Volkswagen Golf R 2017 review: weekend test
A car that is great big barrels of fun and that has room for the whole family? Sounds too good to be true, right? Wrong. What it sounds like is the Volkswagen Golf R
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August 21, 2018
$20,500 - $70,584
Based on 2031 car listings in the last 6 months
Malcolm Flynn is spending the first of our three months with the Golf R wagon Grid Edition carrying his two babies and then some around. He’ll then pass the R hat to Matt Campbell and James Cleary for a month each to see how it deals with our vastly different needs.
Don’t you just hate secret overachievers? You know the type; you think you’re doing pretty well in this life, then along comes someone who just seems to do everything that little bit better, and easier, and they don’t even feel the need to boast about it.
Think designer glasses and impeccably crafted sideburns below stylishly greying temples. Or a member of either gender who’s able to get away with activewear at the supermarket. They manage to stay chipper through the working week despite their surprisingly well-paying job being dreary as, because they also get up at 4:00am every day to train for triathlons.
You just know they’ll crack one day, hopefully.
The MkVII Golf R has always struck me as a similar character, doing an amazing job as an everyday hatch but hiding stonking performance behind a sharp-but-timid exterior that only those in the know will get excited about.
The fact that you can now get the Golf R with wagon practicality, which only adds 70kg and $2000, is a bit like realising our above friend also spends a month each year volunteering for charity. How do they manage it?
But you don’t have to resent the Golf R wagon like you might Mr or Mrs Activewear as you peer at them through your Venetian blinds, you can buy it and give yourself a slice of a better life. Is this what those expensive refrigerated juices refer to as ‘wellbeing’?
The wagon’s extra weight only costs two-tenths of a second from the 0-100km/h claim, which now reads 5.0s, and adds just 0.1L/100km to the official combined fuel consumption figure, which is now 7.3. Both are pretty amazing considering the former is generally detrimental to the latter, and we can’t think of a faster wagon on the market this side of a $102,900 Audi S4 Avant. The VW’s claim is only three-tenths slower to 100km/h and half the price!
Like most of us, I really like the sound of cheap performance. So I was stoked when I learned that our Golf R wagon is the new ‘stripper’ Grid Edition special, which foregoes the leather trim, Active Info display and the bigger 9.2-inch multimedia display you find in the regular R.
This nets a $5500 saving, with a list price of just $51,990. Could it be a better way to spend your $50k-ish than a top-spec CX-5?
The Grid Edition is left with grippier cloth-and-Alcantara seats and a 8.0-inch multimedia system with a slightly less slick navigation interface, but scores black mirror caps and roof rails, along with a Grid Edition tailgate badge.
Our white Grid Edition arrived with just 932km on the clock, and putting our layperson hat on, if it weren’t for the wheels, quad exhaust tips and R-specific front bumper, you could easily fool most people that it’s a regular little white wagon. Not a 5.0-second 0-100km/h, all-wheel-drive rocket.
It’s so subtle it looks no more aggro than a base Polo from the front (and obviously more so from the back), with really just the R grille badge to alert those not in the know.
Job number one for the Grid Edition was to fit my two baby seats in the back. Mr 19 months is now forward facing, while Miss two months goes on the passenger side in the rear-facing position. This was a snack with the ISOFIX mounts, and I feel they only added to the cool factor, like fitting a set of Thule bike racks to the roof. In my mind, at least.
One of the big arguments for an SUV as a family car is the ease in which you can load and unload children from child seats. I’m pretty short at 172cm, though, so therefore don’t have to bend down too far, and the Golf’s flat roofline helps to leave a decent space above the top tether strap for a rear-facing baby seat.
There also seems to be the same room for a front seat passenger with a rear-facing child seat behind it as a CX-5, so take that Australia’s best-selling SUV. It does miss out on the Tiguan’s sliding back seat, so it’s not quite as good as VW’s equivalent mid-size SUV in this regard.
One nice surprise is the multiple configurations of the cargo blind, with the usual horizontal slide complemented by a vertical net that can be attached to the ceiling behind the rear seats, but also behind the front seats when the back seats are folded.
The Golf wagon’s extra 317mm of length is all behind the rear wheels, and is therefore used to boost cargo space. Seats up, it’s a full 262 litres larger at 605 litres, and seats down it somehow expands by 387 litres to a 1620-litre total. An easy match for most mid-size SUVs and bigger than quite a few.
