Volkswagen Golf R-Line is still the gold standard for small hatchbacks
It seems that a trendy thing to do among German car manufacturers is to take your respected and evocative performance brand and use it to sell dress-up kits on lesser cars.
All the cool kids are doing it. BMW slaps an "M" on anything with a body kit, Audi slathers a surreptitious "S" over many SUVs and hatches by way of its S-Line stuff and Mercedes now tries to convince us a V6 from a normal production line is an AMG unit that deserves to sit alongside the hand-assembled powerplants.
The less cool kids always try to emulate their heroes, so Volkswagen also gives it a go by leveraging the iconic R badge: as seen on the Golf R32, Passat R36, the crazy Touareg R50 and the Polo R WRC rally car.
The "R-Line" specification has been around for a while on a number of cars in the VW range, but now it would seem the company has decided to go even more blatant with the launch of the latest Golf R-Line.
Topping the standard Golf range at $43,390 (not counting the GTI and R performance variants of course) the R-Line cops most of the sexy exterior add-ons that the full-fat Golf R boasts (a body kit, rear spoiler, 18-inch alloys, trapezoidal exhausts, LED taillights), but instead of a fire-breathing 220kW/400Nm engine, the R-Line just sticks with the same 110kW/250Nm powerplant as the Golf Highline.
As well as the more aggressive exterior look, the R-Line also gets sports suspension, sports seats, rear privacy glass, and shift paddles on the steering wheel - on top of the standard equipment of the Highline.
Once upon a time, not all that long ago, VW shook up the small-hatch market by brutally hacking away at the Golf's price and setting it up as the segment leader in terms of equipment and value for money. But it doesn't quite have its own way any more.
The recently released and equally European Holden Astra is a massively good car that is both well-equipped and sharply priced, for example.
But while the Golf's lead has been eroded, its superb class-leading handling has not.
The Astra has upped Holden's game considerably in the handling and fun department, but the Golf still has a distinctive edge that has always made it a little bit special.
The confident, planted feel that it has in virtually every situation; the eager, razor-sharp turn in; the beautifully weighted, chatty steering and, of course, that brilliantly responsive chassis that feels like the Golf is wanting to cock an inside-rear wheel under aggressive cornering.
The R-Line's 110kW engine may not pack the head-kicking wallop of the R's 220kW engine (not by a long shot), but it packs more than enough grunt to have plenty of fun on a winding backroad with.
In fact, you could even make the argument that the much lower-powered FWD car is more fun to punt from corner to corner than the effortlessly powerful and endlessly confident AWD R. You probably wouldn't be right, but you could certainly make the argument.
Let's get to the elephant in the room. That radioactively bright yellow elephant - the colour.
While the searing golden-yellow of our test car certainly wouldn't be our choice, it is the new "hero" colour for the Golf R-Line. And it certainly did attract attention and comment. Not all of it positive.
But because it is a VW, you can still buy it in silver, you will be pleased to know.
While the competition has caught up to Volkswagen's aggressive pricing, at $44k the Golf R-Line is still an impressive amount of car for the money. A comfortable and beautifully built interior, those extra-sharp looks thanks to the R-Line add-ons, the eager, flexible engine and that sublime handling all conspire to keep the Golf at the head of the pack.
Not by as much as it used to be, though; for example, the recently released Hyundai i30 offers similar specification and is considerably quicker.
But the Golf still manages to hang on by the skin of its searingly yellow teeth... for now.