Volkswagen’s GTI is the only car in this magazine’s history to be voted Automobile of the Year twice. And now there’s a hotter version, called the Golf R, on sale in Europe. Volkswagen of America hasn’t officially said whether the Golf R is coming here, but that didn’t stop us from taking one for a spin.
The “R” badge, you might have guessed, identifies this Golf as the successor to the R32, the four-wheel-drive über-GTI that was sold in the U.S. in two 5000-unit batches: the 2004 Mark 4 R32 and the 2008 Mark 5 R32. This Mark 6 edition very nearly evolved into the R36, with a 300-hp, 3.6-liter VR6 under the hood, until VW engineers started having second thoughts about fuel consumption and emissions. Management stepped away from the narrow-angle V-6 and instead switched to a forced-induction four-cylinder.
The 2.0-liter R engine develops 267 hp – 17 more horses than the last R32 and well above the current GTI’s 200-hp output. Thanks to 17.4 psi of boost, it also whips up 258 lb-ft of torque at a leisurely 2500 rpm, and unlike most turbocharged engines, this one is exceptionally linear, responsive, punchy, and refined. Whereas the R32’s VR6 was all part-accelerator growl, lift-off rumble, and full-throttle roar, the newly developed four-cylinder won’t try to engage your emotions with the odd overrun blat-blat, or even with faint turbocharger whine. It’s an efficient engine, and it works very well in combination with the intuitive six-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox (DSG), but it lacks that aggressive, rev-hungry rawness and the R32’s ability to read the throttle foot’s intentions.
Like the R32, the Golf R retains all-wheel drive as a key differentiator from the GTI. The additional traction and power help scoot the DSG-equipped Golf R to 62 mph in 5.5 seconds, 1.4 seconds ahead of the GTI, according to the factory. The Golf R can be had with two or four doors and a six-speed manual or DSG transmission, although Volkswagen might import it to the States in DSG/four-door form only, as it did with the last R32.
On smooth pavement, the Golf R is a joy to whip to ten-tenths. Or even eleven-tenths – thanks to the latest stability control software, undue lift-off oversteer is as expertly compensated as excessive understeer. Sure, you feel a bit like a passenger when the chips interfere, but the result justifies the means. When exiting a corner molto presto, the Haldex system’s clutch engages much more promptly than in lesser 4Motion models, thereby ensuring maximum grip long before the front wheels start to scramble. Although the strong and responsive brakes lack that ultimate-sports-car sharpness and stamina, their performance is remarkable by hot-hatch standards.
We often think that all-wheel drive eliminates torque steer, but there’s still plenty of energy flowing through your palms when you boot the Golf R’s throttle – even if this car is much better at putting the power down than the front-wheel-drive GTI. Despite sitting about an inch lower than the GTI and benefiting from the optional adaptive chassis control system (which firms the dampers in Sport mode), the sportiest VW can least conceal its age on undulating and twisty roller-coaster terrain. (After all, the Mark 6 Golf is essentially an updated Mark 5.) When pushed hard, the R displays plenty of roll, yaw, and pitch, the yellow stability control warning light flashing rhythmically. The Golf R’s movements aren’t as Teutonically disciplined as expected, although, to be fair, roadholding and handling were compromised to a certain extent by the soft winter tires fitted on our test car.
Those tires were mounted on standard, R-specific eighteen-inch wheels. In no way a stripped-out race car, the R is actually stuffed full of extra features. Outside, it’s distinguishable by a ground-hugging front air dam, a roof spoiler, and a rear diffuser framing two center-mounted exhaust outlets. Swiveling bixenon headlamps and LED taillights are standard. Inside, there are special touches such as R-specific instrument faces, aluminum trim, power-adjustable sport seats, standard navigation and automatic climate control, and a fat-rimmed steering wheel with the inevitable squared-off bottom.
Still, this four-wheel-drive, dual-clutch, turbocharged, pricey hatchback has stepped into the arena of masters like the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and the Subaru Impreza WRX STI. And in that world, the Golf R is probably more of a relaxed cruiser than a high-strung bruiser. The mix of DSG and AWD is tuned for maximum refinement instead of no-holds-barred sportiness. The whole R concept is very much based on offering a higher equipment level rather than being a bare-bones racer. To compete with the likes of the Evo and the STI, VW would need to consider a spicier variant – a bit lighter, a little more powerful, and more focused. Until then, however, Volkswagen has given us a very capable
gran turismo dressed in a hatchback body.
On sale: Now (Europe only)
Price: $52,000 (base, in Germany, est.)
Engine: 2.0L turbocharged I-4, 267 hp, 258 lb-ft