The latest entry into Europe’s burgeoning performance hatchback ranks comes in both three and five-door body styles. It is powered by a 296bhp version of the Volkswagen Group’s turbocharged 2.0-litre, four-cylinder EA888 petrol engine boasting variable valve timing, camshaft control and a two-stage valve lift function.
As with its highly rated predecessor, the new Golf R’s transversely mounted engine sends its drive to all four wheels via either a standard six-speed gearbox or an optional six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.
But while the gearbox options remain the same, Volkswagen has brought a number of changes to the Golf R’s 4Motion four-wheel drive system, among them a new fifth-generation Haldex multi-plate clutch boasting a revised electronic package, a so-called electronic differential system (EDS) and a further-developed version of the XDS Plus system used on the Golf GTI .
A Drive Profile function allows the driver to choose between three differing set-ups: Race, Normal and Eco. Alternatively, you can tailor the responsiveness of the steering, throttle and gearbox to suit your driving style or conditions.
The new Golf R adopts the same steel body shell and hot-formed steel monocoque MQB structure as other regular seventh-generation Golf models. Dimensionally, it has grown, although not by much. Length, width and height are up marginally in three-door guise, liberating greater interior space and luggage capacity than previous generations of the über-Golf.
Yet despite the increase in size, Volkswagen says the new three-door Golf R has shed 45kg, bringing its kerb weight down to 1476kg in manual guise.
Volkswagen claims a 0-62mph time of 5.1sec for the manual model, while the quick-shifting dual-clutch auto model slices a further 0.2sec off the benchmark time to give a headline acceleration figure of 4.9sec. As before, top speed is electronically limited to 155mph.
The new go-fast Golf also touts some impressive fuel consumption and emissions figures. Official claims for the DSG-equipped model are 40.9mpg and 159g/km of CO2 on the combined economy cycle.
The styling changes over lesser models are characteristically subtle but at the same time effective enough to mark the Golf R out from the crowd. With widened tracks and a 20mm lowering in ride height, it is sporty looking but in an understated way.
Included in the visual makeover is a beefed-up front bumper with larger air ducts for more efficient engine cooling, a unique grille insert, chrome R decals within the front flanks, widened sills, a larger spoiler above the tailgate, a reprofiled rear bumper and two pairs of chromed tailpipes.
The sporty accents continue inside with revised analogue instruments with blue highlights, a leather-bound flat-bottom steering wheel, terrifically supportive leather sport seats and unique Golf R trim.
The blown 2.0-litre, four-cylinder powerplant throbs with real purpose at idle. There’s also a deep-chested blare under load and the exhaust crackles with proper intent on a trailing throttle as you head off down the road, instantly heightening the appeal of the new range-topping Golf.
However, the noises are only part reality. A synthetic sound booster has been included to enhance the soundtrack, working via a dedicated speaker in the engine bay.
Once under way, there is some initial low-end lag as the turbocharger spools up, but revs build quickly with an impressively smooth and hugely flexible delivery. The midrange is where the engine really shines, though. There’s strong pull through to and beyond 6200rpm, and the feeling of strength continues right on to the 6800rpm limiter.
There’s a mature feel to the new Volkswagen, with outstanding mechanical refinement. Make no mistake, this is a rapid hatchback capable of mixing it with all but the best of its rivals for outright straight line speed.
We’ve only driven the new Volkswagen Golf R in frigid conditions, but it is clearly an improvement on its already talented predecessor in the dynamic department. With direct electro-mechanical steering, excellent body control and a fluid chassis boasting a firm but never harsh ride even in Race mode, and with the drive profile set to Sport mode, it feels every bit as responsive and capable as the Audi S3 Sportback.
Grip levels seemed surprisingly high even on snow and ice, and the newly configured four-wheel drive system provides superb traction and drive out of low-speed corners. When adhesion is breached, there is an instant tightening of your line as the two-stage electronic stability control system reduces drive either to the inside wheels to suppress understeer or the outside wheels to reduce oversteer as you back off.
There is a new-found agility and responsiveness to the whole car, making it both terrific fun and, thanks to its outstanding traction and the fast-acting differentials, supremely secure, even at -26deg C on a frozen Swedish lake.
Overall the VW Golf R is smooth, rapid, responsive, practical, relatively economical and big on quality – so it has a lot going for it.
However, in a class that includes such stand-outs as the recently launched Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG, Audi S3 and BMW M135i, it is far from the only choice in the hot hatchback ranks. And that’s to say nothing of the likes of the Ford Focus ST, Seat Leon Cupra and Skoda Octavia vRS.
Yes, The Volkswagen Golf R boasts clear visual similarity to lesser Golf models. But if you don’t want the rest of the world to know just how fast or capable your car really is, this is only going to add to its appeal.