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.