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New Volkswagen Golf R prototype review: promising signs for VW’s performance flagship

We get behind the wheel of the new Volkswagen Golf R ahead of its official arrival

Verdict

While this is all but certain to be the final pure-petrol Volkswagen Golf R, it already feels like a nicely distilled embodiment of what the sub-brand is. Not the purest hot hatch, by any stretch, but a true performance flagship – a car that should satisfy current devotees, while also pulling in petrolheads left stranded by other brands and models leaving a dwindling market.

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Volkswagen is gearing up to launch its most powerful production version of the Golf yet – and we’ve had an early chance to get behind the wheel.

The facelifted four-wheel-drive Golf R is set to make its debut this summer, complete with a power boost that takes the total output to 329bhp – a figure previously reserved for special-edition versions of the hatchback, and more grunt than the wagon has ever been offered with. 

As a result, the standard Golf R models will now crack the 0-62mph dash in 4.6 seconds (hatch) and 4.8 seconds (estate) – while an optional pack can lift the speed limiter from 155mph to 167mph, making these cars the fastest production VWs available, alongside the Arteon R Shooting Brake.

The slightly ragged wrap on our test car hides many of the new R’s details, but we know it will, of course, get the redesigned LED headlights of the Mk8.5 Golf, plus the option of an illuminated badge for the first time. There are new front bumpers, incorporating slits that help to flow air more effectively along the flanks. There will be new, lighter, forged-alloy wheels available too, saving up to 8kg of unsprung mass per corner. 

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Our prototype drive is based out of the Lausitzring race track in eastern Germany, and while the actual route is based on the surrounding roads instead of the circuit, our car has a distinct competition feel to it, thanks to a deep bucket seat and five-point harness. Suffice it to say that these will be replaced by more luxurious items for production.

VW has disguised much of the dashboard because it wants the interior details of the Golf R to remain secret until its reveal in the coming weeks, but once we’re aboard, one thing is immediately clear. The slightly frustrating haptic controls, banished from much of the latest Golf line-up, remain on the steering wheel for the R; there clearly wasn’t the budget to totally re-engineer the layout for a single variant. However, the good news is that the details of the set-up have been reprofiled so you do have to press firmly to make an input. This, in turn, should negate many of the old configuration’s shortcomings, whereby it was easy to make accidental button presses as you wound steering lock on and off.

There’s no manual option in the R – it’s a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic and four-wheel drive only – and it’s clear from the first few yards that this variant has been pulled yet further apart from its GTI stablemates. Our car is equipped with the latest (optional) Akrapovic exhaust, and on the whole VW’s engineers have worked to get more of the engine’s note and tone through to the cabin. You certainly feel this even at low speeds, with a distinct burble that’s more meaty than it is characterful. The EA888 engine has never been the most charming of motors, afterall, and even VW itself says that the goal was to make it sound “rougher”.

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On the open road, the R shows an impressive breadth of abilities – just as it should, given its more polished and upmarket brief. The engine fades into the background if you’re cruising – never totally hushed, but certainly at the level where you’re able to converse in the cabin without raising your voice. But flick into the R mode and the Golf displays sledgehammer performance, with sharper throttle response and even quicker shifts from the DSG transmission.

It’s now that the breadth of the mission statement really becomes clear; on back roads the R is borderline hooligan, with prodigious in-gear performance and solid handling bejewelled by hilarious pops and backfires on downshifts. We don’t have the chance to compare its on-the-edge handling with that of the GTI, but the R does feel heavier – more secure, perhaps, but our suspicion is that it will remain slightly less involving.

Equally, while we’re not about to put the outright top speed to the test. Even on autobahn, we can report that at 120mph, the new Golf R feels planted and stable – every bit the ultra-rapid cruiser, in fact. In the case of an Estate example that we also tried, it’s set (once again) to be a phenomenal fast load lugger. 

Model:Volkswagen Golf R
Price:£45,000 (est)
Engine:2.0-litre 4cyl turbo petrol
Power/torque:329bhp/420Nm
Transmission:Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, four-wheel drive
0-62mph:4.6 seconds
Top speed:167mph
Economy:TBC
CO2 emissions:TBC
Size (L/W/H):4,290/1,789/1,451mm
On sale:July
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Editor-at-large

John started journalism reporting on motorsport – specifically rallying, which he had followed avidly since he was a boy. After a stint as editor of weekly motorsport bible Autosport, he moved across to testing road cars. He’s now been reviewing cars and writing news stories about them for almost 20 years.

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