Volkswagen Golf R (2021) International Launch Review

VW GolfR 33

The most potent Golf to wear an R badge is a deliciously powerful, yet well-balanced, driver's car. International correspondent Greg Kable drove the next iteration of one of SA's most-loved hot hatches in wintery conditions.

What is it?

We’re living in a period of "peak mega-hatch". Truly, never before has there been such a wide choice of high-powered, performance-orientated hatchbacks from so many different manufacturers. Even the otherwise unassuming Toyota Yaris is getting in on the act with the limited-edition GR.  

But while buyers are spoilt for choice, the task of creating an outstanding mega-hatch that truly stands out has become an increasingly difficult task – not least in the premium ranks, where Audi, BMW and, of course, Mercedes-AMG have chimed in with all-wheel-drive hot hatchbacks.

Volkswagen, however, has the most illustrious history, which started with the front-wheel-driven Golf GTi in 1976. Then, in 2002, the Wolfsburg-based brand added all-wheel drive to its hot-hatch mix with the 1st-generation Golf R32, creating an even more serious road machine.

Note the new R logo on the front grille.

Indeed, the car driven here is the 5th Golf to wear the (recently restyled) R badge. The R model used to be powered by 6 cylinders (VW switched to a turbocharged 4-pot in 2009), but 1 tradition that's continued in the flagship hatchback for all of 18 years is all-wheel drive. Plus, with the changes brought to the Haldex multi-plate clutch system for the new model, it is now more sophisticated and arguably more effective than ever before.

But first, the engine. The R uses the 4th-generation version of Volkswagen’s celebrated and long-serving EA888 unit. This is essentially the same unit brought to the new Golf GTI Clubsport, but with an added 14 kW and 20 Nm. Peak outputs of 235 kW and 420 Nm of torque, the latter of which is available from 2 100 to 5 350 rpm, make this the most powerful series-production Golf.

By comparison, the outgoing Golf R made 213 kW and 380 Nm (228 kW in its final year), so this is more than just a token increase in reserves, particularly torque. Drive, meanwhile, is sent through an updated version of Volkswagen’s in-house 7-speed dual-clutch gearbox (DSG), which uses an upgraded auxiliary oil cooler and new software mapping for faster shift times. There is no manual gearbox option in Europe – VW says there isn’t sufficient interest.

As before, there is an optional Akrapovic titanium exhaust system. The exotic tailpipe setup doesn’t liberate any more power from the 2.0-litre engine, but it does save 7 kg and gives the new model a stirring exhaust note in any one of its more sporting driving modes.

Underneath, there is a reworked MacPherson strut (front) and 4-link (rear) suspension. The R rides 20 mm lower than the regular Golf, and gets VW’s excellent DCC (Dynamic Chassis Control) with variable rate dampers and an additional 1.3 degrees of negative camber to the front wheels.

The standard wheels, unique in their design specific, are 18-inch in diameter, though our test unit wore optional 20-inch wheels with winter tyres.

The driving modes are selected in the same way as the Golf 7, the 8 R gets a unique drift mode. 

Other changes? There’s a quicker variable-ratio steering rack attached to the same upgraded front subframe as the Golf GTI, and larger front brakes with 2-pot callipers. The brakes also use a new master cylinder and, despite being larger than before, are 600g lighter at each corner.

It’s the newcomer's all-wheel-drive system, though, that really deserves a closer look. Produced by BorgWarner, it has been re-engineered with the addition of a new centre differential that provides a faster and more rear-biased apportioning of drive. Among a host of other changes, there’s a new electronic rear differential that brings torque-vectoring qualities to the rear axle for the first time.

This setup is networked with a so-called Vehicle Dynamics Manager (VDM). It aims to provide the new model with a more balanced feel with less understeer and, thanks to a new driving mode, drift qualities like those found in cars such as the Mercedes-AMG A45.

There are 5 driving modes: Eco, Comfort, Sport, Race and Individual. But there’s also a so-called Nürburgring driving mode, which uses settings Volkswagen says were developed on the German circuit, where much of the Golf R’s chassis tuning took place.  

Externally, the new Golf R is marked out from other Golf derivatives by a uniquely styled front bumper with a front splitter element and large lower cooling ducts. VW has also beefed up the sills underneath the doors, and there’s a prominent twin-plane spoiler atop the tailgate at the rear, plus a large 3-channel diffuser, which is bookended by 2 round tailpipes on either side of it.

What's it like to drive?

The new R features more power and torque and a new centre diff that makes it more rear-biased than before.

Step into the Golf R and you’re confronted by an interior that does its best to reflect the car’s sporting pretensions without deviating much from that of milder Golfs. There are standard-fit sports seats with integrated headrests, a suitably thick-rimmed sports steering wheel with larger shift paddles than those you’ll find in the Golf GTI, steel-capped pedals and a series of unique digital instrument displays among other bespoke touches.

