We love a hot hatch in Britain. Just look at the turnout we had for our recent best hot hatch poll. Thousands took part in the vote, which saw the Toyota GR Yaris narrowly edge the Renaultsport Clio 182 Trophy for the top spot. The top ten featured the front-wheel drive heroes – the Ford Fiesta ST, Honda Civic Type R and so on – but one stood out to me as a bit of an outlier – the Mk7 Volkswagen Golf R.
Of course, the Mk7 Golf R was always going to make our 38-car strong shortlist. Laudable straight-line performance, all-weather capabilities and the availability of a manual ‘box are all high on the hot hatch priority list. But a top ten finish - beating the GTI Performance of the same generation – goes to show just how much we love affordable(ish) performance in the UK. Something Peter Jost, head of sales and marketing at VW R, was keen to point out when we spoke at a very soggy Brands Hatch.
“The UK is the biggest market for us outside of Germany in Europe”, he said, shortly after handing the keys VW’s 10,000th Tiguan R to its new UK-based customer. So we clearly can’t get enough of the stuff, suggesting that VW R’s formula over shoving 300-odd horsepower turbo four pots into everything it can find (save for the Touareg R hybrid) is working quite nicely. The only problem for R is that it’s going to need to reinvent the formula for the end of the decade.
If the EU gets its way, all new high-volume cars produced and sold in the bloc must be powered exclusively by electric power by 2035 (unless the German transport minister and newfound PH hero gets his way). And with VW seemingly all-in on EVs regardless, that means its R division is lumped into an electric switch, too.
Jost, however, claims that the general principles of the current R line-up will remain intact following the electric switchover. “It will be all-wheel drive, the most powerful car [and] the best looking. So the philosophy of what we have today will basically also be the philosophy of in the electric world, however, it will be added with convenience, which means fast charging [and] a lot of other stuff, like things beyond the car.”
That’s all well and good – and largely what we’d expect from an EV – but VW R still faces the same challenge as many of its rivals in making the switch to electric power: how do you make it a car for drivers? While R has arguably never been a bastion for engagement, it’s made significant strides in recent years. Perhaps that’s the influence of an influx of employees from the company’s now-defunct motorsport division. Jost claims that “a lot of people” were moved from the firm’s racing squad into R, most notably those who have experience working on the mighty ID.R. Okay, so the likelihood of a mad, two-seater electric hypercar with giant wings is unlikely (though I’d love to be proven wrong on that one), but they clearly know a thing or two about making electric cars that aren’t afraid of corners.
“For us, it was important that we have all the, um, the employees”, he said of the disbanded motorsport squad. “We have all these motorsport guys. The drivers help us to develop our cars. So if we, if we develop an R model, we go to the Nurburgring Nordschleife with these drivers. They drive our cars at a very early stage - or in every development stage, actually - and give us feedback on what we can do better in terms of driving dynamics.”
Speaking of development, Jost revealed that VW R actually had a hand in shaping VW’s MEB platform, which underpins a bunch of EVs from the ID.3 to the ID. Buzz. “We are involved in a very early stage”, he said, adding that it the firm is currently working on a “successor platform” as we speak. “We are not alone in a group, so we are talking with Audi Sport, we are talking to Cupra and say, ‘let's do it together’”. Not only should that mean VW’s stablemates don’t tread on each other’s toes (which happens from time to time), but it'll hopefully mean R has a better canvas on which to create its performance EV.
What an electric R model looks like is something that the performance arm is still working on. Jost disclosed that it’d feature bigger brakes and potentially more aggressive styling, while the rest remains a closely guarded secret. Probably because there’s still the best part of a decade to go until the company moves entirely from dino juice to electrons.
I asked him whether we could see some limited-edition, hardcore offerings akin to the GTI Clubsport S as possible run-out models to the current combustion line-up. His response: “No plan so far to be honest. [...] Of course, we are thinking about all that stuff all the time. But, at the end of the day, we are a company and we have a clear task to support the Volkswagen brand to be emotional in a positive sense and to bring also money to the company.”
That’s a no, then. What did come as a surprise, however, is that R isn’t shutting the door on the internal combustion engine as soon as you might think - “the ICE world is extremely successful right now, so we also have to take a look at how fast is it going, infrastructure, what does the customer really wants and don't [want]. I'm not talking only about Europe, but also in the US, south America, Asia and so on.”
“Why not sell [ICE] cars, let's say for the next five years? Because we know exactly what we are doing and earn good money with that and [they] bring emotion to the brand. And [the company could] then go directly to, let's say the electric performance models. Both options are valid. They have their pros and cons I would say, and we haven't decided on that. One thing is for sure we will have a strong R BEV model in the future, [but] the way to zero isn't 100% defined.”
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