The Golf GTI kick-started the hot hatch generation, but it's the Golf R that introduced VW to the hyper-hatch crowd.
Pocket rockets like this have incredible performance, but need equally impressive electronic brains to help put all that power to good use. They’re about as high-tech as small cars get - even if the decidedly un-garish Golf doesn’t scream it from the rooftops.
For this First Drive, VW let me choose between a Golf R Estate with an Automatic gearbox, or a hatchback with a manual ‘box. Naturally I went with the hatch - I’m 28, not 280.
Did I make the right choice? Absolutely I did. Here’s why the Golf R should be near the top of your next car wish list.
Don't know much about cars? Then the R will look just like any other VW Golf. Aside from a slightly angrier front bumper, some reworked LEDs and a few subtle R badges, there’s really nothing here that’ll get you noticed.
But then that’s the point. You want aggressive looks? That's what the Ford Focus RS and Honda Civic Type R are for. The Golf isn’t about making a statement - it’s about blending in with the rest of the pack, until you put the foot down and leave them in your rear view mirror.
The smallest of boot spoilers and the larger alloys don’t exactly give the game away, either, but those four tailpipes will. They aren’t huge, and you’ll need to add the optional titanium exhaust if you want them to really stand out against the paintwork.
Even the uprated brakes have been kept silver, instead of being painted some outrageous, attention-grabbing colour. There’s just enough design flair here to give the R an edge, without getting too in-your-face.
It’s not like VW has saved up all the boy racer-inspired yobbishness for the interior, either. Aside from a few R logos on the seats and centre console, there’s not much here to separate the R from any other Golf.
That means instant familiarity, though, and just like the restrained exterior, there’s nothing inside that gives away the potent power plant under the bonnet. Drive like a sensible person and it'll feel like, well, like a Golf. It's only when you put your foot down that things get interesting.
The flat-bottomed steering wheel isn’t quite as dramatic as the one you’ll find in an Audi RS, but adds a welcome sporty feel once you grip your mitts around it. The aluminium pedals and glossy plastic trim are nice touches, too.
The leather bucket seats are snug, without causing back pain if you’re on the road for hours at a time. They’ll keep you planted while tackling demanding country roads, but it’s a shame everything is adjusted manually instead of electronically.
PLENTY OF IN-CAR EXTRAS
When you’re not pushing the engine to the limits of traffic laws, there’s plenty inside the cabin to keep you busy.
The Golf R has a comprehensive collection of VW’s in-car tech, including a 12.3in digital instrument cluster that puts important information like sat-nav directions and speed restrictions right below your eye line. It’s not quite as slick or sculpted as Audi’s Virtual Cockpit, but still a very welcome addition that instantly gives the cabin a modern feel.
The basic 8in touchscreen sits behind glass, and is a huge improvement over previous years. Extra CPU power behind the scenes makes the familiar icons and settings screens feel a lot more responsive.
Gesture control comes as part of the optional Discover Navigation Pro system, which swaps out the screen for a bigger 9.2in display. It’s an interesting addition, letting you wave your hand in front of the panel instead of tapping on icons to skip music tracks or swap between settings screens. It can be temperamental, though, which can be even more distracting than quickly glancing at the icon you want.
It has all the extras you'd expect, like Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, DAB radio and Bluetooth music playback. You’ll find dual-zone climate control, front and rear parking sensors (but not Automatic parking) and adaptive cruise control on the steering wheel, which is perfect for long-distance motorway cruising. Fully automatic parking would have been a nice inclusion, but you can add it as an optional extra if those reverse parks are just too much effort.
One last thing to mention: the electric handbrake won’t be to all tastes, even if it is handy for city driving. The Stop-Start system helps eke a little more economy out of every fuel fill-up, and auto-hold stops you rolling back on hills without having to ride the clutch.
PERFORMANCE IS THE REAL DEAL
It might not be overflowing with gadgets, then, but that’s not the reason you buy a Golf R. No, it’s for the 2-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder block under the bonnet.
It’s the most powerful engine ever fitted to one of VW’s iconic hatchbacks, and is good for 306hp - which can propel you from 0-62 in a fraction over five seconds.
If you were worried the engine note would sound a bit weedy, especially compared to the V6-engined Golf R32 of old, you can put your mind at ease. Some clever electronic additions to the cabin add some much-needed urgency as you build up the revs. It’s artificial, sure, but it also means you aren’t deafened whenever you need to rack up the motorway miles.
There’s minimal effort required to blast up to motorway speeds, with rapid response and minimal turbo lag. Any passengers in the back will feel all those horses too, though - we're getting to the point where bucket seats are as much a necessity in the rear as they are in the front, just to stop your passengers complaining about the G-forces.
The manual gearbox is an absolute pleasure to use, and great to see still available as an option - a lot of other high-power hatches are exclusively auto now.
Suspension is firm, as you’d expect from a sporty setup like this, so you’ll feel every bump if your regular commute is covered in pot-holes. It’s not overly stiff, though, just enough to keep you feeling in control when the roads get twisty.
The four wheel drive system might add a fair bit of extra weight over the front-wheel drive Golf GTI, but it helps the R feel even more planted and confident on winding B roads. It lets you put that power down without feeling like you’re going to end up in a ditch any time soon.
VW GOLF R INITIAL VERDICT
It’s a bit surreal that I can call a 300+ horsepower, all-wheel drive monster of a hatchback reserved, restrained, or (gasp) even boring.
VW might have started the trend for crazy-fast compact cars, but the Golf R now rubs shoulders with lairy brutes like the Ford Focus RS, Honda Civic Type R and Mercedes A-45 AMG.
Unlike those boy racer-inspired buffoons, though, the Golf’s subtle looks mean you can actually drive one without constantly being challenged at the traffic lights. It won’t cost a fortune over the asking price like the RS or Type R, either.
Instead, here your money buys a fantastic all-round package, with the power to embarrass lesser cars, but sleeper styling that’ll let you stay incognito when you don’t feel like driving in anger.
You'll have to pay even more to get VW's best tech toys, which pushes the total spend north of £32,000, but it’s still just the right combination of affordable, practical, and above all, fun.