About a year ago I drove a VW GTI. Based on everything I have read about it, I should have been in love. But there I was, on the twisty Merritt Parkway, in the middle of the night, feeling rather indifferent. I wanted to love it, but just kind of liked it. It’s was a great little hatch, but until this day I don’t know what I did not like about it. I guess this is what modern dating must be like; high expectations based on a biased written description and an eventual disappointment during the real-life encounter.
But now I have a date with the Golf R, a GTI on steroids, if you will, with more power and all-wheel-drive. The question is how much better, or different, can vehicle be with some extra power, a little chassis tuning, and two more driven wheels really be?
Quite a lot, actually…
Let’s start with the engine – the R has 292hp, or 82 more than the GTI, and 22 more lb-ft of torque, for a total of 280, which comes at a low 1800rpm. But numbers don’t tell the whole story because this does not feel like a 2-liter four-banger. There is torque, gabs of it, enough to pull you into the seat at any engine speed, until just below the 6500rpm redline when it begins to run out of breath. It is a very flexible engine and it reminded more of the old school VR6 than of any turbo four. A bonus is that if you manage to restrain yourself you may get close to the EPA rated 31 mpg on the highway. But you won’t, for all the right reasons.
Like the GTI, the Golf R comes with a choice of two transmissions: a DCT or a proper six-speed manual, which was in this test car. Two-pedal transmissions have gotten significantly better in recent years and as I get older and traffic gets worse I am really beginning to prefer them. But in the case of the Golf R, the manual transmission is pretty great. The shifts are short, well defined, direct, and firm. The clutch catches low and does not require a lot of effort. But it is not perfect – there seems to be some kind of a delay valve in the hydraulic system which prevents really fast shifting.
The suspension is great for a street setup, with very high limits. It is firm but not jarring. Potholes are nicely absorbed and the only time it gets uncomfortable is when the vehicle goes over an obstacle that affects both sides of the car, such as a bridge expansion joint. Body roll and yaw are minimal in spirited driving. Those pushing a little too hard will encounter predictable understeer. Despite power being delivered to all wheels, the Golf R displays more front-wheel-drive handling tendencies than the Subaru WRX STI or the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution.
Inside, Volkswagen decided to go all Audi in the Golf R. The tight bucket seats are wrapped in soft leather, as is the thick flat-bottomed steering wheel. Everything you see and touch seems to be made of high quality materials. The ride is quiet but not muted; the engine can be heard but it is not annoying, and there is a hint of a turbo whistle. The infotainment system, while offering a lot of options, has somewhat of a small screen and some soft-keys are rather small.
Like the GTI, the R did not lose any of the Golf functionality. The trunk is still good in size and the hatch will swallow big packages which will fit in easily thanks to the flat-folding rear seats. Taller rear seat occupants will complain about riding back there, however. Upfront there are cup-holders, bottle-holders, and a sunglass-holder, but oddly there is no storage in the center armrest. And yes, the glove-box still has an air-condition vent.
The Golf R starts at $35,650. Choose the model with DCC® Dynamic Chassis Control and navigation system and you’re at $37,895. VW’s Direkt-Schalt-Getriebe (DSG) dual-clutch transmission will set you back another $1100. For $1295 VW will give you Driver Assistance package. Fully loaded, with destination charges, the Golf R will set you back $40,010.
The first question that many will have is if the difference of ten grand, or more, over the GTI is worth it. I don’t think that is exactly a fair question as the two are more different than expected. The Golf R is a lot more than just a GTI with more power and AWD. It feels and drives very differently. While I may not love the GTI, it is still a fun hatch and a solid bang-for-the-buck. But if I was spending my own money I would go for the R. It’s just a better vehicle in all performance categories and more fun to drive.
The second question that many will ask is how the Golf R compares to the Subaru WRX STI, The Mitsubishi EVO, or the Ford Focus RS. I have not driven the Focus RS, so I don’t know. The Golf R is significantly more refined than either of the Japanese vehicles; it’s quieter, smoother, more luxurious, and certainly more subtle. It is also a tad slower and the steering is not as direct as that of the EVO. It also feels more like a front-wheel-drive car than either of those two. But really, there are no losers here – we are really living in great times.
Review: 2016 Volkswagen Golf R
The latest edition of C&D (which I receive for free) did a comparo of the WRX STi, the Golf R, and the Focus RS, and put them in last to first in that order, although the Focus and the Golf were really close (probably down to subjective objectivity). I think you’re right about none of them being bad cars.Loading…
That result is only relevant if you have the opportunity of attending a car company press junket and want to determine which corporation puts out the best swag.Loading…
I don’t follow the new models. Is this the spiritual successor to the R32?Loading…
It is and it was thought it was going to be called the R20 for a while.Loading…
I looked at the Golf R and GTI to replace my Audi A3 because I was disapointed in the new automatic sedan. It suffered somewhat because it’s like 90% of the Audi and that bugged me. So I left the VAG world behind for the more mundane Honda community.Loading…
It is interesting that the Golf R is not just more subtle than the STi and RS, but also more subtle than the GTi. Delete the R badges and you could be looking at a standard Golf with big wheels.Loading…
So they put a new color on a 2006 Rabbit and put an economy gearbox in it? I hope the chassis got upgraded because the Rabbit’s can’t handle the stock 150hp.Loading…
The R is a pretty appealing if you need one car to do it all. Practical, quick, AWD, decent MPG (if you can control yourself), etc. Too bad there’s no STI hatch, and too bad the R is $35k+ otherwise I’d be hard-pressed not to buy one.Loading…