Practical insanity
THE GOOD
  • Excellent power and acceleration
  • Brilliant handling
  • Comfortable sport seats
THE BAD
  • Fake engine noise
  • Intrusive stability control
  • Pricey

Feast your eyes on the 2017 Volkswagen Golf R: from its angular quad-eye headlights to its stubby, spoiler-adorned tail, it has all the timeless practicality and unassuming charm you’d expect of a $20,000 hatchback, spiced up with a classy chrome strip across the grille, some rather nice 19-inch Cadiz alloy wheels, and a quartet of chrome-tipped exhaust outlets.

Driven hard with the Dynamic Chassis Control set to Race mode the Golf R is absolutely bonkers

So why, you may ask, does this particular Golf cost more than twice as much as the base model?

Well for starters it’s a pretty well-equipped Golf, with most of the features from the $29,000 Golf Highline trim. We’re talking leather upholstery with 12-way power driver’s seat, heated seats, dual automatic climate control, Discover Media 6.5-inch touchscreen infotainment system with navigation, cruise control, keyless entry, pushbutton start, ambient interior lighting … basically, all the expected goodies needed for a superlatively comfortable and relaxed driving experience (well, except a sunroof, which sadly you can’t get in the Golf R).

It still doesn’t fully explain the $20,000 price premium, however. For that, you need to delve under the sheetmetal, where Volkswagen has stealthily hidden an Audi S3 sedan. Which means that this Golf has a turbocharged 2.0L four-cylinder engine that cranks out an eye-popping 292hp at 5,400 rpm and 280 lb-ft of torque at 1,800 rpm, your choice of a six-speed manual or six-speed DSG dual-clutch automated transmission, 4Motion all-wheel drive to effectively transfer all that power to the road, and dynamically adjustable suspension.

So while the Golf R may look the part of an unassuming grocery-getter, it is in fact a proper little road rocket that’s ridiculously fun to drive fast. Even better, it has lost almost none of its practicality in the process. Indeed, one could make the argument that it has gained some practicality for Canadian winters, thanks to the all-wheel drive system.

You get the same five-place seating and 645 L of luggage space as in any other Golf, and if you switch the Dynamic Chassis Control’s drive mode Comfort or Normal, the driving experience can be every bit as casual and easy-going as in any other Golf – you could lend the Golf R to an elderly nun and she’d find it perfectly comfortable for tootling around town. The only real compromise, aside from the car’s price tag, is in terms of fuel economy: Where the base 1.8L Golf is rated at 9.4/6.7 L/100km (city/highway) with the automatic transmission (and the 2.0L Golf GTI at 9.6/7.2 L/100km), the Golf R is rated at 10.4/7.9 L/100km and wants premium fuel to boot.

In practice, when I drove the Golf R gently I averaged 10.0 L/100km in mixed driving and I even managed to slightly beat the highway rating on a short, flat run, at 7.8 L/100km. Putting your foot to the throttle lays waste to any notion of fuel economy, however, even as it plasters an ear-to-ear grin across your face. At the end of my week with the Golf R I managed a mixed average of 11.9 L/100km, and the car was showing long-term average of 12.2 L/100km. In terms of fun-per-litre however, the Golf R has few if any rivals.

Acceleration from 0-100 km/h is dispatched in a blistering 4.8 seconds, and thanks to its big sticky tires and all-wheel drive system the Golf R handles like it’s on the proverbial rails with quick, precise turn-in, decent feedback and outstanding grip. Driven hard with the Dynamic Chassis Control set to Race mode the Golf R is absolutely bonkers, with my only quibble being that the stability control and torque-vectoring XDS (cross differential braking system), while effective, can sometimes feel a little intrusive.

Where the Golf R does sometimes struggle a little is switching quickly between docile mode and beast mode, partly because there’s a bit of turbo lag at low revs, and partly because the automated DSG transmission always goes for the highest possible gear when in Drive. In Sport it tends to err the other way, holding revs too high at times, but fortunately there are paddle shifters to let you take control, and the DSG transmission is truly rewarding to flick through the gears thanks to its lightening-fast upshifts and prompt, rev-matched downshifts. Of course, if you want to get an even more connected driving experience and save a little money as well you can order up your Golf R with the six-speed manual transmission, which would be my preference.

Inside, the Golf R coddles the driver and front passenger in deeply bolstered and superlatively comfortable leather-upholstered R-exclusive sport seats. The rear 60/40 split folding bench seat has a fold-down centre armrest with cupholders. The remainder of the cabin is cleanly styled and nicely fitted out: soft-surfaced materials are used for the dash top, front door uppers and arm rests, and the rigid plastics used elsewhere are nicely grained and good-looking, set off by brushed metallic and carbon-fibre look trim. The instruments are crisp and clear, there’s classy ice blue ambient lighting, the standard eight-speaker Fender audio system is powerful and clear sounding, and Volkswagen’s infotainment system now has App-Connect smartphone integration with Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and MirrorLink support.

My test car added to the Golf R’s already extensive list of standard equipment with a $1,795 Technology Package featuring adaptive cruise control, blind spot detection with lane assist, 8-inch infotainment touchscreen display, automatic emergency braking, integrated data storage, automatic high beam control and park distance control.

My one complaint is Volkswagen’s Soundaktor synthesized engine noise. It sounds reasonably convincing when you’re driving the car hard at high revs, but at lower engine loads and revs it sounds entirely out-of-place and artificial, being just a slowed-down version of the same loud, pulsing soundtrack you get at high revs. The good news is that you can use the Individual drive mode to turn up all the go-fast settings while keeping the synthesized engine noise to a minimum.

As for the price, while the Golf R may cost over twice as much as a base Golf, it’s still great value given its performance credentials. Its direct competitors are all priced comparably or higher ($39,495 for the Subaru WRX STI, $40,890 for the Honda Civic Type R, and $48,418 for the Ford Focus R) and they’re all much shoutier-looking cars. Which is fine if your idea of fun is to get attention doing donuts in front of the local police station, but not so great if you like to keep a low profile or occasionally need to drive clients (or your boss) around. In that sense, the Golf R’s combination of bonkers performance capability and low-key looks makes it the real segment standout…

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 2.0L   Model Tested 2017 Volkswagen Golf R
Engine Cylinders T4   Base Price $42,095
Peak Horsepower 292 hp @ 5,400 rpm   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 280 lb-ft @ 1,800 rpm   Destination Fee $1,625
Fuel Economy 10.4/7.9/9.3 L/100 km city/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $45,745
Cargo Space 645 L (1,492 L w/ rear seats folded)  
Optional Equipment
$1,925 – Technology Package $1,795; Alloy Wheel Package $130