I’ve never been originally a Volkswagen Golf type of petrol head. Why? Well, my mother always had a problem with Volkswagen Golfs since she crashed my dad’s Mark 1 16 valves GTI. Plus I was born and raised with what was probably the worst era of the Volkswagen Golf: the Mark 4. Thus, I never drove much Volkswagen Golfs until the Mark 7 came out. We had tested the GTI with the dual clutch DSG flappy paddles with Thomas, finding it a bit boring, probably due to the gearbox. What would have happened if we had tested it with a stick shift? Nobody knows. But when the R was presented, I got very interested. The figures speak for themselves: 300 horsepower, a 0 to 100 km/h in less than 5 seconds, four-wheel drive, a top speed over 250 km/h, and moreover, the proper manual gearbox fitted as standard. And since, whenever I have an opportunity to test drive one, I seize it.
Text: Mickael B. Images: Antoine L. ©
The Volkswagen GTI is a bit like the M3 or the 911 in a way. A benchmark, a reference for any petrol head to rely on, to compare and to judge whatever competing model. Since the Mark 1, which showed the world that a fun small sporty hatchback could exist, the GTI has ruled the world of small hatchbacks, letting competitors behind. Now though, that might not be totally true. The Mark 4 was known for being desperately heavy to a point where even its GTI version was a catastrophe. I’ve never actually driven a Mark 4 GTI and I’m not sure I would like to, because if I had to drive a Mark 4. It would be an R32. The R32 was a sort of apology from the Wolfsburg’s manufacturer to original GTI fans, to correct the errors of the GTI, and that is the only version that was worth of interest, with its characteristic barking sound.
Although, when in 2003 Volkswagen presented the Mark 5 at the International Frankfurt Motorshow, things started to get better. Finally the GTI was back, and we had a lighter, younger car, with the Mark 5 R32 leading the range. Then in 2008, the Mark 6 was presented, and was the best Volkswagen Golf ever designed, exception made of the Mark 1, which is of course the absolute reference thanks to the genius of Giorgetto Giugiaro. The big revolution though, was that no R32 version was introduced. Instead a simpler R version was presented with notable differences: the 3.2 liter original VR6 engine was replaced by a reworked version of the GTI’s 2 litre four cylinder engine, making it more nimble, more nervous than its predecessor. With 270 horsepower it was more powerful too, and still offered that very easy to drive feeling thanks to the four wheel drive transmission.
So, what about the Mark 7? Well apart from being more powerful, still offering a proper manual gearbox, all the practicality of a standard Golf, and driving easiness, what’s it really like? Sorry for being so direct, but it is awesome. The first time I drove it, it reminded me of my Audi A3 2.0 TFSI Quattro. It’s actually almost the same engine, as the evolutions since the Mark 5 2.0 litre four stroke engine have only been minimal. But of course it’s much, much better than my old Audi used to be. The Mark 7 Golf R is more nimble, more precise, and much faster than any other sports hatchback I’ve ever driven. And surprisingly fun. I mean real fun. Banana smile like fun. And that was unexpected.
Of course, if you’re looking for a week-end sports car, then I’m not sure the Mark 7 Golf R is for you, but if you’re searching for a good compromise, then without a doubt, the R’s for you. It will offer you more performances than a Renault Megane RS, without any of its drawbacks, the hard suspensions that would give you a back ache, the cheap plastic interior finish, the heavy – not traffic jam friendly at all – clutch, and the legendary under-steer permanent feeling. The Golf is civilised, comfortable, even more elegant than its Mark 6 predecessor, quiet when you want too, and yet it can endure every bad treatment on a track or on a mountain pass, proving that it can be loud too, and always asking for more. It’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde without any of the Mr. Hyde inconvenients.
The four wheel drive system works perfectly, playing with the car’s natural excellent balance to always make sure that almost every situation stays manageable for the driver. And this is where the fun comes in. It was probably the first time ever I had had some real fun in a Volkswagen Golf, which is ordinarily much more serious. It’s not the car you would imagine putting sideways, smiling like Jeremy Clarkson playing the idiot, and yet it is. The gearbox is perfectly staged, everything feels perfectly engineered and yet if there is one thing where you’ll get surprised by this car, it is how much fun it’ll be able to give you. And eventually up to four additional passengers.
Of course, it’s not cheap, but I think it is definitely worth the money if you’re searching for a fun car whatever the conditions. A car you could drive up easily every day to go to work, and after your day bring it to a mountain pass and laugh your ass off. A car you could take your girlfriend to dinner without her screaming because she’s going to break her nails because the car you bought is too low, or how much this car is incomfortable, and yet go to a track every week-end and enjoy the time with some of your friends. A car you could go to ski with in total security during winter, which could endure long hours in traffic jams, and yet floor it over 270 km/h on the German Autobahn like our colleagues from Sport-Auto.
The last point why I actually love the new Mark 7 Volkswagen Golf R is because it’s a bit of an understatement car. Nobody really notices a Volkswagen Golf. Everybody has a Golf. But the R has some small details any petrol head would notice – the four exhaust pipes, the enlarged, more aggressive, front bumper – and tell that is not just a Golf. It’s a Golf that has redefined the sports benchmarks for hatchbacks. It’s the best Golf since the original Mark 1 GTI, and certainly its best tribute to date, because it captures its essence : fun, polyvalent, understated. There’s nothing really exceptional in owning a Golf and yet, the Mark 7 Golf R makes you feel exceptional, because that’s what it is.