Often repeated, rarely forgotten; it was the ’70s, a time of oil crisis and recession, and Germany saw fit to enforce the closure of its derestricted Autobahn on weekends to ration fuel. Motorsport of any description was deemed too wasteful of the country’s resources and subsequently banned by Wolfsburg. But that didn’t stop a band of frustrated engineers from coming together behind closed doors to work on a special project without senior management’s knowledge. The key figure of the skunkworks was an engineer who’d recently defected from Opel’s motorsport department and had identified the massive potential of the yet-to-be-released Mk1 Golf. 5 000 needed to be built for homologation purposes, so using fuel-injected engines from Audi, the road-going ‘Sport Golf’ was conceived. The rest is history.
Fast forward to 2019 and the VW Golf accounts for 32.5% of all hatchbacks in South Africa. With that sort of track record, it’s hard to argue against the brand’s tagline, Peoples’ Cars. And as if epitomising it further still, jumping into the newest Golf R, a not-at-all facelifted but now more powerful iteration, all it takes is adjusting the driving position to feel instantly comfortable and in control of the machine. This has always been a fast Golf strength, ‘intuitive usability’, as VW likes to call it, and it takes thousands of man hours to get right. There’s no need for you to alter the way you interact with the car.
Justifying the new 2019 R to punters, in its most obvious form, comes with the long-awaited power upgrade. It finally belts out the full-fat 228 kW/400 Nm for the first time in SA – not the mealy-mouthed 205 kW of yore, supposedly because we used to be classified a hot-weather country and our jungle juice wasn’t up to snuff. 0-100 km/h happens in 4.6 sec and the top speed had to be limited to 250 km/h. Any sporty accents to the exterior, as before, are still very inconspicuous. The latest front bumper and grille combo, while cleaner and more sophisticated, could be any R-Line equipped TSI Golf, frankly. LED head and taillights come standard with ‘animated’ side-swipe indictors. Fresh design 19-inch alloys come standard for enhanced stance.
New for 2019 are two fruity optional extras. The first is the R performance exhaust system from Akrapovic for R39 900. It can only be factory fitted, as in it can’t be added later or to older Golf Rs (so says Volkswagen SA), and not only does it beef up the R’s already meaty vrrpah soundtrack, but the titanium system saves 7kg of weight. Bonus! Next is the R performance braking system with bigger discs and pads and a cool-looking silver logo on the calipers, the stopping power feels immense underfoot and this optional extra is a no-brainer for us at just R9 900.
However, as with any fast Golf, it’s the less overt stuff that really perfects the experience. As if by the wave of a digital alchemist’s wand, the R is now fully digitalised in so far as it has auto headlights, auto wipers, auto stop/start, as well as a coasting function. There’s adaptive cruise control (which works from standstill to 200+ km/h) with active lane-keeping assist to nudge you between the lanes. There’s five-mode Dynamic Chassis Control, and progressive steering which lends superb agility and adaptability at any speed.
But it’s fully digital Active Info display in the instrument binnacle that seals the deal for me. On a typical fast blast through the twisting mountain passes of the Western Cape, I’ve never felt so in tune with a car and its surroundings, it was like the Matrix where Neo sees the code for the first time. A glance on your dual digital maps is all it takes to know the exact moment to pounce for an overtake on an unfamiliar pass. The wide centre stack can be set to show satellite navigation in big scale, while the dead-ahead map view in the instrument binnacle is zoomed in like a fighter pilots head-up display. It’s as if you have a drone in the sky feeding you key information about the route ahead. As a keen driver it’s immensely satisfying to drive with such precision. Yes, other cars have the same tech but the Golf delivers it to the driver with that ‘intuitive usability’ that vehicles costing hundreds of thousands of rands more simply do not.
Then you get the R out of the mountains and into a real-world application and it’s arguably even better. The Dynamic Chassis Control is so talented at trimming damping force across its five different modes that the car feels totally different depending on your selection. Comfort is ideal for regular driving, go for the taut Sport setting when you start hamming into through the bends – pitch and roll disappear but it never loses all-important pliancy and traction – and Race is ideal for monthly track-day visits of course.
Deriders and non-VW conformists will bemoan a perceived slowing of the rate of change in the ‘Sport Golf’ and its price bump to R676 000 now, before you add the performance exhaust and brakes, but that’s to miss the point entirely. The latest Golf R is wonderfully fast, fiendishly technical and still every bit as practical as any family hatchback. It’s now fully digitalised as well, and more accomplished to drive in a dynamic sense. It’s the hot hatch we’d reach into our own pockets and buy and life with every single day. Simple as that.
In a nutshell – Volkswagen Golf R
All-in-one performance car, now with added vrrpah
Looks like any R-Line equipped TSI Golf
Engine: 1 984 cc, 4-cylinder, turbo petrol
Power: 228 kW @ 5 500 rpm, 400 Nm @ 2 200 – 4 000 rpm
Performance tested: 0-100 km/h 4.6 sec, top speed 250 km/h (limited)
Tyres: 225/55 R19
Economy: 7.5 l/100 km (claimed)
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch auto
CO2 emissions: 165 g/km
Price from: R676 000