I get why people are so into the previous-generation VW Golf R. It’s fast and capable whatever the weather, it looks distinct enough from a regular Golf 7 without being outlandish, and early on in its life, you could pick one up for peanuts on an absurdly good lease deal.
Whenever I’ve driven one, though, I’ve had the sense they’re not really made for the kind of driver who likes a twisty road. ~300bhp isn’t a massive amount of power for an all-wheel drive car these days, and most of the time, I’d rather have a figure like that doled out to the front wheels. A hot hatch is better when it feels like it has too much power for its own good, don’t you think?
The Audi S3 suffers from the same problem - it’s always been a little too benign, and the latest version carries on that tradition. The related 2021 VW Golf R, however, has a trick up its sleeve that the Audi does without - a new version of the Haldex all-wheel drive system.
This time, the setup has a torque vectoring system able to punt up to 100 per cent of available torque to a single wheel. Spec the £2000 Performance Pack like the one found on this test car, and you get that must-have modern hot hatch accessory: drift mode. Along with that, there are nicer wheels, a Nurburgring mode and a bigger rear spoiler.
Even without turning the ‘Drift profile’ on, the Golf R has a very different dynamic character to the old one. That ‘traction, traction, traction, understeer’ attitude is completely gone. The front end is mega, and depending on the corner and how greedy you are with the throttle, it’s actually possible to get power oversteer.
We’re talking small amounts that tend to get sorted out by the all-wheel drive system, negating any need to get a little opposite lock on. For anything more lurid, you’d need to provoke it pretty harshly, and a decent amount of space to play with.
On the road, that little bit of give transforms the way the R feels. Importantly, when it does want to push its arse out a little bit, it does so in a natural way. It’s not an odd, ‘fake’ sensation like what you experience in a Ford Focus RS or Mercedes-AMG A45.
There’s good news elsewhere, too. The steering is as numb as ever, but it’s fast, predictable and much better weighted than a lot of other fast VW Group cars. The adaptive damping feels well matched for the real world in all modes, and if you want to play further, there are 15 levels of firmness to select via a slider on the touchscreen. I really want to mock that kind of complication, but having tried a few steps up from ‘comfort’ and feeling how suited it was for local tarmac, I can’t.
If you’d prefer to switch between the main modes, Race is the one to go for, preferably combined with either the ESP set to ‘Sport’ or turned off entirely. This makes the inline-four turbo engine reasonable aggressive and loosens up the rear end nicely. Otherwise, the stability control curtails the fun pretty early on.
The smooth, revvy EA888 ‘evo 4’ in the new R makes 316bhp and 310lb ft of torque, making for a 0-62mph time of 4.7 seconds. With the Performance Pack specced, the top speed goes up from 155mph to 168mph. It feels fast, if not breathtakingly so. It probably doesn’t help that a particulate filter saps a lot of the exhaust noise, making the optional £3100 Akrapovic titanium exhaust seem a little redundant. You do get the odd and awfully satisfying pop and crackle, though.
The seven-speed DSG gearbox is a good fit for the car, to the point where I don’t feel massively upset that there won’t be a manual this time around. Upshifts are brisk enough, and it usually does what it’s told for the downshifts. It’s a shame it always changes up for you at the redline, though, even if the ‘manual’ mode is on.
We do, of course, need to talk about the ‘Drift’ profile, although as it stands, we don’t have masses to say. You’d need a suitable location and a good chunk of time to piss about with it, whereas all we’ve done is dip in and out of the mode.
It loosens up the rear noticeably, if not dramatically, while also appearing to sharpen up the throttle, presumably for a more aggressive weight transfer to deliberately upset that car’s balance and get a slide going. It also makes the steering feel downright odd. The mode is definitely something we’ll have to investigate more thoroughly at a later date. As it stands, it seems like a bit of a gimmick.
That’s just fine, as it’s easy enough to ignore. You have less choice when it comes to experiencing all the foibles the R has inherited from the standard Golf 8, though. The Golf 7 was always brilliant at all the boring stuff like control placements, build quality and infotainment setups that didn’t make you want to punch the dashboard. The new one? The ball hasn’t just been dropped, but chucked into the next county.
The physical climate controls are now gone, with most functions requiring the use of a fiddly, painfully slow infotainment screen. There are temperature shortcuts, at least, but they’re on a flat, touch-sensitive bar under the screen that require a look away from the road to operate. And after all that effort to declutter the dash, VW‘s designers have chosen to stick the vents in weird, sub-optimal places. It’s also worth pointing out that it just doesn’t feel as premium as the old car did.
Most annoying of all is that same weird cruise control software bug we experienced with the ID.3 last year. It means the Golf occasionally thinks it’s being driven elsewhere in Europe - for instance, it read a 50mph sign as 50kmh, then braked to slow the car to 31mph. Sometimes we had ‘110’ flash up for national speed limit dual carriageways, and on some roads, it braked for slower traffic to the left, presumably because it thought I was about to undertake someone.
At the time of our ID.3 drive we were told this was a known issue and that a fix was in the works. We’ve asked VW’s UK press team for more information on our problems with the Golf but hadn’t heard back at the time of writing, so we don’t know if this afflicts other cars. In any case, none of this - the software bugs or the crappy screen setup - seems very VW. It gives the car a sense of being rushed.
This matters because there’s always been an expectation that a Golf will fit into your life with zero hassle, and that’s no longer quite the case. It makes something like the new GTI a little more difficult to recommend above rivals, as to drive, it’s not that much different to the last one.
The R, though, does plenty to differentiate itself from its predecessor. It’s now a car for people who are interested in how it feels on the twisty bits, and despite the power deficit, I can see the logic in eschewing the Merc A45 for this. If you can live with the dumb screen, you’ll love it.
VW Golf R stats
Engine: EA888 inline-four turbo
Torque: 310lb ft
Top speed: 168mph
Price: £39,295 (plus £2000 Performance Package)