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Billed the 'Ultimate Golf' and given more power, but can this facelifted Volkswagen Golf R knock the imperious Ford Focus RS from its perch?

The catchment area for the already ill-defined category beyond ‘standard’ hot hatches has become even more hazy recently, and the Volkswagen Golf R isn't helping.

The Seat Leon Cupra, blessed with 296bhp in its most powerful format, arguably earns a place at one end of it – despite costing only very marginally more than a regular Volkswagen Golf GTI, while that aforementioned Golf has been given more power under the latest facelift, with the GTI Performance puts out 242bhp - the same inadvertently as the latest Skoda Octavia vRS.

The Volkswagen Golf R has drawn new battle lines with the third generation Ford Focus RS

At the opposite extreme, Mercedes-AMG almost left the reservation entirely with the outrageous and very pricey 375bhp Mercedes-Benz A45. That leaves a Sudetenland-sized tract of real estate available in between, which the new Volkswagen Golf R – appears well qualified to annex. Although, the middle ground is there for its taking Volkswagen is wary of the potent, four-wheel drive Ford Focus RS which took the segment by the scruff of its neck. But don't think for one moment that Volkswagen are resting on its laurels, as a facelift saw the Golf R's wick turned up slightly to produce 306bhp, before the addition of a petrol particulate filter brought that figure down to 296bhp.

Volkswagen has a long and well regarded history in this niche. Aside from the previous Volkswagen Golf R, this car’s other obvious antecedents are two generations of R32 – models that cemented the range-topper’s use of all-wheel drive.

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They were both powered by six-cylinder engines – a leftover from the front-drive VR6 – which were a big-capacity solution to the Mk3’s weight problems. Given the car’s current identity, it’s worth mentioning that the left-hand-drive-only Mk2 Rallye edition, with a supercharged 1.8 and four-wheel drive, also makes an appropriate forerunner.

The Golf GTI may get all the limelight, but for almost as long as that model has been around, VW has conceived of something like the R to outrank it. This senior model is not intended as some rough-shod tearaway, either. Having four-wheel drive, brimming with kit and being both styled with restraint and knowingly expensive, the R is once again intended for grown-ups.

But is it overly mature or modestly brilliant? We’ll know soon enough. 

It wasn't enough just to review the Golf R on its own, we have also pitch it against its stiffest rivals - including a blast across Valencia against the Ford Focus RS, a triple header with the last generation Honda Civic Type-R and Renaultsport Megane 275 Trophy, and an estate battle royale between the Golf R Estate and the rapid Audi RS4 Avant.

Price £36,150 Power 296bhp Torque 280lb ft 0-60mph 4.8sec Fuel economy 32.8mpg CO2 emissions 195g/km 70-0mph 52.6m

The Volkswagen Golf range at a glance

The R sits alone at the peak of the Golf line-up, in both hatchback and estate forms. The sole engine is VW’s familiar 2.0-litre EA888, tuned to produce 296bhp after the addition of a petrol particulate filter. The six-speed manual is no more, with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic now the only transmission. 

A £2400 factory-option Performance Pack adds an uprated braking system, downforce-boosting roof spoiler, 19in alloy wheels and a derestricted top speed. 

Volkswagen Golf R 2014-2020 First drives