Road Test: Volkswagen Golf R ticks all the boxes

Neil Vorano finds that the Golf R is an improvement on its predecessor.

The Golf R sits 25mm lower than the base hatchback.
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Faster and faster. Better performance; quicker acceleration; more agile handling. Every car maker tries to better not only their competition, but the last edition of whatever car it is reinventing for the next model year. Progress is the name of the game, and Volkswagen has shown it knows the rules with the Golf R.

The R replaces the R32, the previous high-performance Golf that met with good but not raving reviews. The R32 was powerful, but its 3.2L V6 engine made it front-heavy and affected the handling; let's just say that VW has addressed that problem to its core.

The Golf R has downsized to just a 2.0L inline four cylinder, which on paper sounds like a massive mistake. And yet, no one will miss that big V6 lump; not only is the new engine obviously lighter (giving the car a 60/40 front-rear weight bias), but it also produces more power at 255hp and more torque (the Middle East gets cheated here a bit; Europe and other areas get a 270hp engine, but our four cylinder was detuned for engine cooling in hotter climates). Not only that, it now consumes a full 2.3 litres less of fuel per 100km, with an official rating of 8.4L/100km. All that while still sprinting to 100kph in an impressive 5.5 seconds.

That power goes through just one transmission available here: a six-speed, dual-clutch direct-shift gearbox. While it takes the fun of double-clutching away, it really does a better and faster job of rowing through the gears. And while I would prefer to use the paddle shifters in spirited driving, it's hardly necessary when sport mode is selected, as it keeps the engine in its sweet spot of revs perfectly. But shifting under duress gives another sensation - between upshifts, the engine gives a throaty "burb" as it pauses for a split second before grabbing the higher gear, giving notice that this is definitely not your average daily driver.

It's also got bigger, 17-inch brakes and a revised 4Motion AWD system with a constantly variable torque split that is less front-biased than the R32. It looks a little different from a regular Golf, too, the biggest change being three gaping inlets at the front for better airflow to the engine - and a racier look, of course. As well, the whole car sits 25mm lower for better handling.

The inside has a quality of materials that would rival, if not beat, just about any of its competitors at this price bracket, or even higher. The only downpoint might be the fact that the design and switchgear mirror other VW offerings but, really, it's got a very high-end feel that will satisfy passengers. Sport seats, a thick, leather-wrapped steering wheel, aluminum pedals and trim will differentiate this R from its more sedate family models.

And all these improvements culminate into a number of things. See, the Golf R can be just as sedate as the base Golf, so it's perfectly fine for driving to work every day. But when you see an open road and no speed cameras, it will let you rip it up - possibly a little to easily for your own good. The speed comes on quick, the grip is exemplary with little roll or dip - especially with the suspension in sport mode, which firms the whole car up noticeably. (In fact, there are three settings for the suspension - comfort, normal and sport - but the change from comfort and normal is so minimal that I question why even bother?) If that's all good on the road, it's a blast on a race track. VW gave us a brief glimpse of the Golf R in January at the Losail F1 track in Doha, and this is where the R proves that it can hold its own on a track day. It stays solid and sticky in high-speed turns with just a little wiggle of the tail in hard braking. What you will notice occasionally, however, is its relatively high weight - more than 1,500kg, which makes it not as lithe as a few of its competitors in this area.

There's not much to say against the Golf R. It really is a big jump over the R32 in performance, and its improved fuel economy is startling. But what you could say is that the price is creeping into the larger offerings of VW's German brethren of BMW, Audi and Mercedes - you could pay just a little bit more and get something just as exciting; in fact, the agile BMW 1 Series is in the same ballpark in both price and performance. You could also say for all-out fun and agility, a Renault Clio or Megane Sport would be a better all-out drive for far less cash, but you wouldn't have quite the level of refinement as the Golf R, and no all-wheel drive. You could even justify going to the lower-level yet still upscale Golf GTI; yes, it's got 45hp less than the R version and only front-wheel drive, but it weighs less and, with a base price of Dh97,735, is the very slight difference in performance worth the jump of more than Dh30,000 for the base R?

The Golf R is good at very many things, and anyone who buys one would be happy to drive it every day as either a daily commuter or hot hatch. The problem is, at this price, it brings to mind many other cars that I'd also be very happy to drive, most which would leave me with more cachet on the bonnet or more money left in my pocket.

The Specs

Price, base / as tested Dh128,277 / Dh171,000

Engine 2.0L turbocharged four cylinder

Gearbox six-speed DSG

Power 255hp @ 6,000rpm

Torque 350Nm @ 2,400rpm

Fuel economy, combined 8.4L/100km