Every decade or so, something comes along that recalibrates a genre. It happens most often in music and films. Chvrches came along and completely revamped the electro-synth scene a few years ago (click here for a listen) and Christopher Nolan blew the heist movie template wide open with the stupendously perfect Inception (I’ll never get tired of the trailer). And when the Golf R came along in 2014, it essentially revamped the superhatch into a whole new level of performance.
I’ve managed to get my hands on a brand new 2016 R from GTI World in Edinburgh; I would have been happy with a GTI but sure, bring it on. All I know getting into the car is it has 300bhp and four-wheel drive, which seems a fairly tasty proposition to start with. I’m slightly gutted that it’s a DSG semi-automatic gearbox with paddleshift but hey ho, I probably need to stop being so bloody old school.
Mr Mark Ryan has yet again brought together an extremely special group of cars and owners for a trip down South, an additional event to the Mallaig supercar run in September. Starting at Lamborghini Edinburgh, the destination would be Beamish Museum in Hexham; a fairly odd place to find a group of supercars, but right up my street.
Once I’m comfortable in the Golf, the first thing I notice is the beautifully weighted steering. I expected it to have numb, city-light steering that is more suited to my Mum trying to park her Fiesta at the local Sainsbury’s. Instead the R has a wonderful weight to its steering, the heaviest I’ve experienced in a hatchback for a long time. This immediately instils a level of trust between me and the car; I feel like I’ll be able to put the car where I want, when I want with absolute certainty. And considering I’m surrounded by machines with upwards of 400 horsepower, I’m more than happy to have that level of communication from the car.
As we set off, like it was in the Mallaig run, I’m following a Ferrari 355 down to Kelso on the A68, and blimey does that thing howl through the gears. With a cat-back system in place, that Italian V8 is screaming its way through the Scottish Borders, forcing me to keep my window a sliver open to take in the crescendo of prestigious combustion. The Golf R can still hold its head very high in the soundtrack stakes; for a 2-Litre four-cylinder engine it has a satisfying grumble that would tickle the fancy of the majority of petrolheads my age, along with a surprisingly prominent turbocharger waste gate choo that sends a smile creeping up my face in admiration.
After a small lunch break at Roxburghe Castle, we descend a few more miles South and into the Kielder Forest, a true haven of British motoring pleasure. And just to throw things massively in the four-wheel drive Golf’s favour, it starts to rain. Although the VW acts like a normal front-driven up until this point, the R suddenly turns into a whole new beast. Along with engaging sport mode (which kicks the DSG down to the optimum gear to find the maximum torque), I begin to pick off car after car. The V12 Astons and flat six Porsches begin to squirm all over the shop and they don’t stand a chance against the little hatchback as it cements all 300bhp into the soggy tarmac and sends me flying up the pack, much to the alarm especially of an Aston Martin Vanquish owner.
And with clear road ahead of me, I am able to really drive this thing. The front-bias all-wheel drive makes the Golf R one of the most capable car’s I’ve ever been behind the wheel of. You can send it into a corner pretty much as hot as you like and – as long as you aren’t an idiot with the brakes – you can plant the throttle early on to maximise the grip and carry that all important speed out of the bends.
For what is essentially a family hatchback, the damping control and sheer composure that the R also has in places where supercars have to be so treacherous is really a new level of performance for the money. The whole package reminds me of a more refined, modern, well-made equivalent of the Lancia Delta Integrale. Dynamically, they are extremely similar, with the only real difference being power. The Golf has a little more poke over the Delta and much more linear turbocharging which is actually less fun, in my opinion.
However, I cannot deny the way the car gets down the road and after catching up with the lead pack consisting of a mint Ferrari 360 (apart from a flapping floor pan) and a unique matte black Lotus Evora S, both drivers deliver a nod of respect to the four-door superhatch during a stint on a dual carriageway. And that’s a thought that keeps coming back to me when I have a chance to glance around the functional but classically Germanic interior. This little car – that can accelerate to 60mph in under 5 seconds – is still a Golf. It is the quintessential family car that has dominated its sector since 1974. Sure, it’s never been the best looking small car – the Germans have always lacked the fluency of design of the French and the Italians – but every performance variant has come along and set a new standard of hot hatch performance.