A family picnic saw us need to carry our pram, umbrella stroller and two folding camp chairs in addition to the two babies and their usual bags of gear, and it was just fantastic to see them all fit under the cargo blind in the back and therefore maintain full driver visibility.
Another weekend adventure saw us need to fit our twin stroller and the wheel off my sister-in-law’s Toyota Avalon for a puncture repair, and the two of those fit like they were designed to be there also.
So it certainly suits my needs from a practicality standpoint, but it’s also a very welcoming machine to walk out to from a driver’s perspective.
Its low-slung seating position and centre of gravity make it feel so much more nimble than an SUV. It’s a bit like how the classic Australian ute could carry a big load but still feel like a car; the Golf R wagon proves you can get the family job done and still have a proper driving machine.
My opportunities to enjoy all 213kW have been few and far between with the two treasures in the back, but I can conclusively say that its proven performance doesn’t detract from the everyday around-town experience.
Another plus is the fact that its R-specific bumpers are still discreet enough that they didn’t catch on any driveways or speed bumps during our month.
We rounded off our Golf R time with a weekend trip from the Blue Mountains to Canberra with the kids and loaded with luggage to the hilt. Once we were there, we also needed to squeeze in a fifth occupant for a quick trip around town, and I drew the short straw to sit between the baby seats in the back.
I thought this situation was cosy with the CR-V we had before the R, but its was almost impossible to get in there, and VERY uncomfortable with the VW. I haven’t got the most diminutive of frames these days, but unless the short strawee is a ballet dancer, I’d consider the Golf a four seater when two child seats are fitted.
This Canberra run saw us record a very impressive 6.9L/100km at the pump after the three hour trip. Remember, this was fully loaded in a car wearing a 5.0-second 0-100 claim…
Over the 2081km we covered in total, our overall average fuel consumption figure was 8.75L/100km, which puts it second only to the CR-V and ahead of the Escape, Tiguan and CX-5 long-term tests I’ve completed of late. Yes, the R does need a minimum of 95RON Premium unleaded, but so do all Golfs, and remember this one’s 5.0-second claim!
This average fuel consumption also reinforces the unsung value of turbochargers in performance applications. If you’re not pushing it, it’s just another 2.0-litre engine. If it were the 3.2-litre V6 that VW used to use in the R, that average number would be a fair bit bigger.
Another surprise was how little brake dust buildup developed on the wheels. This used to be a royal pain with VW products, so it looks like there’s been a great leap in brake-pad material technology.
Niggles are few and far between in my book, with the number one bugbear being the blue instrument needles which do a great job of disguising the high beam indicator when they’re in use, which means maximum vigilance is necessary to avoid dazzling oncoming traffic.
The R wagon still misses out on the hatch’s special tail lights, but at least it’s less noticeable than it was because the regular Golf wagon lights are now sexy LED units. The illuminated sills are also limited to just the front doors.
Looking for actual reasons why not to buy the Grid Edition over a more obvious family car, those 19-inch tyres won’t be cheap to replace and the bigger brake pads will command a premium over regular Golf units. You’d expect it to be more expensive to service too, but based on Volkswagen’s capped servicing price list, the Golf R will actually cost you $40 less than a 110 TSI wagon over the first three services to total $1201.
Like all Golfs there’s a spacesaver spare under the boot floor, but at least it’s not a can of goo or runflats.
But really, it’s the best case of having your cake and eating it on four wheels I’ve seen.
Well, for my everyday needs, that is. What say you, Matt?
Acquired: May 2018
Distance travelled this month: 2081km
Average fuel consumption for May/June: 8.75L/100km (measured at the pump)
A family wagon isn't at the top of my shopping list, but after a month of 'ownership' of the Volkswagen Golf R wagon, it's now well and truly up there on my wish list.
I didn't want to hand over the keys to the next custodian. I wanted to keep it, for ever and ever and ever. I enjoyed almost everything about the car during my time with it, and that's despite the fact that I really don't need anything bigger than the Volkswagen up! I usually run around in.
To paint the picture for you, my family consists of myself, partner Gemma, our two dogs Joey and Ziggy, and our axolotl, Albert. We obviously don't take the Mexican walking fish many places with us, but the dogs don't mind the occasional road trip. Ziggy is prone to travel sickness, so I didn't take him in the Golf R, mainly because I couldn't trust myself behind the wheel of it.
