When our Four Seasons 2016 Volkswagen Golf R arrived last year, fresh from an award-winning performance at the 2016 All-Stars competition, we had big plans for the $38,000 hot hatch.
Early in its stay, the Golf R was pressed into service as a driver-training vehicle. No, not the kind teenagers have to go through before they can apply for a license. This was the kind that helps you go fast. Contributor Lyn Woodward was the trainee, requisitioning the fast Golf for her first time on a racetrack—a day of instruction at central California’s Buttonwillow Raceway, which is located some two hours up I-5 from Los Angeles.
In the not-too-distant past, making a hot compact with a high-strung 2.0-liter turbo-four—in the Golf R’s case, packing 292 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque—your ride of choice for your first track day landed you firmly somewhere between “stupid” and “suicidal.” But while no sane or responsible person would suggest an Evo IX for the job, the same doesn’t hold true for the Golf R.
Power comes on smoothly and peaks at 5,400 rpm, leaving plenty of room for the engine to spin before it hits its 6,500-rpm limit. Torque peaks at just 1,800 rpm, producing a noticeable initial jolt when demanded by a lead foot as it makes its way through the lightning-quick six-speed dual-clutch automatic to all four of its 225/40R18 Bridgestone Potenza RE050s.
“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,” wrote Woodward after her track day. “The VW Golf R proved as sure-footed as it is fun, and it did a lot of the heavy lifting for me.”
And ours didn’t even have the then-optional adjustable suspension, which Volkswagen made standard for 2017. Despite that notable absence, the Golf R still proved quite serviceable for more pedestrian applications, such as getting us from our homes to the office and back in LA’s infamous traffic.
“After spending a weekend and a half with the 4S Golf R, I still feel as though this is the best uber-hatch on the market. The blend of performance, livability, quality, and design adds up to a near-perfect all-rounder,” noted news editor Conner Golden.
“Initially, I was hesitant about ours arriving with a DSG, but for use around a congested city like LA, it makes a whole lot more sense than a manual,” said Golden of the transmission choice, before raving that “VW’s DSG is predictably wonderful. It’s smooth when you’re puttering around town, and blindingly quick when you’re driving it hard.”
And, driving the usability point home, he found it “consistently more comfortable than cars less capable, including the Focus ST. Around town, it’s only slightly more punishing than a regular VW Golf.”
This theory was proven when we pitted our hot hatch against an interloping Ford Focus RS, a comparison that turned out to be a tale of two ride qualities.
“The stiff and unforgiving suspension, grippy tires, and genius differentials do not grant your body a moment’s rest from gravity as long as the car is in motion. Core muscles will get a workout, heads will be shaken, and necks will be strained. The aggressively bolstered Recaros will keep you in place when cornering, but they do little to alleviate the gravitational abuse, which is actually exacerbated during daily use by the high seating position,” said associate editor Jonathon Klein of the blue Blue Oval.
“By contrast, the taciturn-looking Golf R offers soft, squishy leather seats. These more conventional buckets do almost as good a job as the Focus’ Recaros do of keeping your torso in place on mountain roads, but do so without crushing your sides, staying comfortable on long drives and daily commutes.”
Editor-in-Chief Mike Floyd also touched on the livability theme. “I have a pretty awful commute out here in L.A., and the R’s compact dimensions and 292 horsepower to draw from allows me to point, shoot, and squirt into tight gaps, and its stout brakes keep me from running up onto the back bumper of slowing traffic.”
The praise continued for the seats, as well. “While compact outside, it’s big and functional on the inside. I’m able to spread out in the cockpit, and the R’s front seats, while snug and sport themed, are also more than comfortable enough when sitting in horrific stop and go traffic,” continued Floyd.
Unlike most members of our Four Seasons fleet, the Golf R wasn’t selected for many roadtrips. Maybe it was the lack of adaptive cruise control, as it proved quite suitable for the task on a weekend trip I took to San Francisco, during which I racked up about 1,000 miles.
“Much of the traffic through the Central Valley consists of semi trucks, which often semi-block both lanes of traffic as one attempts to pass another with a 2-3 mph speed difference. Though brief slowdowns were often unavoidable, I was able to slip into the slightest of gaps thanks to the Golf R’s compact size, nimble chassis, and punchy 292-horse 2.0-liter turbo four. I made short work of the big rigs, as well as dawdling minivans, snoozing sedans, and texting pickups,” I noted in my report of the tour up and down California’s Central Valley on Interstate 5, adding, “I’ve often leveraged the R’s agile attributes on my regular commute as well, though the effort vs. return on SoCal’s packed I-405 is nowhere near as good. But the bottom line is no matter how or where you commute, the Golf R is a great car for impatient daily drivers.”
Though the Volkswagen proved dead reliable during its stay and didn’t need any extraneous visits to the dealer due to defects, it was taken out of commission for a month after running over a road gator. The loose truck-tire tread caused significant damage to the front end of the low-slung hatch, requiring $5,648.78 worth of corrective surgery that included replacing of the bumper, radiator, intercooler, condenser, and underbody panels. Fortunately, we only had to pay the $500 insurance deductible.
While the damage may seem excessive at first, the reality is that road gators are serious hazards that, according to Allstate Insurance, can be 8-10 feet long and weigh over 70 pounds. As such, an impact at freeway speeds is going to be unpleasant, to say the least. Keep this in mind if you’ve ever considered going over one in your car or SUV, and be sure to (safely!) slow down if you’re unable to (safely!) move over.
Aside from gator bite, the Golf R paid just two visits to the dealer, both for routine service. The first visit was for an oil and filter change and rang in at $70.77, while the second also involved the replacement of the cabin pollen filter and sent $125 onto the credit card.
We also, unsurprisingly, had to replace the Bridgestone rubber—lead feet tend to be rough on soft tires, after all. With the odometer just north of 17,000, we sourced a fresh set from Tire Rack to the tune of $151.45 per tire. A bit of cruel irony struck days before the new shoes came in, however, and one of the existing ones picked up a nail, adding $20 to the tab for the patch job.
In all, our year with the Golf R can best be characterized as “uneventfully fun.” As its stay came to a close, its interior wasn’t rattling or otherwise coming apart, it wasn’t developing electrical or mechanical problems, and it was still a joy to drive both around town and in the twisties. The 2016 Automobile All-Star was one of those rare cars that brought plenty of smiles and close to zero gripes, the most significant of which—the aforementioned lack of the DCC adjustable suspension—is not relevant to the car you can buy today at your friendly neighborhood Volkswagen dealer (though if you’re shopping for a used 2015 or 2016, be sure to grab one that was fitted with the option).
The 2016 Volkswagen Golf R may be a $38,000 Golf, but what a Golf it is.
2016 Volkswagen Golf R Running Costs
7,707 mi: Oil change and filter, $70.77
17,091 mi: Oil change and filter, pollen filter, multi-point checkup, $125
14,569: Collision repair, $5,648.78 ($500 deductible)
17,091: Tire patch, $20
17,776: Replacement tires, Bridgestone Potenza RE050 225/40R18 ($605.80), plus mounting and balancing ($80), $685.80
EPA city/highway/combined: 23/30/25 mpg
Observed: 21.6 mpg