It seems rather poignant to be getting into a Golf R at the end of a week spent reminiscing about the mercurial talents of the Evo IX. After all, cars like the R are the main reason that the Evo and STI are no longer with us; its blend of 300hp+ performance and all-wheel drive with everyday comfort and practicality meaning that the days of rally-cars-for-the-road were numbered.
Why suffer a jarring ride, constant din and cheap cabin when you can have the same performance in something eminently more usable, reliable and comfortable? Especially if you're using it to commute to work as well as for weekends. Of course, in reality that's not quite the case, as those Japanese giants of the nineties and noughties offered an experience altogether more focused and visceral than the current crop of hyper hatches, no matter how many Race or Drift modes they may boast. And yet the market has spoken, those cars are gone - from these shores at least - while the hot hatch continues to enjoy unprecedented success.
The timing of the test is in fact merely a coincidence, but it does help to put the R, and more specifically its Performance Pack upgrade, into context. Its incredible ability is in no doubt, but the Golf has always felt somewhat reserved in the way it goes about demonstrating it, delivering its power, speed and dynamism in a mightily impressive but equally businesslike manner. That was enough to beat the competition when it launched, but the goalposts have moved quite a way since then. The hope is that this upgrade can bring the R back into more direct contention with the more powerful Focus RS and more engaging Type R, and perhaps along the way add a little of the excitement that made the generation of cars it usurped so special.
For £2,300 - or an extra few pounds on your monthly payment - then, the Performance Pack comprises an 'R-Performance' brake system (saving 2kg) with silver calipers, a rear roof spoiler (providing an extra 20kg of downforce) and 19-inch 'Spielberg' alloy wheels wrapped in 235/35 tyres - though not the Pilot Sport Cup 2s the launch cars were equipped with. The electronic limiter is also removed from the Golf R's 310hp 2.0-litre engine, meaning a 166mph top speed. For an additional £2,975 an Akrapovic titanium sports exhaust can be added too - as is the case on our test car. It saves 7kg and provides a "motorsport sound" but its availability is not dependent on the Performance Pack and it could be added independently if so desired.
Pretty mild on paper and so to, it transpires, in practice. Obviously the extra 11mph at the top end is irrelevant to UK drivers, as it will likely be even to those who count a derestricted Autobahn as part of their daily route. The R's unwavering all-wheel drive traction never really felt questioned before, and with stickier rubber on the road and 20kg of additional downforce it feels even less likely to be, which will be either impressive or stifling depending on your perspective. The improved brakes are certainly welcome, though, more stopping power in a 310hp car is never a bad thing, and their more progressive feel makes slowing the circa 1,480kg car a much less binary experience than accelerating it remains.
Where this iteration of the sportiest Golf really sets itself apart, though, is with that exhaust. Thanks to active valve technology it can be quietened when needed, but turn it on and the pops, rasps and snarls go some way to imbuing the R with the sense of drama it previously lacked. In our car it also, it has to be said, imbued the interior trim with a rattle which somewhat undermined that idea of a higher quality cabin. In general though, the exhaust in tandem with pre-existing options like the Dynamic Chassis Control - allowing a change between Comfort, Normal and Race setups - seems a much better way to broadly alter the Golf R's character without sacrificing anything that it already offers.
Matt concluded his time on track in a PP-equipped DSG R by wondering whether a similarly equipped manual could be the car to fully realise its potential. But as it transpires the Performance Pack is only available on DSG equipped R's (both hatches and estates, while the exhaust is hatchback only). That's a pity as it may have been a setup which offered a little more of the engagement seemingly missing here.
It is important to remember, though, that for many people that supposed downside of the Golf R will in fact be its greatest appeal. The ability to cover ground so rapidly, with such little compromise or effort is not by any means always a bad thing - not everyone wants to heel and toe up to every junction. But that's precisely the paradox of the Performance Pack. The kind of driver who'll be looking for that extra track-focused ability may well not consider a Golf R in the first place, and for everyone else it just doesn't offer enough above the standard car to justify its cost. Do go for that exhaust, though, with everything else kept so tightly under control, its frantic aural output goes some way to reminding you just what an excellent machine the Golf R really is.
SPECIFICATION: VW GOLF R PERFORMANCE PACK
Engine: 1,984cc 4-cyl, turbo
Transmission: 6-speed manual, all-wheel drive (7-speed DSG optional)
Power (hp): 310@5,500-6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 280@2,000-5,400rpm
0-62mph: 5.1 seconds (4.6)
Top speed: 166mph
Weight: 1,483kg (to EU, with 75kg driver) (1,505kg)
CO2: 180g/km (160-163g/km)
MPG: 35.8 (NEDC combined) (39.8-40.4)
Price: £35,150 (£38,125 inc. Akrapovic exhaust)
(Figures in brackets for DSG gearbox, where different)
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