So there will be no double pram test in this section of our review. I didn't attach child seats, I didn't need to worry about whether the boot floor is flat to make nappy changes easy.
My time in the Golf R wagon was more indulgent, more hedonistic. I spent most of my time alone in this car - be it on my 160km-round-trip commute, running to the shops, or going for a spin just for the hell of it, in between reviewing other cars.
It's that kind of car - the sort where, even if you could walk, you'll drive. And you'll have to allow extra time, because you'll want to go the long way.
The traction is immense, the engine is monstrous, the transmission cuts through the gears with a level of intuition unmatched even by my brain teamed to a manual gearbox, and the sound is fantastic in Race mode - even if it is partly artificial. I loved the almost-boxer rumble it had, and that's from a WRX tragic.
In many ways I thought of this as a sort of spiritual successor to my old 1998 GC8 Subaru WRX hatch, which I've missed every day since I sold it back in 2005. Admittedly that car was manual, and the Golf R Grid we had was auto. But commonalities include AWD, superb grippiness, and silly speed.
Sure, it mightn't turn heads like my WRX (which was on 18-inch chromies, had a pod filter, blow-off valve and a 3.5-inch turbo-back exhaust to a 8.0-inch barrel cannon tip... on an angle, of course), but it also has a damn sight more elegance to it, with an appearance that doesn't look out of place parked out the front of a high-end hotel. The plain-ish white paint mightn't be to all tastes - particularly if you're an extrovert - but I found that in combination with the LEDs and big 19-inch alloys, it was glorious. I really liked having it parked in my driveway.
It didn't use as much juice as my old modified Rexxy did - I was lucky to get 15 litres per hundred in that car, because I was wringing its neck more often than not. But in the Golf R, I saw 7.7L/100km during commute duties, and about 10L/100km for more spirited drives.
I found myself pondering with my imaginary bank account, "would I buy this, or the Audi RS4?".
Now, I've heard some media colleagues describe the Golf R as too clinical, lacking character, not involving enough or not exciting enough. But if driving this sporty wagon doesn't make your neck hairs stand on end, or make you smile so much your face hurts, then you've clearly got some interesting habits outside of work hours.
For this much money, I can't think of a more practical, performance-oriented model. I mean, I found myself pondering with my imaginary bank account, "would I buy this, or the Audi RS4?".
And even with pretend money, I'd probably choose the Golf R, because you don't need to find the perfect road to have fun. And because I'd spend the other hundred thousand make-believe monies on something else to park next to it... or a few other things, in fact.
But my time in the Golf R Grid wasn't all love letters and passionate poems. I missed not having memory seats or electric seat adjustment, and because I had it during the depths of winter, I found myself wishing for heated seats. In that case, then, I'd probably not get the Grid. I'd get the regular Golf R wagon.
But I can assure you that if you need to move up to five adults comfortably and quickly, you'll be able to do so in the Golf wagon. It's a bit bigger than you might think inside, given its compact exterior dimensions: at 4580mm long, 1757mm wide and 1447mm tall, this is about the same length as a Mazda CX-5, but is narrower and sits quite a lot lower to the ground.
Even so, you've got a massive boot capacity to play with - easily enough to deal with a weekend's worth of luggage.
Over the past decade of being a motoring writer, I don't know that I've come across a car with the same breadth of talent as the Volkswagen Golf R wagon. If you want it to be a weapon, it will be. If you need a practical and roomy weekend driver, it will oblige. And perhaps the most impressive element is that it is just so usable in day-to-day driving, that if I did need a car for my potential future family (of actual humans), I would definitely be looking at the Golf R wagon.
Acquired: May 2018
Distance travelled this month: 904km
Average fuel consumption for June/July: 8.92L/100km (measured at the pump)
Some disclosure up-front; the Cleary family loves a wagon. And for the past 15 years or so, we've managed to resist the surging popularity of SUVs to stick with a wagon as truckster of choice.
So, the opportunity to run the final, month-long leg of this long-term test relay was a no-brainer.
The last time I sat behind the wheel of a Volkswagen Golf R wagon was in late 2017, on its home turf, running from Berlin in Germany’s east, to Frankfurt, roughly 550km to the south-west.
The highlight was a maximum velocity of 269km/h (five-up) on the autobahn, as that car was optioned with a ‘Performance Pack’ which included the removal of the standard 250km/h speed limiter.
