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The Mk7 Golf R departed as a legend, so where can the new one possibly go from there?

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Whatever next? That’s the question Volkswagen would have asked itself when putting pen to paper during the development of this latest ultra-hot Volkswagen Golf R.

The problem was that the previous version – the Mk7 Volkswagen Golf R, introduced as far back as 2014 but updated in 2017 before being put out to pasture in 2019 – was just so good. A blend of striking looks melded with an appealing degree of subtlety but also expensiveness, and fluid handling matched with broadly excellent ride quality, made the Mk7 Golf R the defining hot hatchback of its generation. It was also indecently quick. So how to improve it? Indeed, whatever next?

Mk8 receives the now-customary quad-tip exhausts. It’s a passive system, reliant on cabin synthesisation for added drama, unless you upgrade to the £3100 Akrapovic titanium sports exhaust

The subject of this week’s road test is the answer, and it’s fair to say that while the VW Golf R remains traditional in many ways, there are one or two bold innovations. But before we delve into the details, know that the priorities in Wolfsburg have changed over the past few years.

The fast four-wheel-drive Golf can be traced back to the Mk2 Rallye of 1988, although it was only in the 2000s and with the advent of the V6-engined R32 of the Mk4 and Mk5 generations that the recipe began to take hold with the broader public. A switch to four cylinders for the Mk6 generation then brought about not less power, but more, and allowed VW to hone the handling. The car’s popularity grew further, and by the time of the Mk7, the Golf R wasn’t simply the flagship Golf but arguably the flagship of the entire company. It was pragmatic yet aspirational and came loaded with driver appeal.

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In the UK, VW still expects one in every 10 Golfs to be sold in R spec, which is an amazing statistic, but just how important is this car now to the company that builds it? The true apple in the eye of the world’s second-largest car maker is its all-electric Volkswagen ID sub-brand, which, VW hopes, will pivot the company into the next chapter of its hopefully long future.

Where does that leave the Golf R, you may wonder. As something of an anachronism? Well, yes. But a brilliant one all the same? Let’s see.

The VW Golf line-up at a glance

Non-performance variants are available in Life, Style and R-Line trims. Volkswagen Golf GTE, Volkswagen Golf GTD and R variants exist as standalone models, while the GTI can also be had in sharpened GVolkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport guise. Petrol, diesel, mild-hybrid and plug-in hybrid engine options are all available.

 

DESIGN & STYLING

2 Volkswagen Golf R 2021 RT hero side

If you’re wondering how far VW has stretched the basic Golf R recipe for this car, the answer is ‘not far at all’.

The transversely mounted EA888 engine is reprised from the Mk7, albeit in Evo 4 guise, with power lifted from 296bhp to 316bhp. At a time when the frontier for top-class hot hatchbacks sits closer to 400bhp than 300bhp, that arguably looks unadventurous. Perhaps it is deliberate, done to enhance everyday drivability, or maybe VW’s at the limit of what can be reliably and cleanly extracted from an Audi-designed engine that first appeared in 2007.

As standard, the Golf R sports a neat rear spoiler, although the optional R Performance package adds a much more conspicuous split-level spoiler- cum-wing, as well as tickling the ECU to take top speed from 155mph to 168mph.

Either way, on paper, the Mk8 car is now in fact one-tenth slower to 62mph than its predecessor, with weight being the culprit. At 1476kg, the new Golf R is 16kg heavier than before, so the power-to-weight ratio is mostly unchanged.

Elsewhere, the similarities persist. The Mk8 Golf R is a lower, longer and wider device than the car it replaces, although in each case not by much, and the wheelbase has grown by just 2mm. The new car also comes with five doors and a seven-speed dual- clutch gearbox only, although the options of having a three-door shell and a manual gearbox had already been phased out during the Mk7’s life.

Things get more interesting when you look more closely. As is customary, the R’s ride height is 20mm lower than that of the regular Volkswagen Golf, but the fact that the spring rates and stiffness of the anti-roll bars have increased a tenth over those of the Mk7 Golf R suggests a sharper dynamic character is intended. VW has increased the amount of negative camber at the front axle, which also benefits from 600g-lighter aluminium brake calipers as well as drilled discs that are 17mm larger in diameter than before, at 357mm. At the front axle, sprung mass has fallen, too, by 3kg, thanks to a stiffer new aluminium subframe.

