x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

2011 Volkswagen Golf R

While it doesn't have the R32's raucous blat when you fire it up, the R finds a rhythm all of its own and it is a GTi on steroids.

The Volkswagen Golf R is a GTi on steroids.
The Volkswagen Golf R is a GTi on steroids.

The Golf R32 was that little bloke at the party who always thought he could puff his chest out and arm wrestle the big boys. Any blip of the throttle, even at the traffic lights, ripped out a crackling, brutally metallic snarl that made almost everybody think it was an M3; even the driver. It could talk the talk, all right, but the rest of the car found it hard to live up to the engine's aural promise. But that's not the way of its replacement.

The Golf R is less of a car in a whole bunch of essential ways that make it, paradoxically, much more of a car. There are fewer cylinders, to start with, because the R32's V6 has been turfed for a 2.0L turbo four. There's less weight as well, it uses less fuel, emits less CO2 and it takes less time (5.5 seconds) to sprint to 100kph. And when it arrives in the UAE later in the year, it will almost certainly cost less than R32 as well, while retaining the title of the hottest Golf money can buy.

So the "less" list is almost all good, except that our Golf Rs are almost certain to be detuned from the 266hp European big-bang engines to 252hp. While Volkswagen has yet to confirm the reduction, its Australian-spec Golf Rs have had their power cut back to 252hp, which VW blames on its cooling requirements for the hotter climes, so it's hard to imagine it will be any different for the Gulf. The new Golf R has its own styling cues, including bigger intakes to help with that cooling issue, bigger brakes and two exhaust pipes jutting ominously from beneath its rump.

It's a much easier car to drive than its predecessor, as well. There are the racier seats, which fit snugly in every direction (perhaps a bit too snug for the larger person), and one of the best steering wheels - all fat and leather and fitting just so - in the business. While it doesn't have the R32's raucous blat when you fire it up, the R finds a rhythm all of its own anyway. It's louder than the GTi, softer than the R32 and all the better for it, most of the time.

VW offers both a six-speed manual gearbox and a DSG (Direct Shift Gearbox) to slot in with the turbo four here, but it's a demonstrably better car with the DSG. If you can afford it, there's no alternative and, as a bonus, it also brings out more of the engine's vocal character. There's a crisp little braaap on each upshift, a delicate, snarling blip of the throttle on each downshift and, in Sport mode, it does it even quicker and louder.

It seems to have trouble getting the Golf R to launch cleanly enough off the line to snare one of its claimed 5.5-second sprints to the tonne, but that's only until you realise that it has a hidden launch-control mode. Otherwise, it has so much traction that, even on wet tarmac, it's not possible to make all four wheels spin, even with the traction control set to VW's Maximum Scary (which is really just a higher level than "off").

Partly, this is down to a new, super-sticky Haldex all-wheel-drive system. The old system needed to feel wheelspin from a tyre before it diverted the torque and power towards the ones that weren't spinning uselessly or dangerously. The new one doesn't need to do that anymore, so all the engine's work gets pushed around the car and turned straight into forward drive without any of the drama the old R32 had.

That all means that, once you've set the button to go as hard as it can from a standing start, the turbo and the all-wheel drive figures out what you're after and shovel on more and more coal until the little hatch is slamming you backwards into the sculpted, beautifully stitched leather seat. It's a real elastic band kind-of ride and, with the DSG swapping cogs without discernibly losing momentum, it just fizzes and howls and keeps getting faster, with no sign of slowing down, even beyond 200kph.

Its chassis is well-sorted, too. The R32 almost felt like it had been stuffed full of enough engine that nothing else mattered much, but the R is 25mm lower than even the GTi and it has become a much-more rounded creature. Normally, there's a little understeering stance (no bad thing in high-speed cornering) before a slightly loose drift emerges on the way out of a corner. Yet it's the missing urge for the Middle East version that is most in question, but it makes no difference to the big picture. VW claims it loses only 0.2 seconds in the sprint time, it has the same 350Nm of torque all the way from 2,500rpm to 5,000 and it has the same 20 per cent improvement in fuel economy.

Where the metallically howling V6 in the R32 chewed through 10.7 litres per 100km, the Golf R covers the same ground with just 8.4 litres - enough to dip down to 195 grammes of CO2 per km. That's all nice and cuddly and green, but is the 32-less Golf R still the hottest people's car? Well, yes. It's a GTi on steroids, but you can still drive it every day.