Some 10 odd years ago, I became acquainted with someone who owned unequivocally the most fascinating car collection I have had the pleasure of beholding in Singapore. Enjoying a fair bit of family wealth, the bachelor kept roughly five vehicles – always in black and with the same two digits on the number plate – replacing the oldest one or two annually to keep things fresh. And he had great taste: If I recall correctly, the roster at that point included an Aston Martin DB9, a Porsche 911 turbo, an Audi RS 4 Avant, a BMW X5 4.4i (the one with the coveted V8 engine) for his Labradors, and a small hatchback, either a Mini Cooper S or a Volkswagen Golf R32.
Surprisingly, with so many better options at his disposal, the last car was the one in which he showed up most often. For one simple reason: Despite having enough cash to retire many times over, he decided he ought to remain gainfully employed. And in his sales role, he had to drive out to meet clients all the time. So he wanted a set of wheels that did not attract the wrong type of attention, yet was not too much of a downgrade from his other toys.
The perfect fit?
The R32 was, then, the perfect fit. To the casual observer, it is difficult to tell the flagship model apart from the proletarian variants. Replacing the R32 at the top end since two-and-a-half generations ago, the Volkswagen Golf R continues the tradition. The current facelifted “Mark 7.5” version zips from zero to 100kmh in an absurd 4.6 seconds. The intervening badge change reflects the swopping of the original naturally aspirated 3.2-litre VR6 engine for a more fuel-efficient turbocharged 2-litre in-line four. But why R? Because I suppose R20 doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
The Americans call such cars “sleepers”: a high-performance engine and uprated mechanicals wrapped by an unassuming body. But I prefer the more evocative British nomenclature, the “Q car”, a nod to the so-called Q-ships deployed by the wartime Royal Navy, which were in fact heavily armed merchant vessels designed to lure submarines into making surface attacks where they were more vulnerable to return fire.
Few exterior styling cues betray the R’s provenance. The badges, quad tailpipes and matt-chrome wing mirror housings are the more obvious tell-tale signs, but there are also bigger, fancier wheels and a revised bumper that houses larger air intakes.
Hidden underneath what remains a subtle exterior is a gem of an engine. Also found in the GTI model, here it is uprated to 290PS of power and 380Nm of torque. The task of putting all that grunt meaningfully onto asphalt (read: without the tyres spinning) lies on the shoulders of the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic mated with a Haldex all-wheel-drive system, which can send almost 100 per cent of the drive to the rear axle when the computer deems it necessary to maintain traction. The gearbox utilises a new wet clutch design, which should banish the mechatronic failures that plagued the last generation’s dry clutch setup.
It is an astounding car to drive – taking price-to-performance into account, it is probably my favourite in all of 2018. Naturally, Volkswagen has thrown all its best technologies into this top-of-the-line model, and having driven all the Golf variants currently on sale, I find the difference palpable. Stepping hard with your right foot, the acceleration is relentless. Blood rushes from one extremity to another. Then, as you corner – and this thing sticks to the ground even at stupid speeds – the G forces begin to rearrange your internal organs. Despite this extraordinary performance, unlike say the very formidable but equally brutal BMW M2, the car drives like your garden-variety 1.4-litre Golf if you want it to, with the fuel economy to (almost) match.
The Audi S3 is another option worth considering, if you are in the market for something like this. It has similar mechanicals, but clad in a more premium skin – not that the VW leaves you wanting, with decent enough specs such as LED headlights, a fully digital dashboard and a somewhat gimmicky gesture-controlled infotainment system. The Audi is also pricier by about $40,000 and a tad less discreet. Despite this, the Audi will have its own following.
If your use case is similar to my low-key friend’s – say, if you are an industrialist-cum-politician with a need to meet the electorate – the Golf R is a great little car to have in one’s arsenal. I just wished they had named it the Golf Q.
2-litre, 4-cylinder turbocharged direct-injection petrol
290PS between 5,400 and 6,500 rpm
380Nm between 1,850 and 5,300 rpm