There's almost no reason to review this car. Volkswagen fanboys probably bought every Golf R within a few days of the announcement that it was coming to the States. Car guys who don't like VW products will complain that the Golf R is way too heavy and expensive. Both groups made up their minds as soon as the specifications were announced, and it's unlikely driving impressions will convert the nonbelievers.
I certainly understand the emotional appeal of the Golf R. Volkswagen's own GTI is the quintessential hot hatch, and the addition of all-wheel drive and more power just makes sense. Sticking with the turbo four-cylinder from a GTI instead of using a heavier VR6 makes the Golf R much more willing to change directions, and there's a satisfying burst of power when the boost comes on. The interior is as tasteful and luxurious as you'll find in a performance car under $50,000.
But then there's the price. Is a Golf R really that much faster or better than a GTI? For people in the Snowbelt, the AWD system is worth every penny over the GTI's sticker price. A GTI gets by in the snow but a Golf R just gets more entertaining, since it can send power to the rear wheels. Knowing that only 5000 Golf Rs will come to America certainly will keep the resale value of these cars strong, so once you figure in the depreciation (or lack thereof), the Golf R's price seems more palatable.
If you are a member of the Cult of Volkswagen, this is the ultimate hatch. Since I have two Quantum Syncro Wagons on my property right now, I can't think of a better hatchback. There are certainly faster hatches and less expensive hatches, but none of them compare to well-balanced, outrageously fun Golf R. I still can't fault anyone outside of The Cult for choosing a $26,000 Subaru Impreza WRX over a Golf R. Objectively the WRX makes a lot more sense than a Golf R, but I've never met a VW fanboy that let logic dictate a purchase. Now please excuse me while I figure out where to mount an intercooler in my turbo Quantum.
Phil Floraday, Senior Web Editor
It would have been difficult for Volkswagen to screw up a souped-up, more powerful, all-wheel-drive version of the wonderful GTI, and VW certainly did not. Even though I didn't have a chance to pass a single car on my back roads commute, the Golf R still made the drive very enjoyable: the gearbox is wonderfully slick, the power delivery is very smooth and invigorating, the ride doesn't feel compromised or harsh, and the chassis feels very well balanced.
As Phil noted, the Impreza is stiff, cheaper, easier-to-find competition for the Golf R. The Volkswagen's interior is many times nicer than that of the Subaru, though, and its gearbox also feels a lot better to this driver. If this test car had been a four-door, I might not have given it back.
I can't wait to drive a Golf R on a racetrack; I hope Volkswagen keeps one of the limited number of cars in the press fleet until track season comes to Michigan.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
The extra 50 hp and AWD system that the Golf R adds over the regular GTI makes the car both quick and confident. This is the kind of car I would want to have parked in my garage - albeit in five-door form. But then I think about the price.
Thanks to the fact that it is an AWD boy-racer of a car and rings in around the $40,000 mark, the Golf R becomes competition for the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and Subaru WRX STI. (We'll ignore the R's limited availability for now.) Unsurprisingly, the VW is more refined than either of the other two and much more livable, but lacks a certain emotional driving experience when put up against the rally-bred Mitsu and Subie; at least the VW's interior is a closer to befitting its price tag.
Donny Nordlicht, Associate Web Editor
The Golf R is a halo product for Volkswagen, a car that caters to diehard VW fans. As such, its relatively high price is defensible, and even more so when you consider how much more refined -- in both ride quality and interior comfort -- it is compared to competitors such as the Mitsubishi Evo. The 256-hp turbo four spools up quickly, the six-speed manual transmission is very slick, with nice, short throws and fluid clutch takeup. The smallish, flat-bottomed steering wheel is good to grab onto, and the controls on it are nicely placed. The controls on the center console, like those on all VWs, are easy to use and well labeled. The back seats look to be roomy enough, but if back-seat room is a consideration, I'd advise going for the four-door R model. The options on the R we tested included keyless ignition (interestingly, even though this car had a pushbutton start, it also came with a key), a sunroof, and navigation, but you wouldn't feel like you were slumming if you didn't opt for any of those add-ons, because this car is really about the fun of driving - and it truly is a very entertaining car to drive.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
As others have alluded, these special-edition Volkswagen Golfs don't come cheaply, but they tend to hold their value. One of my best friends owns a 2004 Volkswagen R32 and it is still worth a lot of money and he knows that the moment he is ready to get rid of it, people will beat a path to his door to take it off his hands for a premium price.