No such shenanigans this time, of course. But all the positives from that blast, interspersed with twisting B-road excursions, immediately reasserted themselves.
With maximum torque (380Nm) available from just 1850rpm, all the way to 5300rpm, the 2.0-litre turbo-petrol four is a gem - willing, responsive and strong. And the seven-speed ‘DSG’ dual-clutch auto is a perfect pairing.
Earlier VW DSGs had a habit of going into near-paralysis if they sensed pressure on the accelerator and brake at the same time - intensely annoying for left-foot brakers. And calibration of the standard shift mode was too eco-focused, while Sport was overly aggressive.
But happily, that’s all history, and I must admit to driving much of the time in Sport mode and with the stop-start system off (more on that later). Even weaving through heavy traffic was a pleasure thanks to the DSG’s ability to seamlessly pick up a lower gear and hang on to it for just the right amount of time. It’s so good that manual changes (super-sharp) were reserved for special occasions only.
The R is just such fun to steer, with enough mid-range punch to lift even the most mundane drive. And the taut chassis is a perfect dynamic match, with the nicely weighted steering combining accuracy and good road feel.
If you get the bit between your teeth and decide to really press on, the exhaust joins in with an entertaining array of rasps, pops and bangs. But I’m not a fan of the synthetic ‘Soundaktor’ enhancement that pumps up the sound inside the cabin. It’s kind of like your childhood self discovering the stork doesn’t really deliver babies. Confusing and vaguely disappointing.
The price you pay for all that sporty responsiveness is 12.9L/100km, which is the figure I recorded over just under 400km of city, surburban and freeway running. And that’s against a claimed combined cycle figure of 7.3L/100km.
No surprise, given that in ‘Sport’ the transmission rarely moves above fourth around town, and is so willing to pluck lower gears.
So, to balance the scales we drove 270km in full-on grey-power mode – stop/start activated, modest step-off from standstill, and with greasy smooth accelerator, brake and steering inputs.
That resulted in a few things. Firstly, 9.6L/100km, which isn’t too shabby for largely city, peak-hour commuting. But secondly, the realisation that the start/stop system occasionally cuts the engine before the car’s come to a full stop.
That causes the wheel to twist, not far but abruptly, with the loss of power assistance increasing the load. Not a nice feeling.
And on the subject of annoying niggles, here are a couple more.
There’s a USB port in the covered storage area in front of the shifter, which is good because Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support is standard. What’s not so terrific is the jack’s deep, left-aligned location which requires placing the input lead in the tips of your figures before awkwardly shoving it in. Extra frustrating if you’ve lost the 50/50 bet on which way around the plug should be.
Then there’s the headrests. Again, great that they’re there. No one likes whiplash injuries. But if they’ve been raised, lowering them back down can, ironically, be a pain in the neck.
In their wisdom, Volkswagen’s safety and design boffins decided to put a detent button at the base of each post supporting the head restraint cushion. While that securely locks things in place, it means you need two hands to free up the mechanism, and you find yourself shoving the headrest back down with your forehead like a demented bull slowing aiming up at a matador.
But that’s the end of the negatives. Living with the ‘Discover Pro’ multimedia system, that arrived with the ‘7.5’ refresh in mid-2017, is like moving from the dark ages into the light. Even though this Grid Edition's flat screen is slightly smaller than the full-fat R's (8.0- vs 9.2-inch), it still looks cool and the interface is satisfyingly intuitive.
We’re a family of five, and there’s plenty of room up front, and just enough space for the kids (one at 17, and 11-year-old twins) width-wise in the back. Sitting behind the driver’s seat, set for my 183cm position, I had ample head and legroom back there.
Although we didn’t exactly wear the cargo space out, occasional grocery shopping reinforced the benefits of wagon practicality, and with 605 litres on offer with the rear seats up, you could stuff a lot of milk, bread and Wheaties in there. Add in cargo tie-down points, bag hooks, plus decent lighting, and shopping becomes a whole lot easier.
There’s a special pleasure in driving an automotive Q-ship; a low-key sleeper that most ignore but those in the know tip their hat to. The Golf R wagon manages to combine cracking performance and brilliant dynamics with thoughtful design to help with day-to-day practicality
I didn’t enjoy handing back the keys.
Acquired: May 2018
Distance travelled this month: 786km
Average fuel consumption for July/August: 11.59L/100km (measured at the pump)
$20,500 - $70,584
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