With no major flaws, yet a real depth of character and a peerless image, the Golf R is popular for good reason. It’s brilliant.

The Mk7 Volkswagen Golf R has been a familiar sight and sound in these parts for a while now, and although its relative age should be catching up with it, the Golf R’s innate ‘right-ness’ still emanates with undeniable strength.

This talent for combining the standard Golf’s classless ease with real performance gusto and driver engagement is the R’s talent, and the fact that it feels worth the extra over its talented little brother, the GTI, is yet another feather in its cap. The Golf R is a real talent; a distillation of the best of VW’s armament.

Engine, transmission, and 0-100 time

The R’s familiar ’EA888’ 2-litre TSI engine has in recent times been through a subtle de-tune thanks to reformed WLTP regulations, pegging power back to 400kW from its prior 414kW figure. As of 2019 the Golf R is now only available with a seven-speed DSG, one more unfortunate result of both changing legislation, and a changing market weeding out the few (us, in other words) who still buy cars like this with a stick and three pedals.

What the numbers don’t tell you is this engine’s wonderful character has been retained. It’s crisp, delicate and even makes a fairly good noise, if you listen past the piped in intake warble. This is especially present on cars fitted with the (expensive) optional Akrapovic exhaust, which creates an oddly satisfying soundtrack that is less motorsport than something like an i30N, yet more natural than an Audi S3.

The transmission is the usual VW-group DSG. When on the move it’s fast, quick-witted and rarely, if ever, caught out, but does suffer from dawdling responses and a jerkiness when mooching around town. The six-speed manual was one of the finer cable-operated shifts of its type, without the slickness of a Civic Type R’s perhaps, but a willing and capable partner to the engine. It’s a shame VW has killed it off.

Technical highlights

The powertrain is an obvious highlight, but whereas it used to remain within the boundaries of the upper-level Volkswagen Group hot hatch, the venerable EA888 has since been fitted to a veritable smorgasbord of other VAG derivatives, including SUVs such as the Cupra Ateca and even the Porsche Macan. Rather than dilute the Golf R’s specialness, it’s only accentuated by the wonderful calibration with the chassis and handling balance only the Golf exhibits. It remains, by quite some margin, the most satisfying of its ilk to drive.

Adaptive dampers deserve special mention, as even when fitted with the optional 19-inch wheels wrapped in slim 35-profile section tyres, the ride remains polished and body-control contained when in the softer setting.

Inside, the R has all the Golf’s usual tech including the full width (12.3in) high-resolution display in front of the driver, and the option of the 9.2in Discover Navigation Pro infotainment system with its glossy touchscreen. Add to that the Driving Modes available before, including the option of a programmable Individual setting, and there’s almost limitless potential for button pressing, swiping and hand gestures to the point of distraction.

What’s it like to drive?

Like the old one, it’s absolutely brilliant. One of the many clever things about the R is that it has such a duality of personality. Drive away normally and it can be difficult to see what the attraction is from a real enthusiast’s perspective: it’s completely undemanding, comfortable, light to the touch and quiet. A long, and dull, journey, completed primarily in ‘eco’ mode with the ‘box declutching at every opportunity.

On the other hand, given more throttle the R positively leaps for the horizon, continuing to rev out with infectious enthusiasm with the ‘box snicking instantly through each successive ratio. It’s the kind of car that feels properly fast anyplace, anytime, especially so given it squanders nothing with the total traction capability of the four-wheel drive system. In fact, while the R isn’t a naturally flamboyant car, it’s far from inert, with the ability to go neutral and then a bit more under full power out of tighter corners.

The more you drive the R, the more you discover a subtle and unflappable poise to its ride and handling balance that really gets you hooked. The DCC dampers are a wise idea, especially if you must go up a rim size, only enforcing the R’s sheer breadth of ability. The optional Performance Pack only adds to the R’s capability, with larger brakes, standard 19-inch wheels, and a few subtle styling tweaks. ADAM TOWLER & JORDAN KATSIANIS