Before PCOTY 2014 – before the seventh-gen VW hatchback even arrived, in fact – the
Golf R had auspiciously pinched the crown as today’s turbo all-paw small-sized cult car.
It stole it from STI and Mitsubishi Evo and did so with depth and quality as much as tech and speed. Though Audi might argue a strong case against it with its S3 Sportback, today’s Golf R is the finest performance hatch out there.
And it’s that depth and quality as much as its formidable pace that earned Golf R a solid fifth place outright.
Its pace was impressive rather than earth-shattering. A cracking sub-five (4.94sec) to 100km/h backed by a 13.21sec 400m time was a middle-order effort that, together with a swift 3.22sec march from 80 to 120km/h, showed the STI its tailpipes. Mystifyingly, though, its braking performance was the longest/worst of the field.
The STI turned the tables in the hot laps, though, marching around Winton 1.5sec quicker. Golf R’s 1:43.2 best was second-slowest of the field and – gulp – 10 seconds off the pace-setting time.
None of this, however, dampened the judges’ affections for the Golf; after all, it doesn’t pretend it’s a race car (despite its Race drive mode, the ‘R’ doesn’t stand for ‘race’, even according to VW).
Not that it’s a bad track device, mind you. Its steering is pure, it doesn’t mind a power-slide when provoked, it connects well with its pilot and, thanks to superb ergonomics, is a joy to thrash on the ragged edge.
It’s just a little softer and more compliant around its dynamic fringes than other PCOTY rivals, favouring a balance of all-round goodness over hard-edged focus. That the Golf R shines brighter in the High Country sticks on less-than-perfect road surfaces than it does on track is no surprise.
The robust flexibility of its powertrain, the compliance of its damping, and surefooted composure that begs a driver to dig deep, all yield a fantastically quick A-to-B backroad drive. For instance, the M4, which was so much quicker on track, couldn’t shake the Golf from its wheel tracks along Granya Gap Road.
On the one hand it delivers speed without the histrionics of many of its PCOTY rivals – particularly the STI – and on the other it manages to engage the driver more effectively than much of the field. It’s also very friendly in less-than-expert hands, which is a big plus given its relative affordability.
But while the Golf R’s sweet blend of goodness means it deserves its cult-car status, its lack of outright potency – as exemplified by its lap time – was the anchor preventing a higher placing.
As a car that delivers on its promise, however, the Golf R is a solid-gold winner.
January issue, out now
For the complete Performance Car of the Year story, including full performance data, check out MOTOR’s January issue, on sale now on newsstands or iPad.
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