Volkswagen's facelifted Golf R may be too civilised for a 290hp, 4.6-second racer
R is for refined The facelifted Volkswagen Golf R boasts daytime-running lights that double as turning winkers. ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

The hot hatch of old is dead. In its place is a performance car for all seasons - a practical family workhorse, a power symbol in the company carpark and, of course, a booming pocket rocket to burn some serious rubber with.

Volkswagen's current-generation Golf R is one such new-age hottie. It has just been facelifted, with the most prominent changes to the headlights. For efficiency, its daytime-running lights double as turning winkers - another wonder of LEDs.

Its 2-litre turbo engine has been tuned up to make 290hp, which is 10 more than before, and available from a slightly lower engine speed. Torque remains unchanged at 380Nm but, strangely, available from a higher rpm.

The car gets a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, rather than the six-speeder in the pre-facelift car.

Apparently, this has allowed it to shave 0.4 second off its century-sprint time, which now stands at 4.6 seconds. Frankly, it does not feel as quick at the wheel, but it is still easily the first car from the lights on most occasions.

Driven with verve (and in sport mode), the all-wheel-drive Golf R is a blast. Its transmission flows from one cog to the next in a civilised manner. Maybe too civilised.

Yet, the result is just as impressive, with the car hurtling from point to point swiftly, rather than menacingly.

With torque going to all four wheels instead of only the front, any tendency for histrionics is further muted. Its steering, however, is very quick, with a delicious hint of twitchiness.

The chassis is firmly sprung, so there is hardly any body roll around sharp bends and high-speed stability is excellent. Ride quality, however, is compromised as a result - especially for those in the second row.

In sport mode, the exhaust note rises in volume, with throaty blips on downshifts - a rare reminder of the car's pedigree and prowess.

Even then, the car cannot be described as ballistic on most days. Its suspension aside, it comes across as being a tad too velvety.

Yet, anyone looking in will see an R-rated racer, with an aggressive lower-bumper grille flanked by flaring side intakes. At the back, quad pipes peek out and, above them, a rarefied R badge that says "don't mess with me".

In many ways, the car lives up to the image. But it is also a car with a coasting function - not something you would expect in the most lethal Golf variant ever. Then again, why not?

Ultimately, its high refinement makes it the perfect machine for boy-racers who have grown up.

Alas, there is now a rival, and from Volkswagen's sister brand Seat no less.

The Seat Leon Cupra also has 290hp and 380Nm to its name, with the same drivetrain as the Golf R. Its performance, however, is a shade off the Golf R's (at least on paper), but its significantly lower price makes it a tempting proposition for those who are not brand snobs.