex system can shunt as much as 100 per cent of that power to the rear wheels if needed. It never has the could-actually-be-rear-drive feeling of the hottest Focus though, sticking with predominantly front-drive sensations, albeit honed to a point of near perfection.
The steering has to come in for some praise here. While I'm sure future motoring historians will point to a Porsche or a Ferrari as the first time that all-electric power assistance bridged the gap in feel and feedback compared to good old hydraulics, I reckon Volkswagen should get some of that credit too - the R's steering is just lovely; perfectly weighted, communicative (almost chatty) and quick without feeling nervous. Given that it feels effortlessly stable on motorways, but equally responsive and agile on twisty roads, the R, thanks to its steering, has an astonishingly broad bandwidth of performance.
Economy? Not so much, no. Volkswagen reckons you can squeeze 40mpg out of the R, in spite of the power hike, but we struggled to do much better than 30-35mpg, and not all of that involved driving like our trousers were on fire. Some, yes, but not all.
What the Golf R does really well though is blur the lines between performance and practicality. Unlike the likes of the Ford Focus RS or Honda Civic Type R, there's little-to-nothing in the way of harshness or noise. The R rides with exceptional comfort over all but the worst bumps, and unless you select 'Race' mode, the engine stays quiet. Tyre and wind noise are also well suppressed.
Race is nothing of the sort - it's just Sport mode by another name, and to be honest it doesn't do much. Our car didn't have the optional adjustable dampers (arguably it doesn't need them) so all Race does really is switch the fake engine noise on and off. It does sharpen the throttle response a little, but even in Eco mode, the Golf R is hardly lacking in this department.
There is a sensation that the R does lack the drama of the likes of the Civic or Focus though. The Focus RS, in particular, is a car that sucks you ever inward, goading you in to driving further and faster, uncovering yet more layers of its handling and performance. The Golf R isn't like that - it's fast, it's practical, it's comfortable, it's quiet when you want it to be, it looks even less sporty on the outside than a Golf GTI. It's the hot hatch turned down from 11 to around 8.5 or so, yet with hardly any compromise in terms of performance.
That does make it a little hard to love, to be honest. Respect? Certainly. Admire? Definitely. But there's no getting away from the fact that a GTI can be bought for between €5,000 and €10,000 less than the R and, while it's certainly slower, it does feel more eager, more engaging, more fun.
True, the R punches back with all-weather, all-season ability and a mix of performance and usability that hasn't been seen since Subaru binned the Impreza WRX, but there's just a lingering sensation that, brilliant though the R is, we'd be having more fun in the GTI.