But by far and away the most exciting addition to this new Golf R is entirely hidden from view. It’s the R-Performance Torque Vectoring system that’s layered atop the car’s existing Haldex driveline. The rear differential is sandwiched by electromechanical clutch packs that allow all of the available torque at the rear axle (which is up to half of what the engine is making at any given moment) to be siphoned to either side, and in totality, if necessary.

The set-up follows in the tyre tracks of the system pioneered by the Mk3 Ford Focus RS, and if buyers specify the R Performance package, there’s even a Drift mode, which coaxes the car into oversteer when the opportunity arises.

Our test car goes without the pack but does benefit from VW’s optional DCC adaptive dampers, which replace the standard passive items and offer an array of settings.

INTERIOR

15 Volkswagen Golf R 2021 RT cabin

VW is limited in what it can do with the Golf R’s interior, but even if it could go wild, fitting deep bucket seats and making the place very racy indeed, it almost certainly wouldn’t. This model has always been about an understated sense of intent, and so it is with the latest iteration.

Admittedly, there’s still no mistaking that you’re sitting inside one of the quicker Golfs in the range, and much of the design is shared with the GTI. The blue check on the part-cloth, part-leather, part-Alcantara modular seats immediately strikes the right tone, as does the perforated black leather of the steering wheel, and there are Alcantara inserts in the door cards. Even the rear berths are sculpted, and R logos abound.

Gone are the pathetic old shift paddles, whose stubby shape made them unengaging. The new ones are far larger and sweeter to pull, if still a little light in action.

What’s also satisfying, especially in a performance car, is the sense of simplicity that VW’s new cabin architecture for the Golf endows. The old gearlever is replaced by a shift- by-wire stub, which is unattractive in itself but does free up some space. And while the faux-carbonfibre dashboard trim and some obvious hard plastics elsewhere may irk, the organic shape of the mouldings is pleasing and modern-feeling.

Assuming that you don’t need to interact with the infotainment system, there are precious few distractions here, only an intuitive driving position and plenty of space. A choice of 30 colours for the ambient lighting is also part of the high level of standard equipment, which includes the 10.0in Digital Cockpit Pro display, USB-C charging ports, parking sensors and a wireless phone charger.

VW Golf R Infotainment and sat-nav

Our concerns about Volkswagen’s new-generation infotainment system centre on the latency of the software, the slightly suspect layout of menus and, above all, the complete absence of physical switchgear and poor layout of touch-sensitive controls.

The 10.0in Discover Navigation touchscreen in the Golf R is no different. Not only is it challenging to do something as simple as changing the volume but also, in doing so, you also run the risk of your knuckle grazing the surface that brings up the driving mode or safety system menu. Equally, the haptic-feedback controls on the steering wheel offer plenty of functionality, but it’s all too easy to trigger something by accident. Although the graphics and capability of this infotainment system are strong, it constantly frustrates, and much time can be spent fiddling with controls just to execute straightforward actions.

The fully digital 10.0in instrument binnacle is at least very clear and has the option of presenting the rev counter front and centre, with intuitive but striking colours.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

The Golf R may have been overtaken in the hot hatch power wars of late, but combining 316bhp with 310lb ft and four-wheel drive is still enough to have anyone questioning just how much performance they really need.

With launch control engaged, our car fired itself to 60mph in just 4.4sec at Millbrook Proving Ground and a good degree of self-inflicted clutch slippage from the DSG gearbox suggested that an even quicker time might be possible. Even so, 4.4sec makes the Golf R an exact match for the 996-generation Porsche 911 GT3, and we don’t recall describing that car as being anything other than stupendously quick.

Its composure, traction and faithful responses make it an easy car to drive quickly, but keen drivers who really push it will be rewarded by tail-engaging torque vectoring.