The new seats, adorned with heavily sculptured squabs, are especially snug and quite supportive. They offer a good range of adjustment, allowing you to sit low, and there is plenty of adjustability to the steering column.

The dashboard is well built, although the shiny hard plastics on some sections does give it a slightly cheap look, despite the inclusion of more agreeable materials elsewhere. The pair of integral digital displays deliver sharp graphics at high resolution, although the central infotainment display in our test car was particularly slow to respond to inputs at times.

Which isn’t something you can say for the Golf R’s accelerative ability. With a 0-100 kph time of 4.7 sec, the newcomer doesn’t match the claimed 4.6 sec of its (7.5) predecessor, but it equals the official times quoted for the BMW M135i xDrive and Mercedes-AMG A35, and comfortably beats the 6.2 sec of the Golf GTI Clubsport.

What's more, the Golf R feels quicker than its quoted figures suggest. The manner in which it launches from a standing start is nothing short of spectacular. Load it up with revs with the launch-control and it explodes away in Race mode with determination. There’s momentary slip at the front wheels before the drive is properly apportioned, but from there the driveline is tremendously effective at transmitting the R’s reserves to the road.

Optional Akrapovic pipes are still available for the new model.

Low-end response from this EA888 unit also seems to have been improved. There is now a more natural, gradual build-up of turbocharger boost pressure below 2 000 rpm, after which the broad spread of torque makes this engine hugely tractable – just as before. Equally, the 2.0-litre turbopetrol motor now revs more freely as it approaches its 6 700 rpm cut-out. Best of all? You get this breadth whatever the driving mode... 

The process of selecting the most responsive driving mode doesn't feel quite as laborious as it did in the Golf 7.5 version either. One press of the new R button on the left-hand spoke of the steering wheel instantly sets all the various functions – engine, steering, transmission, all-wheel-drive system and dampers – into their most aggressively tuned state, at which the new Golf R feels deliciously responsive and eager.

The added urgency brought by the reworked engine is supplemented by an improved action to the new Golf R’s DSG automatic transmission, which delivers smoother and faster shifts than the older unit used by its predecessor (most notably on downshifts).

Indeed, the new Golf R delivers a good deal of feel and involvement – more so than in any previous incarnation. It is always more intense and engaging than its front-wheel-drive Golf GTI sibling over any given road. However, while the variable-ratio steering system is very accurate, eager to self-centre and quite communicative, the lightness evident at lower speeds lingers, even when you’re pushing hard out on the open road.

As confidence-inspiring as the new car is, it would be even more memorable with some meaningful weight to the helm.   

Fitted with the optional 20-inch wheels, the tyre profile looks tiny and unforgiving. 18s are also available.

That said, the result of the new chassis tweaks is an almost total absence of understeer, even on these winter tyres, for which the torque-vectoring system deserves some credit. There’s a very brief moment of push at the front-end under power into tighter corners, but the Golf R is truly throttle-adjustable and, with it, hugely enjoyable to hustle along.

The outstanding grip is backed up by tremendous body control. Late and aggressive turn-in brings just a brief pause before the VDM system nails the right level of damping force. The Golf R resists lean extremely well, remaining flat and eager as it scythes through corners, and it keeps pitching and diving well controlled. It is this overall composure that defines the new car and instils a more fluid – and agile – feel than any previous Golf R.

As for ride quality, while the going in the outgoing model could prove a little brittle over less-than-smooth roads, the new model delivers genuine compliance even in its most extreme settings. Certainly, this feels the most broadly usable Golf R that there has ever been.

Should I buy one?

The R doesn't look vastly different from the standard golf save for a few blue inserts and the sport seats.

Based on first impressions, the new R not only lives up to lofty expectations, it exceeds them.

Yes, it’s quick; perhaps not at the level of the Mercedes-AMG A45, but it certainly has the measure of its key rivals, the Audi S3, BMW M135i xDrive and Mercedes-AMG A35 4Matic.

However, the Golf R is also a terrifically well-balanced car – traction and exploitability are every bit as impressive as the tractability and superb manners of its reworked engine. For sheer performance and all-season appeal, it rises above the new Golf GTI – and comfortably so.

Admittedly, to properly gauge its handling in the dry, we’ll need more favourable weather conditions.

For now, what we can say is that the Golf R’s clever chassis technology brings a broader range of characteristics to the table than before. On the one hand, greater ride compliance and overall comfort, but on the other, appreciably more agility and body control in the more sporting settings.

Now we just need to hear what price VWSA intends to set for the Golf R when it arrives...

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