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Not one but two hot Volkswagen R models have arrived virtually at the same time. One is the Golf R, with all-wheel drive to channel its power to the road. The other is this, the Scirocco R.

Unlike Volkswagen’s previous R models (such as the Golf R32), these use four-cylinder turbo engines rather than V6s. That means their drivetrain layout is more similar to the models that spawn them – in this case the regular Scirocco GT 2.0 TSI – than was previously the case.

What impresses us so much about the regular Scirocco is not just how much it does right, but how precious little it does wrong. When we road tested it in September 2008, we were struck by its all-round dynamic ability, coupled to a spaciousness that few cars of its class can match and a price within a whisker of its Golf GTI sister model, despite the coupé being a more compelling driving companion.

Question is, though, is the hottest Scirocco more engaging than not only the fastest Golf but also the rest of a very competitive array of hot hatch and small coupé rivals?

Volkswagen has made subtle changes to the Scirocco’s appearance, enhancing its muscularity without having to make alterations to the metalwork, a task presumably made easier by the fact that it must have known during development of the cooking model that it was later going to produce a hot variant. To our eyes it’s a successful look but one that will not be hard to replicate for owners of lesser Sciroccos, which can’t be said of, say, the Focus RS.

The R sits lower and wider than standard but the difference is in springs and wheels; as with the body, the metalwork of the front MacPherson struts and multi-link rear suspension is unchanged.

Power comes from the VW Group’s 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine, in what is widely known as ‘S3’ form. It’s the EA113 engine from the Mk5 Golf GTI rather than the newer EA888 engine that powers the Mk6 GTI. With its strong iron block, this engine is used in all of the group’s 2.0-litre turbo cars producing this level of power.

The Scirocco R puts 261bhp and 258lb ft through its front wheels, and does without a mechanical limited-slip differential, instead using VW’s XDS electronic diff. Transmission is optionally by DSG dual-clutch ’box or, as standard and tested here, a six-speed manual.

Don’t get hung up on the 0-60mph time. Admittedly our recorded time of 6.5sec doesn’t look hugely impressive, but there are a few things you need to understand before dismissing the Scirocco R. First, it faced the worst possible conditions for acceleration runs: not fully wet, but greasy. Second, the Scirocco R tags the limiter in second at 58mph.

Instead, consider the 0-100mph time, which at 13.7sec matches that of the Mégane RS 250. Negate the effect of unfavourable conditions by looking at the 30-100mph interval and the Scirocco R is 0.5sec quicker than the Renault, which is in turn 0.2sec quicker than the Focus RS.

So it is fast, but also flexible. Compared with the regular 2.0-litre TSI Scirocco, which is remarkably linear for a turbocharged engine, there is more a pronounced power band. The boost starts to build from 2200rpm, before really getting into its stride at 2500rpm. And yet the R’s engine remains impressively tractable, producing no histrionics if you slot fifth gear from as low as 20mph.

Similarly, the engine is happy working at the top end of the rev range. Although torque starts dropping off from 5000rpm, and power from 6000rpm, the Scirocco R will happily rev to its 6500rpm red line without ever feeling breathless.

The soundtrack we were less convinced about, initially at least. Compared with the Focus RS, the Scirocco R is somewhat well behaved, with none of the fireworks of the Ford. It has a rather pleasant rasp, and under load from low revs it whooshes a little, but we were expecting more. But then we lived with the Scirocco R for a little longer and its voice started to make sense. There is just enough vocal encouragement to make an occasion out of going quickly, but for the rest of the time it is refined enough to use every day without being tiresome.

So if the Scirocco R blends killer performance with effortless practicality, why not five stars? The brakes are good, with more staying power than the Ford’s, if less than the Renault’s, but the ABS intervention proved slightly juddery in extreme use.

But it is the gearbox that lets the package down. While the spread of ratios is well judged for both urban, cross country and motorway work, the action could be improved. It is not a disaster, but the long lever exaggerates a slight bagginess as each gear slots home. You can, of course, specify the DSG, something neither rival offers.

It would be easy to describe the Scirocco R as a sharper version of the 2.0 GT TSI. But such a description would be to undersell what VW has achieved with this car, because it is also more polished. In terms of sheer lateral grip and agility the regular Scirocco didn’t exactly under-impress; what we wanted more of was involvement – a greater sense of interaction with the car, but without losing the suppleness and comfort that makes the Scirocco such a good long-distance proposition. A tall order, perhaps, but as VW has shown, not one that is impossible to deliver.

Even pottering around at urban speeds, the R version feels more keyed into the road than the GT, with a greater keenness to turn, more front-end bite and a more delicate balance between the front and rear axles. Although it isn’t, the R feels like a lighter car than the GT, and more analogue in the way it responds.

Does it need a proper LSD? To completely win over the most focused hot hatch fans it probably does. Clever though the electronics are, they cannot match a mechanical diff’s ability to channel power to the road exiting tight corners, or imitate the way it allows a driver to use more throttle to pull the car into a bend. Try that in the Scirocco R and all you get is understeer.

Adaptive Chassis Control is standard on the R, meaning a choice of three modes (Comfort, Normal and Sport), each altering the dampers, steering map and throttle response.

In truth Normal is perfectly fine for most conditions and, as you would expect, offers the best trade-off in comfort and composure. There is a little pitter-patter over smaller bumps, but nothing you couldn’t live with.

Unusually for such a system, the Sport setting is not so extreme that it can’t be used on the road. Obviously there is some degradation in ride quality, but not to the point that it is uncomfortable. And yet we didn’t linger in Sport, partly because Normal offers more than enough control and precision, but also because Sport beefs up the steering weight to beyond the point that feels natural.

That said, this is one of the better electric steering systems (if not as good as the Ford’s) with reasonable feel and (in Normal) natural weighting over a broad spectrum of speeds.

So is the Scirocco a hot hatch or a four-seat coupé? It certainly has the ingredients to cut it as a hot hatch, mixing incredible performance, front-wheel drive and everyday practicality. But compared with the most focused rivals, the Scirocco doesn’t offer quite the precision or excitement to outclass the Focus RS or Mégane RS as a pure driver’s tool.

But it does get mighty close, especially considering its strengths in other areas. If you asked which we’d take for a lap of the Nordschleife, it would be the Ford or Renault, but to live with and drive for a month, a year or three years it would be the VW.

So perhaps we should be asking how it stacks up as a coupé, against the likes of BMW’s 135i Coupé or Nissan 370Z. Especially given that the Scirocco R’s pricing puts it square in reach of such competitors. You know what? We’d still rather have the VW.

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