When it comes to all-wheel drive hot hatches, the Mk7 Golf R has ruled the roost almost since launch. Critical claim and sales figures aside, it is a measure of the car's success that is has been mercilessly copied - most notably by BMW and Mercedes in the last lifecycle. Yet despite being the oldest and arguably the most sensible offering in the segment, the outgoing R somehow retained its special sauce. It was very popular, and lauded right up to retirement.
That fact has not escaped Volkswagen's notice. Much like the Mk8 GTI, the new model is less about wholesale changes - the MQB platform, 2.0-litre EA888 motor and 50:50 torque-split all-wheel-drive system are all retained - and more about detailed revisions designed to enhance the driving experience. These include shorter gear ratios for the seven-speed DSG and the addition of a new rear drive unit alongside a revised 320hp output.
As you might expect, the Nordschleife has been the location for much of the development work, and like the Mk7 GTI Clubsport S, the car now gets a Nurburgring-specific setting under 'sport' mode. This was also used to fine tune the rear drive unit, which can send up to 100 per cent of the axle's torque to one wheel, either to improve agility or - for the first time in a VW-badged machine - enable a new 'drift' mode.
Despite only a modest gain in horsepower, the engineers claimed to have extracted more performance from other components. The DSG's gearshifts are said to be quicker than before and 310lb ft of torque is available between 2,000 to 4,500rpm, meaning there's more mid range delivery for longer. Moreover the driveline software and ESP system have also been completely reconfigured so twist is sent rearwards at a higher rate in all modes, delivering a sharper turn in and reduced understeer. In VW's digital briefing, works driver Benny Leuchter told PH that anyone confident with the throttle can "go into oversteer" on demand - though its most yaw-capable setting is preserved for the 'drift' mode.
At the front, the wheels get 1.2 degrees of negative camber and a stiffer, 3kg-lighter aluminium front subframe. The springs are 10 per cent firmer all round, as well, and the brakes - 375mm discs and two-piston calipers at the front - save 600g on each side compared to their predecessors. These are accompanied by a bigger master cylinder for easier modulation, so you can more effectively brake to the limit without engaging the ABS. PH was told that Leuchter's lap, a 7:51 which is 19 second faster than the old R's, resulted in no fade whatsoever.
As you might expect, 'Nurburgring' mode mimics the exact settings used for that lap - but to get the full spec, customers will need to upgrade from the standard 18s to optional 19-inch Estoril alloys, complete with Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres. Predictably there is still a 'Race' mode, best suited to track days on flatter circuits. The R retains the same steering ratio as the new GTI - 14.1 from centre and 2.1 turns lock-to-lock - said to be the best compromise for stability at speed.
Elsewhere the new R receives more prominent aero features, focused on the splitter and rear wing, to reduce lift at either end. Leuchter claimed that alongside a more responsive, situation-adjustable driveline, it means that "if you enter the corner a little bit too fast, you just need to power on and you'll make it around". Sounds rather good, doesn't it? Certainly Volkswagen is promising a car that's easier to drive at its limit.
Expect to find top-grade interior tech and driver assistance features on the inside and the return of popular cost-option extras, including the Akropovic twin-pipe exhaust system you can see in the pics. The ultimate aim, VW says, is to build on the famed all-round usability of its range-topper while overidding its sensible-shoes reputation with a bit more driver excitement. Given the impressive quality of recent arrivals, we've high hopes for the R division's new headliner.
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