The Golf R From The Perspective Of A GTI Owner
By James Wong
It’s a bit difficult to talk about the Golf R from an objective point of view since I drive something else from the same company, the GTI. But I’ll try, because what I’ve learnt about the Golf R I’ve had the privilege of driving during the past three days is worth sharing with anybody who’s making a choice between these two cars. As I’ve come to realize, the Golf R has a very different temperament when compared to the GTI. You’d expect the fastest Golf VW has ever made to be an exercise of extremity, but that could not be further from the truth.
First, let me first put it out to the table that I drive a tuned GTI. That means I’ll be writing from the perspective of driving a GTI that boosts up to 1.3 bar and is good for nearly 270bhp and 370Nm of torque (claimed stats from MTM), figures which put it comfortably ahead of the Golf R in the output stakes. The Golf R in comparison is detuned for our tropical climate in Singapore; that means it only has 256bhp and 350Nm of torque in its state of tune. It wrings out that power from a 2.0-litre engine; interestingly, VW decided to base it on the one in the MkV GTI instead of the one in the MkVI GTI. The MkV GTI uses the EA113 engine while the MkVI uses the updated EA888 engine. From personal experience, the EA888 is the more refined engine with a smoother idle and revving but somehow it feels a bit less raw than the old EA113. This was especially apparent in the A3 2.0T Quattro I tested before. VW says that it went for the EA113 in the Golf R because of its proven potential to deliver high horsepower and torque. VW probably meant that its reliability has been proven even in a highly-tuned state, because the EA888 is also highly tunable, capable of pushing close to 300bhp in only a simple Stage 1 (ECU only) tune.
Why I’ve touched so much on tuning is because that’s the beauty of VW – its engines are highly tunable and despite manufacturers getting more restrictive on aftermarket tuners making changes to the engine, many have found ways to get around this to extract more power. It’s not always a bad thing as a tuner who does his/her job of making sure the extra power does not affect reliability (except from more frequent service intervals) can provide for a much more exhilarating driving experience.
So, we’re back to the Golf R. I think it was my expectations of the R badge that distorted my thinking, because when I tried the Golf R, it did not feel as quick as I’d like. The power delivery is ‘lazy’ if there is one word to describe it, because even a full-on throttle action does not elicit any drama or surprise at all. In fact, everything is so civilised and in control it borders on becoming almost boring. The limits of this car is so high you rarely get to reach it. And when you do press on hard, the engine takes what seems like forever to react, especially when you have caught it below 2,800rpm. Turbo lag is very apparent here, especially so when you demand for the power and it just doesn’t come. The D mode didn’t help either as I needed to apply at least 70% of the accelerator pedal travel before it finally downshifted to react. In Singapore we usually cruise at about 100km/h on our highways and in 6th gear at that speed, the Golf R is not in boost. That means if you need to overtake or just want a comfortable cruising pace, the car does not really deliver until after 100km/h where the boost kicks in. You’d have to use the paddle shifters to do your overtaking. That may not be an issue depending on where you live, because perhaps in a country with a speed limit of 130km/h, the Golf R would be in character with mid-range punch within use.
But don’t worry, that is not all for this engine. There are good points as well. While the turbo lag is most disappointing, what made up for it was the power that came after the turbo was in boost. That usually comes after 2,800rpm and the engine does not stop pulling until the redline. That is something the GTI can hardly achieve as after 5,000rpm it will start to lose stamina. Well, that is where the trade-off is – the GTI can do the low-end stuff really well, but the Golf R really shines at the top end. The fact that the Golf R has all of its power at the mid to top end means that I always found myself revving the car to get to the power, which is detrimental for the fuel consumption. Comparing the fuel consumption of the GTI and the Golf R, it is a world of a difference. Travelling the same routes to and fro from work, the Golf R’s fuel consumption is dismal at best with the car being more efficient only if you hit highway speeds. Even normal driving at lower speeds like 60km/h will not yield very satisfying results. As a result, I averaged a fuel consumption of 13.4L/100km for the test drive period, while the long term average for my GTI is 10.6L/100km. And that is with the fact that the engine manages to produce more power at the same time. It is down to the tuning, and the stock tune of the Golf R does nothing for its efficiency. Weight is a huge factor as well, with the Golf R weighing significantly more due to its 4MOTION (all wheel drive) drivetrain.
Bringing the car to corners was a refreshing experience. No more spinning the inner wheel or understeering as does the GTI – you just power through corners confidently. In fact, the only worry I had was about the tyres, which seemed to be the limiting factor on the performance of the car. Through every curve and undulation, the suspension gave a firm but livable day-to-day ride that also gave the car impressive anti-roll capabilities. In Normal, Sport or Comfort the car does not at any time feel harsh, and in fact it is generally very refined, even in Sport mode. You can definitely feel a difference in the stiffness of the shocks, but it is not jarring nor uncomfortable. I could stay in Sport all day, and indeed, that was the mode I stayed in for much of the two and a half days.
In short, the Golf R feels like a more complete GTI, the car that edges ever closer to handling nirvana. It grips the road tenaciously and the sweet steering (which I must add, feels even better than the GTI’s) aids in giving the driver supreme confidence in tackling the road. I must say though, part of the thrill of driving a GTI is fighting the wheel while it torque-steers as there is some challenge in driving the car quickly; you’ve got to be disciplined with the throttle and know where to slow down (and slow down substantially). In the Golf R it feels very effortless and it is indeed devastatingly quick when you really wring it out: question is, do you want it to drive so simply?
The Golf R adopts the same dual-clutch gearbox as the GTI and they react almost identically. The upshifts are just as quick but unfortunately, the downshifts are just as slow – after trying the DCT gearbox in the M3 I’ve been spoilt by a lightning-quick downshift, and the one in the Golf R is a tad too slow. Nonetheless, it is a worthy companion to the Golf R, just not in D when it is far too concerned with saving your fuel than to give you good engine response. In S, the gearbox is tuned far too aggressively, holding the revs a tad longer than for comfort, leaving the engine always in the hot zone for a bit too long. But that is perhaps because all of the power is located there. Best mode for me is manual +/- mode, where you have almost complete control of the gearbox, save for times when you over-rev and it will shift for you to the next gear.
I tried the car with both the ESP on and off. I suspect the ESP is very lenient as I did not notice any appreciable difference when it was on and when it was off, which means a hands-off computer that only steps in when it senses uncontrollable danger. It is a joy to drive when ESP is on already and with such great traction; I’d recommend leaving it on for normal driving.
There is just something off about the throttle response though. Yes, the car is quick but it just doesn’t have the sense of urgency like the GTI. I’d put the blame to the weak low-end which dampens the mood of any sprints from the get-go. And yet, the car is so enjoyable to drive hard that you tend to downshift and keep it in the high revs because that is where the car thrives. Good for a focused, dedicated drive, but as a day-to-day commuter, it is simply not practical to rev it all the time. The daily usage points have to be given to the GTI utterly and completely – the GTI’s low-end torque is so suitable for the city, its fuel consumption is so much better than the Golf R’s and best of all, it can do 90% of what the Golf R can achieve.
For that last word in handling prowess and grip, the Golf R trumps the GTI with its AWD 4MOTION system that works brilliantly to put the power down. It’s a shame then that the car still doesn’t feel as extreme as it should be. I always thought the R badge is the zenith of all VW sports cars, the kind that should make you amazed and maybe even scared. But the Golf R feels like a grand tourer car – relaxed, refined, comfortable and extremely capable – but ultimately, not exciting enough. But that’s just me.