I blame the cities of Stuttgart, Upington and Wolfsburg (in that order) for the way I felt after driving the new Volkswagn Golf R in Port Elizabeth last week. Like a kid opening an ice-cream wrapper only to find that someone had already taken a bite out of the delicious product inside, I couldn’t help but feel just a little short-changed by the experience.
It’s Stuttgart’s fault because the astonishing Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG has set a new benchmark for me in terms of the kind of drama, both visually and viscerally, that a genuine hot hatch can offer. Nothing about the A45, even without the optional Edition 1 kit on it, is subtle. Fall into the heavily bolstered bucket seats, grip the Alcantara clad steering wheel and turn the ignition key and there is no mistaking you are now behind the wheel of something special.
Acknowledged (and welcomed) as a huge leap of faith by Mercedes-Benz, could the presence of an A45 AMG in the market force the other manufacturers out of their comfort zones?
Lowered by 5 mm compared with the current GTI, the R, fitted as it is with standard 19-inch Cadiz wheels, certainly strikes a sporty pose. A redesigned front bumper does away with fog lights in favour of two additional air intakes, while bi-xenon headlamps gain distinctive LED daytime running lights.
Given the Golf R’s close family ties with the Audi S3 Sportback, I’m not convinced adding matte-chrome mirrors to the hottest Volkswagen hatch wasn’t a little cheeky, but their presence nevertheless adds further distinction over the GTI.
There’s no mistaking the Golf R from the rear as its quad tailpipes signal some intent.
Which brings me to Upington…
With average mid-summer temperatures of nearly 40 degrees Celsius and, consequently, many European brands basing their hot-weather testing around this Northern Cape town, it’s little wonder Volkswagen AG has listed South Africa as a “hot climate” market. Appearing on this list means that the modified EA888 turbocharged 2,0-litre engine fitted to the Golf R (and the Audi S3) has been detuned from 220 to 206 kW. Fortunately, the standard 380 N.m, available from 1 800 r/min, remains.
Until the six-speed manual transmission option arrives in July, the new Golf R is only available with a (very capable) six-speed DSG dual clutch ‘box. But, while using this transmission’s launch control function will propel the most powerful Golf ever from standstill to 100 km/h in just 5,0 seconds (0,7 seconds faster than the Golf 6 R), somehow the thrill of this acceleration has been dulled by the apparent dialling out of the distinctive gearshift whoomp! present in the less powerful GTI. Where I wanted the trademark upshift whoomp! to be amplified accordingly in the R – and countered by A45-rivalling coughs and splutters on the downshift – the hottest Golf to date can’t help but remain utterly civilised and socially acceptable, even with the hammer dropped.
And it’s here where I point the finger at Wolfsburg. While the new Volkswagen Golf R is certain to sell well in one of its historically strong markets (eight per cent of South African Golf sales in 2013 were R versions) I can’t help but feel Volkswagen AG stopped agonisingly short of making the hottest Golf to date truly memorable.
Sharing the same (exceptional) platform, powertrain, transmission and latest-generation Haldex multi-plate all-wheel-drive system (able to send up to 100% of available torque to the rear when required) as the Audi S3, there’s an immediate distinction between the two cars on start-up. The Golf has the more gruff-sounding default exhaust note of the two and this, together with a 50 kg weight gain and a stance that feels even wider than the figures, suggest gives the Volkswagen a slightly more substantial, muscular feel than the Audi.
But then we’re talking about the ultimate Golf here. Where the Audi has an RS brother waiting in the wings, surely the hottest Golf should feel like it has the edge? I wanted to find figure-challenging Recaro bucket seats, instrument-needle-matching blue seatbelts and boost gauges within the cabin of the Golf R. Instead, there are hints of carbon trim on the GTI-sourced leather seats and an R badge where the GTI badge would be on the matching steering wheel.
There’s a lot to like about the new Golf R. Certainly no one can accuse Volkswagen of cutting corners in terms of build quality, refinement and substance, but I do wonder whether there aren’t a few performance-minded engineers in Wolfsburg left frustrated that some of the theatre and sting of what an R badge should represent have been left on the cutting room floor.
Model: Volkswagen Golf R DSG
Engine: 2,0-litre, four-cylinder, turbocharged
Power: 206 kW between 5 500 and 6 200 r/min
Torque: 380 N.m between 1 800 and 5 500 r/min
0-100 km/h: 5,0 seconds (claimed)
Top speed: 250 km/h (claimed)
Fuel consumption: 6,9 L/100 km (claimed)
CO2: 159 g/km
Price: R486 200
Service plan: 5 years/90 000 km
Service intervals: 15 000 km