Expert rating: 85/100
Engine, drivetrain and chassis: 18/20
Price, packaging and practicality: 18/20
Safety and technology: 16/20
Behind the wheel: 17/20
The Golf R might be the hottest factory Volkswagen on the planet (for now at least – there’s reportedly a 300kW-plus R 400 on the way for 2017), but you’d hardly guess from its looks.
Our white test car looked almost apologetic as it sat waiting to be collected for road test. Parked among Passats, Polos, Amaroks, Touaregs and Tiguans, it hardly stood out from the crowd.
Similarly, the muted interior, which leans towards a minimalist look that contrasts with some its rowdy competitors, lacked any sort of immediate wow factor.
And the 2.0-litre turbo powerplant, as it fired up, somehow sounded a bit more muted, less omnipresent than other hyper-hatches – or the Mk5 Golf R32 for the matter.
But there’s a balance about the Golf R, something akin to a purebred sportscar, that defines the whole experience. It certainly doesn’t come across as a mere work-over of a regular hatchback, although that’s essentially what it is.
During our week with the ‘R’, it was the totality of the experience that impressed above all else.
There’s not one single dynamic aspect that leaps out separately; the performance, the handling and the road grip clamour equally for attention.
So when you venture onto the road for the first time in a Golf R, don’t expect it to necessarily stun your senses with a thrumming exhaust note, ultra-firm suspension and a drivetrain that requires a more than nodding acquaintance to use effectively.
Apart from the subtle awareness that what you are initially sensing is only a prelude to what’s really in store, you might just as well be in a regular – albeit slightly firmed-up – Golf 92TSI.
But, in an era where even a basic, medium-performance car can turn on a stunning show of speed, a small hatchback that will reach 100km/h from zero in just five seconds is not to be taken lightly.
Making effective use of its Haldex-assisted on-demand 4MOTION all-wheel drive system, the Golf R simply knuckles down, utilising the beefy mid-range – from 1800rpm right through to 5100rpm where all 380Nm are available – to help get the job done.
It punches through to triple digits, with a suitably aural background blast, in a manner we’d once have expected of a Porsche.
Almost regardless of the road surface, it all happens efficiently and easily, as the driver simply entrusts the Haldex coupling to determine where the power should be directed.
With the six-speed DSG transmission (a six-speed manual is available) delivering super-fast upshifts – and the forced-induction 2.0-litre now showing some signs of controlled anger – the Golf R is just as quick as the potent and virtually mechanically-identical Audi S3 – although for some reason it doesn’t feel it.
Serious 19-inch alloys wrapped in 235/35 tyres are helped along electronically by what Volkswagen describes as ‘XDL’ braking (part of the electronic differential lock system and now operating over a broader speed range) of the inside front wheels under cornering to even out the torque distribution, ensuring the all-wheel drive Golf R rarely puts a foot wrong, in the wet or in the dry. It’s an incredibly competent car.
To further reinforce its capabilities, there are also selectable Eco, Normal, Individual, Comfort and Race modes that adjust the adaptive dampers, stability control, throttle response and transmission accordingly, while the stability control system can also be switched (individually) to ESP Sport to tweak the car’s balance by delaying the intervention of the electronic nannies.
For the racetrack, this system can be disabled entirely.
The ride is definitely firm, though acceptable in a car with this sort of performance, and the R’s variable-ratio electronic steering is quick (it’s also used in the GTI and goes from lock-to-lock it just two turns compared to 2.75 turns for other Golfs), perfectly-weighted and accurate.
The R’s F1-style steering is made partly misleading by the fact it doesn’t turn too tightly, meaning the front wheels travel less of an arc when being swung full left to full right.
The turning circle certainly feels a lot tighter than the quoted 10.9m.
The braking is carried over from the GTI Performance version of the Golf too, and copes appropriately with the performance.
The R feels strong, secure and stable when being hauled down from high speeds.
For such a mighty performer, the Golf R doesn’t drain the (smallish) 55-litre fuel tank too swiftly.
We figured our recorded average of 8.7L/100km was a reasonable return given how vital it is that this car is driven enthusiastically.
And the Golf R is pretty well fitted out too.
It comes with standard sat-nav, suitably grippy cloth-leather heated seats, dual-zone climate control, auto-dipping bi-xenon headlights, keyless start, tyre pressure sensors, a rear-view camera and seven airbags.
A $1200 optional driver-assistance package brings blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert (when reversing), radar cruise control and autonomous low-speed anti-collision braking.
For a further $1850 you can specify a powered glass sunroof.
With all the hatchback utility of a regular Golf, as well as a decent-size cabin, the R doesn’t ask for any compromises other than the space-saver tyre that is a regular aspect of all Golfs anyway.
This simply must be the aspirational model for any Golf owner – and for just about anyone lusting after an incredibly capable performance hatch.
2015 Volkswagen Golf R pricing and specifications:
Price: $55,240 (plus on-road costs)
Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-petrol
Transmission: Six-speed dual-clutch
Fuel: 7.1L/100km (ADR Combined)
CO2: 164g/km (ADR Combined)
Safety Rating: Five-star ANCAP
What we liked:
>> Overall capabilities
Not so much:
>> Turning circle
>> Blend-in styling
>> Smallish fuel tank
This article originally appeared on Motoring.com.au. All images via Motoring.com.au.