Brake, brake, brake, brake, brake,” was instructor Dan’s constant refrain during my maiden hot laps in the Four Seasons 2016 Volkswagen Golf R around Buttonwillow Raceway in Southern California. But it wasn’t long before I’d hear less of his barking about braking and more of his encouragement to push my limits. It certainly didn’t hurt that I was getting the bulk of my instruction in the Golf R, a special car brings that something extra to the track—and not just its impressive stopping power.
When a friend invited me to join him at Buttonwillow for a performance driving school put on by the Southern California Audi Club, I wanted to go, badly. I’d never been to a track day with proper instruction, and I craved the experience. There was just one hang up: My daily driver is an SUV. The nice folks at the SoCal Audi Club will let you drive just about anything that can pass a safety check, so as long as it’s not an SUV. Thankfully, I got the chance to swap it out for the Automobile long-term Golf R, which seemed like a perfect machine for a first-timer like me. It was.
Somewhat fittingly, instructor Dan brought his GTI to the track, which made for an interesting comparison. I got some time in his GTI, and while there are areas where it obviously doesn’t measure up to the R, it’s a damn fine car in its own right and a perennial Automobile All-Star. Of course, the super Golf’s 2.0-liter turbo with 292 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque is 72 hp and 22 lb-ft more than the GTI, and the R’s engine is hooked up to VW’s super six-speed Direkt-Schalt-Getriebe transmission, which is (sorta, kinda, not really) similar to the one in the Bugatti Chiron. It’s like saying you’re sort of related to Henry VIII. Point is, if lap times are your thing, it’s hard to beat the DSG, but the six-speed manual like the one in instructor Dan’s GTI will always be the purist’s choice.
As the laps wore on, I also came to appreciate the R’s all-wheel-drive grip and its brake-based torque-vectoring setup, which allowed me to carve ever tighter lines around the track, especially when hustling around Off-Ramp (Turn 2), Star Mazda (Turn 11), and the twisty esses of Turn 12 leading up to the front straight. During one session I got a little bold and turned off the electronic nannies. I didn’t tell instructor Dan (at one point he told me he’d break my fingers if I tried to turn my experience into a lap-time-lowering exercise). The car certainly felt twitchier coming out of the corners in Race mode with everything off, and I had to back off the throttle at times when I felt the rear end getting loose. But in Normal mode with ESC on, the R certainly wasn’t lacking anything given my skill level.
From behind the wheel, the R’s sport bucket seats firmly supported me when I went charging into Buttonwillow’s corners, but they’re not too race-car tight. And unlike a race car, you can actually fit four 6-foot-tall adults in it comfortably. I tested it out with my 6-foot-3-inch dad and 5-foot-9-inch mother before heading out for the weekend, and they were pleasantly surprised. Given I’d crammed them into the back of an Audi A3 wagon recently, the R’s additional legroom proved welcome. But taking Mom out for a spin probably wasn’t the best idea. “It’s just a VW Golf,” I assured her, and it certainly looks the part. But I couldn’t help myself at one point and opened it up. No, this isn’t just any Golf. (Sorry about that, Mom, but I made it home fine, with my fingers intact!)
As the weekend progressed and my confidence grew, I started to better understand the dynamic between driver and car. The “rush” of racing around a track, I discovered, isn’t really the kind of adrenaline I was expecting. It felt more like skiing or surfing, being one with something outside of oneself. OK, so the 100-plus-mile-an-hour stretches were exhilarating, but overall it was more of a Zen experience than I anticipated, and I definitely came home with a new appreciation for race-car drivers. I can only imagine the mental focus it must take to wheel around a track for hours on end at 10/10ths with other drivers on your bumper.
Thankfully the VW Golf R proved as sure-footed as it is fun, and it did a lot of the heavy lifting for me. “It’s so good, you can’t do anything wrong in it,” said one of the other weekend’s participants. Whenever I was asked how I liked it, my standard answer was, “Great! Fun!” through a constantly cheesy grin. Now I’m thinking I should take the Bugatti Chiron out for a lap or two, you know, just to see how they compare. No?
I drove away from my weekend at Buttonwillow exhausted but inspired. Instructor Dan absolutely made me a better driver, and it helped that I had the R to learn in. If you’re asking me whether the Golf R’s all-wheel drive, sportier suspension, and significant power and torque bumps make it worth the extra clams over a GTI, I’d reply with an emphatic “yes.” So would my GTI-owning buddy, instructor Dan. Now if he’d just stop yelling at me to brake already.
Photography courtesy of CaliPhotography and Lyn Woodward
Our 2016 Volkswagen Golf R
|Miles to Date:||6,531|
|Fuel to Date:||287.74|
|Observed Fuel Economy:||22.7 mpg|
|Engine:||2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/292 hp @ 5,400 rpm, 280 lb-ft @ 1800 rpm|
|Transmission:||6-speed dual-clutch automatic|
|Layout:||4-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, AWD hatchback|
|EPA Mileage:||23/30 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H:||168.4 x 70.8 x 56.5 in|
|0-60 MPH:||4.5 sec|
|Top Speed:||155 mph|