After getting predictably rejected from the Beamish Hall Hotel ‘supercar’ parking area (that’s two years running now), I manage to squeeze in a bit of work and admin before descending into the bar for a decent meal and a whole tonne of car chat. It’s not long before my blogger-self starts to take hold however and I am suddenly on the scout for extremely kind-hearted supercar owners for possible future tests…more news on the results of my efforts soon. I must give a shout out to Graham and Marielle for accompanying me as the ‘youngsters’ of the trip; you’re both legends and an exceptionally cool couple. Keep it up.
Arriving at Beamish Museum the following day, I’m suddenly launched back to P6 camp when the tram rolls up the road, only this time I’m wondering how much horsepower one of those railed babies has instead of which girl to sit beside. It just so happens that it is the 100th anniversary of The Somme, hence the frequent clank of steel-heeled boots as men adorned in full World War One trench warfare kit march past on the cobbled streets. Unfortunately, I can’t stay long so I get my fix of steam powered machinery and jump back in the Golf for the return journey.
I just so happen to pick what seems like Sunday Driver Happy Hour once I reach the A68. Torrents of campervans, Vauxhall Zafiras and Volvos saturate the northern English countryside but all this really does is test the Golf’s appetite and ability to overtake anything and everything it comes up against (safely of course). With sport mode engaged, you are a paddle flick and a brush on the throttle away from blasting past the sudden influx of V40s as you’re instantly flung into the peak of the engine’s torque band.
The transmission is proving a difficult one; it is ridiculously quick and seamless in operation but I feel there needs to be a happy medium. In its standard driving mode, the kick down just isn’t as instant as I’d want it to be which can leave you hanging a bit if you don’t bother using the paddles. In sport mode however, it can become annoying just how high revving the engine suddenly becomes and then it just so happens to sit there until you manually take it back out of the driving mode. I wish VW could introduce the violent kick down of sport mode but with the automatic ratio-changing ability of the standard mode if the overtake isn’t on. Then again, I’m picky with my gearboxes, being a massive manual nerd and all. A satisfying bark comes from the transmission after each gear change, something I’ve heard from AMG Mercs and Beamers. Even though it’s synthesised and programmed in there, I most definitely approve as it gives something back to the driver in terms of tangibility when the gear change is a simple half centimetre click of a paddle.
Driving with effortless pace back across the border, with the rolling Scottish fields filled with sheep flicking by at a whole new rate, the Golf R definitely cements itself into my heart as one of the greatest cars I’ve managed to get my hands on. Although it’s rare that I pick a god-awful vehicle to take on trips like these, the quality of product that I have under me for this trip is a genuine highlight of my motoring life thus far. I think a big part of that is the sheer accessibility of the performance available. 300bhp seems just right in terms of being able to keep your foot on the floor for a decent amount of time without getting yourself into too ridiculous a situation. It is blisteringly quick when it needs to be but isn’t quick enough to get someone with my driving experience into what my mum would call ‘a tizz’. And considering the potential change in conditions that can occur on any driving trip based in the UK, the all-wheel drive can quite easily make the R the quickest car on any given road.
Looking at the super hatch market, it’s a massive shame that the Ford Focus RS and Honda Civic Type-R have come along and effectively made the Golf R look like the less inviting package. They are very much quarterbacks to the Golf’s wide receiver persona…I know very little about ‘football’ so I don’t know why I just used that analogy. Basically, it’s going to be one hell of a fight for VW to bring the R back on terms with the poster boys in the market that it used to have almost completely to itself when first launched. It is almost the sleeper of the trio considering how brash the Ford and Honda are with their wings and grills. And in a way, I think I like that, even being a 22-year-old who loves a good side skirt. Give me a manual gearbox and a re-programmed transmission setting and it would make it into the dream garage as the run-around. A contemporary Integrale. A true modern great.
A massive thank you must go to Dean Goodfellow at GTI World in Edinburgh for lending me the car for the weekend, the customer service he provides is of the highest calibre. Check out the latest cars he has in stock here.
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