Neither does the VW let up beyond second gear. Despite its precise 100bhp advantage over the Golf R, the Mercedes-AMG A45 S could go only one second quicker to 100mph, taking 9.3sec in similar circumstances. Acceleration is unrelenting until the gearbox has snagged fourth at close to triple figures, at which point the new brake set-up is ready to demonstrate how effective it can be. Beyond the confidence-inspiring positivity in the pedal feel, those larger discs helped bring the Golf R from 70mph to a standstill in 45.9m – 80cm less than that managed by the lighter, wider- tracked Honda Civic Type R.

But beyond the raw numbers, what’s so striking about this new Golf R is the insouciance with which it operates, even at maximum attack. Admittedly, this is a double-edged sword, because the ease with which the powertrain scythes through the gears seems almost dull. This DSG gearbox is known for its dexterity, but in this generation, the shifts really are seamless, even in Race mode, and the wall of torque, which reaches its full height at just 2100rpm and continues long thereafter, robs the power delivery of some shape. You’re left with an undeniably potent powertrain but one that at times does too fine an impression of the single- speed bungie acceleration found in the quicker electric cars.

As for traction, in a straight line, and on dry roads, you’ll not break it. There’s no axle tramp, no torque steer. Just acceleration, as the 4Motion system neatly apportions drive between the axles. However, it can be beneficial to switch the ESP into its midway Sport setting for cornering purposes, where the Golf R is only too happy to break traction in the right conditions.

RIDE & HANDLING

19 Volkswagen Golf R 2021 RT cornering

For the most part, the Golf R rides sweetly, with a more heavy-set swagger than the lighter Golf GTI but a lithe underlying tautness that feels entirely appropriate for a machine with this level of performance.

There’s plenty of adaptability, though, and with the DCC dampers close to or at their softest, the car’s long-wave gait can even feel much too relaxed, with the kind of conspicuous float and bounce that belongs in something French and from the 1970s. You can remedy that by choosing something firmer, but whatever the dampers are doing, there’s always a noticeable degree of secondary-ride patter, most likely the result of the 19in wheels, and stiffened subframe and springs.

I’d love to try one of these on 18in wheels and with the Bridgestone rubber swapped for Michelin’s Pilot Sport 4S tyres, which in my experience are softer in feel and even more grippy. That might make the car an even more rounded package.

Sport mode is roughly where you want to be on a B-road, or possibly a notch or two to either side on the highly disaggregated DCC slider, depending on your preferences. It’s now, when driven fast but not necessarily furiously, that the Golf R reveals the poise and stability that has made it so popular in the past. Its ability to keep the body flat while allowing the suspension to react fluidly to the road beneath it is reminiscent of top-class mogul skiers and rare in this class.

In fact, if there’s any real criticism to be levelled, it’s that such immense composure comes slightly at the expense of personality. The new car doesn’t flow quite so expressively as its predecessor, and some testers felt the steering, while precise and confidence-inspiring in its linear weight build-up, lacked some of the natural communication of the old rack, although these were marginal criticisms. For the most part, this is an accurate, feelsome hot hatch.

And in truth, this new Golf R, with its R Performance Torque Vectoring, is every bit as engaging as the old car. It’s just that it only reveals this part of its personality when you’re really cracking on. The old car was always impressively neutral, which was down to the faithful front axle on turn-in and then the clever electrohydraulic four-wheel drive, which would shovel the engine’s effort rearwards as soon as you got back on the power. This car builds on that, and to superb effect at times.

Not only does it resist understeer even in the face of truly ham-fisted driving, but its ability to bias the outside rear tyre also means a neatly driven Golf R will give its driver that rarest of hot hatch treats: a few degrees of power oversteer.

Admittedly, you need to go looking for it, and the actuation isn’t always seamlessly natural, but it’s natural enough, and even when you’re not driving with real commitment, it tends to give the Golf R an exciting, satisfying rear-driven balance.

Despite being searingly fast, the Golf R’s natural habitat has never been on circuit, although the latest version is happier on the Hill Route at Millbrook than any of its predecessors. This is in spite of the fact that our test car lacked the optional £2000 R Performance package, which includes a track-specific Drift programme for the torque-vectoring rear axle, as well as a Special programme that recreates the settings that Volkswagen used when testing the R on the Nürburgring.

