But there’s a wrinkle, even if it’s a trifling one: some say it could be faster. To be faster, the front-drive GTI needs not just more power, but more grip, which is where the Golf R comes in.
The third-generation Golf R takes all the GTI’s strengths and adds its own signatures into the mix: nearly 300 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque from a turbocharged 2-litre engine and all-wheel drive to make use of it all.
With all that grip, the R squeezes just beneath the five-second zero-to-62mph barrier, and judging from its behaviour in northern Sweden, it can deliver a spirited sprint on virtually any surface – including a frozen lake.
While by no means a definitive testing grounds, the Swedish hinterlands turn out to be reasonably manageable for a car such as the R – so much so that to hope for more handling and performance from a hatchback seems like folly. Stretching the Golf R on ice, graded asphalt or patchy combinations thereof reveals a supremely nimble, versatile machine.
The manner of the car’s acceleration is unlike any in the segment. A sweet-sounding 2-litre is full of meaty tones, rich bellows and continuous timbre changes across the tachometer needle’s sweep. More importantly, it fairly throws the 1,476kg (3,255lbs) Golf R forward at will, from any point in the rev range.
It also spins with a freedom that belies the 1,800rpm arrival of its torque peak. Sure, that peak torque output of 280lb-ft stays around until 5,500rpm, but the engine spins out to its 6,800rpm cutoff with a verve that suggests it’s enjoying it as much as the driver is.
The dual-clutch automatic, or DSG, transmission is the go-to option for real-world driving, as it snaps through its shifts cleanly and fast, but the six-speed manual is a tidy unit in its own right and, to many enthusiasts’ minds, much truer to the hot-hatch archetype.
For a car as tautly tied down as the Golf R, a well damped ride is available at any speed. Granted, flinging it round a frozen lake can tell you only so much, but it did communicate rather unambiguously that when bidden, the R would engage in perfect all-wheel drifts. The car is clever enough to let well-meaning amateurs run close to expert drivers.
Like all Golfs, now on their seventh generation, the R takes a significant step forward by combining Volkswagen’s latest architecture with the evolved Haldex multi-plate all-wheel-drive system. But VW didn’t stop there, adopting the GTI’s progressive, variable-ratio steering system and developing a new sports suspension and a sports-oriented skid-control system that can be fully deactivated for track-day giggles.
If the R’s layout bears an uncanny likeness to that of the Audi S3 Sportback – not destined, alas, for North American shores – it’s no mystery why, as VW has spread much of the same hardware between these fraternal twins. Complete with its four-link rear suspension and strut front end, the R also carries over nearly all the dimensions of the seventh-gen Golf, including its 4,276mm (168in) overall length and 1,790mm width, but the R gets a slightly larger 55-litre fuel tank and it sits 5mm lower than the GTI.
The biggest disappointments here may be purely aesthetic. R cars receive a front apron intended to differentiate them from GTIs, but the treatment may be too subtle even for fans to spot. Still, the 18in alloy rims and the four chubby exhaust tips will help most motorists understand why they were overtaken so effortlessly.
The interior gets slightly upgrade materials over the GTI, though it retains all the GTI’s software and multi-media hardware, and most motorists should be happy sitting in one of the most supportive sports seats in the sub-$100,000-car business.
And it’s a very big upgrade over the sixth-generation Golf R. In the right conditions, when a driver needs that extra bite from the rear end, it’s also a great stride forward from the already spectacular Golf GTI. Sure, enhanced quickness and traction have their price, but for sleeper speed that catches more powerful cars flat-footed, the Golf R has no natural rivals.