Now, as for taking this Golf R to the racetrack, the only Automobile Magazine editor to have done so is senior editor Jason Cammisa, and he's had the privilege of doing it twice. He loved, loved, loved it on track except for one key thing, and that's the fact that you cannot totally turn off stability control. That's a major bummer for serious track-day guys.
For my part, though, I drove the Golf R only on a dark weeknight after working a fourteen-hour day. I was tired and a little down as I trudged to the parking structure, but I had a complete reversal of spirit after I got into this car and drove it one block. Oh, the incredibly precise gearshifter! Oh, the high-revving, willing engine! Oh, the perfect mixture of body control and ride comfort! Oh, the crisply executed interior! You get the picture. This is a serious driving machine.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
The best and worst thing I can say about the Golf R is that most of the time, it feels just like a GTI. The GTI is, after all, a two-time Automobile of the Year winner, a brilliant sport compact that feels like it's worth $10,000 more than it costs. That's why the Golf R, which actually does cost $10,000 more, doesn't in any way feel cheap or out of its league in terms of refinement. Unlike a Subaru WRX or a Mitsubishi Evo, the Golf R doesn't feel just like a hopped up compact. The Golf also drives much like its kid brother and again, that's not a bad thing -- the powertrain feels no less refined and the suspension is just as mature.
Of course, the question becomes why not simply buy the cheaper GTI. Unless you really plan on heading to the track, I'm not sure. The only real improvements I noticed driving the R around town were its much meaner exhaust note and, more important, its lack of wheelspin on hard launches. The seat of my pants though, did not feel as significant increase in acceleration as one might expect from some 50 extra horsepower.
As Phil notes, this is all probably irrelevant given that there are more than enough VW-philes to satisfy demand for the R. For the rest of us, the R simply serves as a snarling reminder of the GTI's brilliance.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
The Volkswagen Golf R's biggest competitor isn't the Subaru WRX STI or the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution; it's the Volkswagen GTI. Both VWs boast peerless refinement, an intoxicating engine, a composed chassis, and precise steering. They're the best sport compacts you can buy and Volkswagen's two offerings are so far out ahead of the pack that the only real decision is European hot hatch or European hotter hatch. The Golf R is fantastic car, but here's why I'd choose the GTI over it:
Opting for the R over the GTI nets 56 hp, 36 lb-ft of torque, leather seats, and all-wheel-drive. The cost is an extra 289 pounds, wonderful plaid cloth seats, a good-sized dose of turbo lag, and $9995. The R's extra power might prove its worth on a track, but in traffic, the benefit is erased by the lost low-end response. We'll call the powertrain match-up a wash.
All-wheel-drive is the cure for a turbocharged, torque-steering, front-drive hot hatch -- except that the GTI exhibits less torque steer than a Little Tykes Cozy Coupe. VW has already conquered that beast with its brilliant torque-steer compensation software eliminates the steering-wheel tug via the electrically assisted power steering.
Surely, the all-wheel-drive system helps in putting 256 hp and 243 lb-ft of torque to the ground, right? Yes. Launching the car is the one situation where four-wheel traction feels worth its weight and cost. Rather than feather the throttle or rely on the electronic traction control, the Golf R allows you to matt the throttle, release the clutch, and rocket away. Of course, launching a car is such a rare event whether you're on a track or on the street that you have to ask yourself is $10,000 is a reasonable price for wicked-quick, drama-free acceleration. Not in my mind. The GTI is just too good.
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor