Gee 8 Rrrrrr
It's said that the Van Stadens Pass outside Gqeberha (previously Port Elizabeth) was officially built to "acceptable standards for wagons" back in 1867. Now, 155 years later, the pass that snakes through the Van Stadens Gorge, under the shadow cast by one of SA's highest bridges, is hardly up to any acceptable standards; wagons or otherwise. Perfect then for testing the fastest hatchback in the stable of a brand that's been accused of making its latest performance hatches soft and cushy — the Volkswagen Golf 8 R.
When the Golf 8 GTI launched to much fanfare last year, not even our Speed Week experiment proved as divisive as the driving character of the GTI. Some loved it, and many (myself included) didn't. I believed that VW went too far with the everyday livability aspect of the GTI 7.5 which, ironically, also proved its biggest selling point. That duality of performance and relative comfort.
The 8 didn't inspire that same hooliganism of dialling in its performance mode, checking the mirrors to see if the coast is clear before booting it for a taste of that vrrr pha fizz. It was like looking into the eyes of a captive lion; it was good to look at and deep down, its instincts were there. It was just going to take a poke from a stick to bring that savagery to the surface.
Obviously, the same should be true for the Golf R then? It too has since received a degree in tech that only a teenager can understand and then learned the intricacies of proper table-side manners. It's inconspicuously sporty with its soft lines and unapologetic in its application of tech – something many motoring scribes bemoaned with the Golf 8 GTI due to the inherent weight increase. In fact, it's so subtle that an admiring onlooker inquired if this was some new Golf 8 R-Line. Close… Whether you think that's a compliment to the go-faster aesthetics of VW's R-Line rollout or a slight on the full-fat R, well, it depends on where you sit on the performance spectrum.
The thing is, this is an affirmation of intent from VW and a blatant refusal to conform to the conventional wisdom of what a hot-hatch in this performance echelon should be. If you want more wings than sense, there's a series of very exciting hot hatches on the horizon that have more winged surfaces than an SR-71 Reconnaissance Craft. Not the R, though.
Sure, in terms of styling, it's a far cry from the original R, the MK4 Golf R32, which was as subtle as a chainsaw in a zen garden. Add to that a 3.2-litre V6 (177 kW / 320 Nm) and VW's first series production dual-clutch gearbox (DSG) with the introduction of all-wheel-drive to compensate for the notoriously dull handling of the Golf MK3 VR6, and it was instantly deserving of bedroom poster status.
But it's evolved since then. While many hot hatches have grown into something louder and brasher to cater to a new and emerging target market, the opposite is true for the R. Bear with me on this one, but I have a theory as to why: When the R32 was shown to the world in 2002, it was the epitome of what a performance hatch should be. Aggressive styling, complex mechanicals, video game inclusion, it had it all. But the same demographic, myself included, that was taken with this car has since grown up. Our priorities and tastes have since changed. Less is more. Fewer wings, less shoutiness, and certainly less bobbing about on a trampled tar road. So, laying eyes on the Golf R we were about to test, I was instantly taken. I swooned a bit at the lighting signatures and uttered some unintelligible words. The youngest member of our team, Jordan, immediately went for the carotid artery, switched it into Race Mode and filled the basement parking lot with burbling noises emanating from the exhaust system. A lad, that must be said, wasn't impressed with the subdued styling of the R… See my point?
After Jordan was done playing some monotonous basement exhaust music and finished fiddling with the onboard screens and buttons, something, mind you, that infinitely confused me, it was time to head out and get some mileage on the Golf R. "Uh oh," I said as we were all but one kilometre into our drive, "this thing is comfortable". Words of solace if you just bought an SUV with air suspension. On the hottest hot hatch from Wolfsburg, it's supposed to be as out of character as an honest politician.
It's so plush in fact that on a shabby backroad I still had some processing power to spare and tried familiarising myself with some onboard intricacies like sliding my finger underneath the infotainment screen to change volume and trying to get an optimal airflow – whatever happened to good-ol' climate control buttons, they worked fine, right? Luckily, once you get the general flow of the cabin and how the central infotainment system integrates with the Digital Cockpit Pro, it gets easier. I'm still some ways from using terms like intuitive, since VW also says that this is the most digitally-heavy Golf of all time with its layer-upon-layer of settings and information. I think the Golf R may have evolved faster than the guy who's writing this feature…
Getting acclimated to the driving traits of the Golf R is as simple as steering in a given direction, applying throttle and enjoying the ride. It's helped by a driving position that, unlike the mainframe's worth of electronics, is as natural as you'd expect from a hatch that's revered for just that. It's low, but the visibility is vast. The seats are unexpectedly comfortable and everything's position is just right.
I'm confident now to press that "R" button on the left of the steering wheel, upping the ante into sport mode and planting my right-hand-side foot into the carpet. It launches well from a rolling start, albeit feeling a little restrained into the triple digits – like its onboard kilowatts have reached a ceiling of how much fun you're allowed to have. And speaking of kilowatts, the Golf R bats with 235 kW and 420 Nm from its 2.0-litre turbocharged engine. A bit of trivia: It's the most powerful Golf ever produced. It also comes standard with a 7-speed DSG which is not the most direct of boxes I've ever used, but still very effective at sending drive to the four wheels with the help of the R-Performance Torque Vectoring system.
In essence, it works by near-independently sending torque to both the front and rear wheels, while also sending variable amounts between the two rear wheels. It's paired with VW's Vehicle Dynamics Manager, which serves as a hub of sorts to optimise the drive for any given scenario. Plugged into this are the electronic differential locks and adaptive chassis control. Talking points for combating a bout of insomnia around a dinner table but on a tumbledown, yet character-rich, mountain pass like Van Stadens, it's very, very effective.
As it should be since VW says it has honed the R's set-up around the Nürburgring Nordschleife. Also, VW says, the Golf 8 R is 19 seconds quicker to lap The 'Ring than its predecessor. In Nürburgring speak, that's basically long enough for a dynasty to fall. An eternity, really.
But that's just lip service and means nothing if it's as dull around the twisty stuff as a butterknife. It's not. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Off the N2, it was tempting to press that steering-based R button, call on Race mode and just hope for the best, but with a sighting run, I determined it was best to stick to a softer suspension setting for maximum absorption of the bumpy surface. Good call. While the tight corners are some of the best the driving deities could have conjured up, the surface of the Van Stadens Pass leaves a lot wanting – a perfect proving ground for the Golf R since it won't likely see a lot of use on the perfectly-ironed confines of a racetrack.
Heading into the first corner, the suspense is tangible. This has always been the dominion of the R, not the stop-street-to-traffic-light dash, which is about the scope wherein most Rs will have their legs stretched. Right here, where terms like Torque Vectoring are applicable, is the reason for the Golf R's existence and also where it's going to have to prove that it hasn't gone entirely soft on us. It bites into the tarmac like a unisided vice grip with no indication of letting go. All the electronic onboard chips are firing electrons in unison as the adaptive chassis control continues to work seamlessly in the background. The hyperactive hatchback seems undeterred by the rippling surface, it grips and grips into a corner with inherent stability that's never more than a steering input away. As the wheels are busy straightening out, it's time again to plummet my right foot and make maximum use of the torque out of the bend. The 0-100 km/h time of 4.7 seems about right as the next corner looms and it's back on the anchors as the weight shifts to the front axle for maximum turn-in prowess. It's blisteringly quick through here, but from a driving perspective almost too easy. It's undramatic in how it conducts its business. There's no need for clenched teeth and constant corrections – it just does what it's supposed to do.
With the previous iteration of the R, namely the 7.5, even thinking about pushing it to its limits was met with an inkling of "maybe you're mental and in need of a visit to the psych ward". With the 8, it's different. Did I push it to the limit of its capabilities? I hardly came close, given the testing conditions. But I did have a nagging voice suggesting that maybe, just maybe, I can come close to exploring where this car's limit lies.
Look, the Golf R has its contradictions. I'd easily label this as the most usable R to date with its inherent levels of comfort. It's easy to forget that this is a hot hatchback when moseying about town, but then again, the rear bench hardly has usability thanks to the bucket seats that cannibalises any usable rear legroom. The interior is impeccably finished except for the faux-textured horizontal insert that stretches the width of the dashboard, looking like an afterthought. Oh, and near-all car-related functions which are buried under layers of onboard computer screens… Jordan seemed quite happy about it; me, not so much…
At least we agreed on our favourite party trick. Launch control. Just before giving the key back, we decided to finally give the Launch Control feature an official try as a send-off to this multidimensional hatch. Jordan dialled it in by pressing some screens; he then pressed Race Mode while I put my left foot on the brake. The car became noticeably short-tempered as I built the revs to the sweet spot before letting go of the brake pedal. It launched forwards with the help of the 4Motion system at a rate I couldn't possibly expect. The gorgeous scenery just whooshed past in a fluid green blur while the cabin of the Golf R was filled with giggles of equal amounts of shock and admiration. Once again, the VW Golf R has proved that it can switch its character on a dime, a click on a screen, a trait that a psychiatrist will call multi-personality disorder. Us petrolheads, well, we'll just stick to astonishing.
The point is that VW's hot-hatchback game has once again progressed, a fact which I refused to accept with the launch of the GTI, but now, with the R, I'm more than ready to embrace. It once again proves that when it comes to performance, you don't have to compromise on anything else… doesn't that make the Golf R the most uncompromising hatch by this very definition? Deon van der Walt
JORDAN, A MAN WITH AN APPRECIATION FOR POPS AND BANGS GIVE HIS TWO CENTS ON THE R…
I must say I felt slightly underwhelmed by the GTI, as I almost felt like the GTI was lacking the enthusiasm that its previous variants portrayed. So to say that I was looking forward to the redemption by the Golf R would be an understatement. I was itching to get behind the wheel. I must say the Golf 8 R is rather impressive, its stability and traction in the corners were exhilarating, and its launching ability is almost seamless. The R gives you a strong sense of confidence whilst your passengers hold onto the door handles for dear life. I was impressed with how the Golf R drove, it was a pleasure wielding this machine through Van Stadens Pass in the Eastern Cape. Plus, it sounds pretty cool too, even without the Akrapovic exhaust.
On the other hand, I was disappointed at the fact that the interior is very similar to the GTI, there is a large amount of glossy black plastic and the screens are rather small. I also found that the front seats, although comfortable, are thick and leave little to no space in the back for passengers. As a competitor to the top hot hatches on the market, I found that the Golf R could do with a bit more power, as once past the 100 km/h mark, the car almost runs out of oomph. This wouldn’t be a concern if there isn’t anything to compete against the Golf R, but with cars like the Audi RS3 and Mercedes-AMG A45 being more powerful and subsequently faster, I am worried that the delay in the launch of the Golf R might throw this popular performance hatch out of its depth. Nevertheless, it remains a great product and the chassis was mightily impressive. I hope to see many of these pocket rockets on our streets soon. Jordan Schmidt
Images: Donovan Marais