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2015 Volkswagen Golf R Review

Yes, you can improve on a GTI.

The ManufacturerphotographerJake Holmeswriter

BUTTONWILLOW, California - While there are many great things about the 2015 Volkswagen Golf R, Michael Klopotowski knows which change will really please VW fans.

"We can finally disable the DSC (dynamic stability control)," the Volkswagen of America product marketer says, adding with a smile, "For track purposes only, of course."

VW fanboys have long hammered Volkswagen over the fact that you can't turn off the electronic safety nets in the Golf R (or the GTI), but the reality is people still lined up to buy the hot hatch. Volkswagen intended to bring only 5,000 Golf Rs to the States annually but outsold that by 10 percent in 2012 and 2013. Undefeatable DSC didn't make the Golf R any less desirable.

The 2015 Volkswagen Golf R is now built on the MQB chassis that underpins all other seventh-generation Golfs, including the AUTOMOBILE All-Star 2015 Golf GTI. Under the hood, the EA888 2.0-liter turbo-four from the new GTI has been reworked with a larger turbocharger, a new head, improved direct injection, and new pistons, pushing output to 292 hp and 280 lb-ft -- increases of 72 hp and 28 lb-ft over a GTI with the Performance Package. The output is also up 36 hp and 37 lb-ft over the previous Golf R's EA113 engine.

The Haldex all-wheel-drive system is revised and now saves fuel by operating primarily in front-wheel drive. The rear axle is disengaged until the computer detects the front tires slipping, at which point as much as 50 percent of the engine's torque can be shuffled to the back. The change helps improve fuel economy, and the highway figure on manual models rises 3 mpg to a respectable 30 mpg. The 2015 Volkswagen Golf R sits 0.2 inch lower than the GTI and has stiffer anti-roll bars, with optional adaptive rear dampers, and its brakes come from the GTI performance pack. Four driving modes include Comfort, Sport, Individual, and Race settings, the latter the only one in which the DSC can be turned all the way off.

Buttoned-down at Buttonwillow

After some warm-up laps, it's time to put the hammer down around Buttonwillow Raceway Park's Race No. 13 layout. The new engine has the instant, smooth power delivery we know and love from the GTI, but with a noticeable amount of extra punch. Although the redline is marked at 7,500 rpm, output tapers past 6,200 and the rev limiter intervenes by 6,800 rpm. Not that you need to push the engine that high, because the broad torque band means you can lap the entire track in third and fourth gears without wanting for power anywhere in the rev range.

We're driving European-spec Golf Rs that have a six-speed manual transmission, which has the direct, notchy feel we love. The stick won't be offered in the States until the 2016 model Golf R goes on sale this coming fall. The 2015 version, available starting in February, comes only with Volkswagen's six-speed DSG dual-clutch. When they arrive, the manual models will be $1,100 cheaper than those with the DSG.

Despite the slightly more aggressive suspension tuning, the Golf R retains the compliance and smoothness that help make the GTI so livable. The way the car stays planted and composed through the track's blind crests and quick transitions gives you confidence to push harder on the next lap; you can hop a front tire over the curbing without the car getting the least bit out of sorts. Strong brakes with consistent feel let you dig deep into corners. Rather than being boring, this is the sort of capable track experience that keeps goading us to go faster, bringing on smiles as we pick up speed on each successive lap.

Before you write letters complaining that the 2015 Volkswagen Golf R defaults to front-wheel drive, know that the Haldex system's magic is plenty evident. You can power out of a corner long before the steering wheel is straight without fear of understeer, tightening the car's line thanks to the added nudge of the rear wheels. Volkswagen's brake-based "differential" systems squeeze the rotors to reduce understeer as well, but the effect of the Haldex system is to make the Golf R notably tidier and quicker under power.

What other car drives like this for the price? With the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo departing, there's only one turbocharged all-wheel-drive performance compact in this segment. The Subaru WRX STI is a little rowdier and more communicative on the track, but its rally genes annoy on public roads. Klopotowski also cites the BMW 2 Series as a rival, but the rear-drive coupe is a fair bit costlier than the Golf R when equipped similarly. The Audi S3 is an in-house rival that packs essentially the same engine, transmission, and chassis as the Golf R into a luxury wrapper for, again, a higher price.

Golf in translation

Although nearly all American-spec Golfs come from a new plant in Puebla, Mexico, the 2015 Volkswagen Golf R (as well as the e-Golf) is shipped over from Germany, so there are some peculiarities as to how this car can be optioned. Only a four-door, no-sunroof bodyshell has been certified for import to the U.S. from Wolfsburg, and the Golf R comes standard with a Euro-market electric parking brake instead of the manual one fitted to our GTIs.

As we've seen so often before with hot German cars, some of the best bits get left behind in Deutschland. The cool smoked LED taillights on our Euro-spec testers haven't been legally approved for use in America. Likewise, U.S.-spec Golf Rs won't have the stop-start, adaptive cruise control with forward collision warning, and satin-chrome mirrors on these test cars.

But we don't really care. What is retained makes the 2015 Volkswagen Golf R supercool: great-looking wheels, a cool, new front fascia with intakes gasping for air, supportive leather seats that aren't too snug for the two-hour highway drive from downtown Los Angeles, blue instrument needles, and as many exhaust tips as driven wheels. This year's Golf R is better-equipped than ever, with push-button start, Bluetooth, a power driver's seat, heated front seats, bi-xenon headlights with LED running lights, auto climate control, and a backup camera all standard. The only other trim level, the Golf R with DCC and Navi, tacks on 19-inch wheels, navigation, parking sensors, adaptive suspension, and a Fender audio system. We could easily be satisfied with the base model, saving $2,495.

The 2015 Volkswagen Golf R is improved in every way: It's faster and has more grip, better fuel economy and additional equipment. As always, the Golf R commands a significant premium over a GTI, but it's worth it for the extra performance. This is a car you could drive every single day of the year, whether hitting the track, slogging through miserable weather, or making a cross-country trip. It's that well-rounded.

And did we mention the news about the stability control?

2015 Volkswagen Golf R Specifications

  • On Sale: February 2015
  • Base price: $37,415
  • Engine: 2.0-liter DOHC 16-valve I-4/292 hp @ 5,400 rpm, 280 lb-ft @ 1,800 rpm
  • Transmission: 6-speed dual-clutch automatic
  • Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD hatchback
  • Fuel mileage (city/highway): 23/31 mpg
  • Suspension f/r: Damper struts, control arms, coil springs/control arms, coil springs
  • Brakes: Vented discs
  • Tires f/r: 225/40R18 (92H)/235/35R19 (91Y)
  • L x W x H: 167.9 x 70.8 x 56.5 in
  • Wheelbase: 103.5 in
  • Weight: 3,340 lb
  • 0-60 mph: 4.9 sec
  • Top speed: 155 mph