x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Pumped-up Scirocco R brings to question owner's love for older model

Road Test Kevin Hackett fears he may fall out of love with his own car after experiencing the range-topping Volkswagen Scirocco R.

It's taken its time, but it's here at long last. Launched in other markets around the world back in late 2009, waiting for Volkswagen's badboy Scirocco R has been an almost painful experience for me. As the owner of what used to be the rang-topper, the 2.0TSI, I've been curious - and, it has to be said, extremely nervous - about just how good it is. Will the car I know and love be consigned to the mental scrap bin, its reputation sullied by a few days behind the wheel of its faster, even better looking stable mate?

Not that there's anything at all wrong with my car, you understand. As regular readers will be aware, my Scirocco never fails to lift my spirits. It has proved to be a fun, engaging, reliable and inexpensive pocket rocket and, even after I've been driving the most exciting Italian exotica, I can't wait to get back behind its flat-bottomed wheel. Life without it has become unimaginable.

The R badge is reserved for hot VWs only and in Golf form it means four-wheel drive and 266hp, but the Scirocco has five fewer horses. It doesn't have the weighty four-wheel drive components, however, so it's slightly quicker. Essentially the R is fitted with the same 2.0L engine that mine has, but it's been beefed up with stronger internals and remapped for an extra 60hp. It has a different exhaust system with twin pipes protruding from either side of the car's rump; it has optional larger, exquisitely designed 19-inch alloy wheels that do a better job of filling the arches (it looks as though it sits lower but it doesn't) and there's a more aggressive front end, replete with daytime LED running lights and better, direction-sensitive bi-xenon headlamps. The rear lamps are smoked, the mirrors are gloss black and there are lovely side-skirts to complete the subtly macho transformation.

The changes aren't exactly numerous but they all combine to make the Scirocco R just that bit better in ever respect - on paper, at least. Drivers' cars don't get much better than the standard 'Rocco, no matter what price range you're looking at, so it's entirely possible that Volkswagen could have turned the R into something unmanageable and uninvolving. After all, over 260hp through the front wheels alone is usually a recipe for horrific torque-steer, where the wheels and the steering are at cross-purposes. It's frightening and unpleasant when it happens, but fortunately VW has fitted its XDS electronic differential to try to calm things down.

So, with a heavy heart, it's time to see if the R blows my baby into the weeds but at least my many months of experience with the TSI will provide an accurate point of reference. The first difference is most unwelcome: it's a keyless start and I stab fruitlessly at the steering column with the key. I hate these things. So the key fob will have to rattle around in the centre console's cup holder. Brake pedal depressed, I push the start/stop button and the straight-four rumbles into life. Immediately there's a sense that this car is the daddy. A deep bass tone fills the cabin - already I like it.

My first experience is the commute from Dubai to my office in Abu Dhabi - a journey I have made countless times in my own car, so I emerge to join the insanity of the E11 and hope against hope that the R is a let-down. It doesn't take more than a couple of minutes to realise that it isn't. It's the polar opposite of a let-down. Acceleration is effortless, with a mid-range punch that the TSI definitely lacks, combined with that deep, reverberating exhaust note to give the feeling that this is a significantly more powerful car. It just feels easier.

Overtaking is a doddle - with even the slightest flex of my right foot, the R simply devours what's ahead of it. Torque steer is completely absent and even when I keep the throttle nailed on a tight right-hander across one of the motorway's flyovers, it just digs in and gets around with no fuss, no drama and not even a hint of slip. It feels totally and utterly complete, as though my car has been hitting the gym for six months and everything is that bit stronger and more muscular. I've made a mistake; I've chosen the wrong car, haven't I?

I arrive in Abu Dhabi feeling slightly depressed; something that isn't lifted when I park up and take a look at it from outside. Even in its white paintwork, this thing looks the business, and I start to ponder making some changes to my own car to bring it more into line with the R. Those alloys would be a good starting point and maybe I'll get mine chipped for that extra oomph. Then I could get a new exhaust system to liberate that heady soundtrack. Would a few minor alterations give me the same experience? Possibly.

The more I drive the R, though, the more the differences become apparent, and it's not all bad news for my trusty steed. The acceleration, I now feel, is more laboured than the TSI's. Where my car responds like a scalded cat with a prod of its accelerator, the R feels a bit sluggish. I find that, to get the same feeling of urgency, I have to knock the DSG lever into sport mode. But then this car is fresh out of the box and it may take some time for it to loosen up. The thought of getting back into mine doesn't cause palpitations.

That's the thing about small sports cars such as this: you can modify a lesser model quite easily if you want it to go and look better. They're engineered beyond their factory-standard specifications and, provided you don't go too mad, you can tweak them for some extra punch or for a more satisfying soundtrack. The R I have on test is not fitted with the optional Adaptive Chassis Control - something that tends to blight the experience of driving the standard 2.0L - and it isn't required here, either. The ride is indeed firmer but it's never jarring or uncomfortable. On the contrary, it's just the right side of stiff and gives the R real poise when tackling corners and under hard braking.

The black interior of this test car can be a bit oppressive but apart from the odd detail its design is exactly the same as my own. The sound system is better, the gauge illumination and digital displays are more modern, but that's about it. It's a better car; there's no denying it. But it isn't that much better. Spending a few days with it has been a bit like meeting your wife's sister for the first time and realising she's a bit better looking, a bit racier, a bit more fun. But as a long term partner, you're perfectly happy with what you've got. That's a nice feeling - let the good times roll.

Price, base / as tested Dh125,000

Engine 2.0L turbo inline four

Gearbox Six-speed DSG

Power 261hp @ 6,000rpm

Torque 350Nm @ 2,500rpm

Fuel economy, combined 8.0L/100km