It was interesting that, when pushed to its limits, the car still fell into understeer in a way that you would almost never experience with the limitations of road driving. The truth is that, on the road, it’s almost easier to coax oversteer out of this chassis than understeer, even though, as the Hill Route shows, there remains a fundamental understeer balance to the Golf R. If anything, this demonstrates just how effective and thoughtful Volkswagen’s set-up is.

COMFORT AND ISOLATION

Architecturally, there’s very little wrong with the Mk8 Volkswagen Golf. Most of the discomfort comes in the form of frustration with the infotainment array, but that’s not something we should hold against the Golf R, whose seats are as comfortable as they are supportive and whose driving position is widely adjustable. As an everyday hot hatch, it remains the case that few do it better.

What the low-profile tyres and less yielding suspension could invite is road noise, so we were interested to compare the R with the mild-hybrid Golf 1.5 eTSI we tested in 2020. Given how highly we regarded that car in terms of comfort and isolation, it reflects very well indeed on the Golf R that its noise readings were almost identical in every measurement, except for that taken at the redline in fourth gear. In general, the car is drama-free on motorways.

If there’s a fly in the ointment, it’s the low-speed ride, which can crash on choppier surfaces and sometimes undermines the Golf R’s otherwise fine road manners. For this reason, we might be tempted to go for the regular 18in wheels.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

1 Volkswagen Golf R 2021 RT hero front

The Golf R is now an unambiguously expensive car, although the entire class has upped its asking price of late. The Audi S3, BMW M135i xDrive and Mercedes-AMG A35 are all knocking on the door of £40k, even if none gets quite as close as the VW.

You could argue the Golf justifies itself with more power than any of the others, and with its generous standard equipment. Matrix LED headlights and three-zone climate control are just two features you don’t pay extra for, and as for the uplift in price compared with the Mk7 Golf R, there’s the new R-Performance Torque Vectoring, which gives the car a dynamic edge over its rivals. But for the DCC dampers, fairly priced at around £800, the Golf R is ready to go straight out of the box.

Although the Golf R is expected to hold its value well, premium rivals like the Mercedes AMG A45 and Audi RS3 do slightly better.

As for fuel economy, the Golf R is one of those cars that will return whatever you want it to return. Our test car recorded a touring figure of 43.9mpg, for an outright range. of almost 500 miles. That isn’t to be sniffed at in a car that can comfortably carry four and dispatch 60mph in under 4.5sec, although get greedy and you’ll see nearer 20mpg.

 

VERDICT

21 Volkswagen Golf R 2021 RT static front

Digest the Golf R’s asking price – close to £45,000 for the example tested here, even though it goes without the R Performance pack and Akrapovic exhaust – and some scepticism is understandable.

When you are pricing what remains an everyday hatch into the realm of bona fide sports cars, some of which have four seats and generous boots (we’re looking at you, BMW M2 Competition), difficult questions arise.

Most entertaining distillation of the Golf R formula yet – for a price

They’re questions to which the Mk8 Golf R provides some good answers; in some cases emphatically, although in others with less conviction. This car isn’t as easy-going or as easy to love as its Mk7 predecessor, even if those prepared to explore its handling will find truly exciting levels of reward and satisfaction absent in like-for-like rivals such as the Mercedes-AMG A35. It also remains, for the most part, enviably versatile, although we have some reservations about the ride quality in everyday settings.

We admire this car’s speed, composure and new-found flair, all of which stand it out in the 4WD crowd. However, were it our hot hatch money, the £5000-cheaper Honda Civic Type R still offers more. More precision, more adjustability and greater involvement.

 

Richard Lane

Richard Lane
Title: Deputy road test editor

Richard joined Autocar in 2017 and like all road testers is typically found either behind a keyboard or steering wheel.

As deputy road test editor he delivers in-depth road tests and performance benchmarking, plus feature-length comparison stories between rival cars. He can also be found presenting on Autocar's YouTube channel.

Mostly interested in how cars feel on the road – the sensations and emotions they can evoke – Richard drives around 150 newly launched makes and models every year. His job is then to put the reader firmly in the driver's seat. 

Volkswagen Golf R First drives