WEST COAST EDITOR MARK VAUGHN: We in the U.S. won’t get our new 2015 Volkswagen Golf R until the second quarter of 2015, but we here at Autoweek have now gotten to drive European-spec versions of the coming super hatchback twice. First time was on a frozen lake in Sweden. That was fun, flinging the AWD Golf R around like a crazed drifter avoiding moose strikes. Most recently Volkswagen offered us a couple days in another Euro-spec Golf R in Southern California. There was no ice anywhere there except that which tinkled in the glasses of the mai tais of starlets on the beach in Malibu, but there were plenty of good two-lane mountain roads.
So that’s where I went.
The Euro-spec version of the coming Golf R is almost the same as what we’ll get here in the second quarter of 2015: they’ll get 295 hp to our 290, we may or may not get the smoked taillights and we won’t get the 7-inch screen on the dash at first (we might get it later). Our car had 19-inch wheels which will be available on U.S. Golf Rs, but which may or may not be the stock wheel.
Other than that, the two are pretty close to the same thing -- and what a thing. At 290 hp, it’s the most powerful Golf ever made. All that power and torque go to all four wheels through a new and improved Haldex all-wheel drive system. It’s still not yet determined how many driver profile settings we get, we might have to do without the Eco setting, for instance. But the good news is that you will be able to -- as we did in Sweden on the ice -- turn the whole stability program thing off and have at it, lawyers be danged.
My first putting around took place in suburbia, where most owners will drive most of the time. This is the thing about the Golf R, while competitors such as the Subaru WRX STI and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution may have a more race-car feel, those things are a little harder to live with every day, at least compared to this car. The Golf, even in R trim, is entirely comfortable all day long. There is sound insulation, squishy but supportive seats and generally good-to-great ergonomics. I drove around most of the day enjoying the amenities of the new Volkswagen.
Peak power comes in at 5,500 rpm, allowing the Golf R to hit 60 in 5.1 seconds.PHOTO BY VOLKSWAGEN
Power and torque output is strong from 3,500 rpm on up to redline. The power fell off at just under 6,000 rpm. Peak power comes at 5,500 rpm, the spec sheet says. VW lists 0-60 mph at 5.1 seconds.
Then I headed up my local thrilling road. It’s a long road, and in the middle of the week it had no one on it. Corners were fast, mostly third- and fourth-gear. But being a road, I didn’t want to really risk hanging the tail out. I went as fast as I safely could, given the conditions, but this wasn’t an autocross course. On that stretch of road I appreciated the feel of all the controls -- nicely connected if not race-car direct. There was a layer of insulation between your senses and the action on the pavement, but it’s a pretty thin layer. It’s a ball peen hammer in a velvet welding glove. Or something. The harder I pushed, the more I felt that understeer was where it was headed.
Then I found my usual illegal skid pad area way off where no one will ever see me and I had a couple laps there. I tried to get the rear end to come out and couldn’t. Maybe you can, but you’re a professional driver. Maybe more time would have had me hanging the tail like a rabbit. But even on a remote skid pad, you have to keep an eye out for authorities.
So would I buy one of these? If it was between this, an STI and the last Evo to leave the dealer lot, then I’d take this Golf R, no question. You can’t spend all your time on twisting mountains roads. Though that would be nice.
We won't see the 7-inch touch screen on the U.S. model, at least not at first.PHOTO BY VOLKSWAGEN
ASSOCIATE WEST COAST EDITOR BLAKE Z. RONG: There’s something to be said about the long-forgotten science of tactility, and it is this: when people discuss how good a car feels, it’s the way things feel that they’re usually talking about. How great the pedals are. How smooth the shifter is. How precise and taut is the steering. Good tactility is a seeming intangible that resides within every mechanism, the entire car, like a ghost, defining how you interact with it: think of the punch clocks of the 1960s, the imposing metal things that stamped your life away with a ch-chunk ringing through the heavens, an altogether satisfying and permanent sound that served as a reminder of your own mortality. Good tactility imparts the idea that there is a mechanism to be manipulated, one designed to last the ages.
Our Euro-spec 2015 Volkswagen Golf R, then, is a reflection of the importance of making things feel good, from the buttons to the windshield wiper stalks to the touchscreen responsiveness to the even more important engine responsiveness. It excels on nearly all points. Nothing is flashy. Nothing is superfluous, nothing is overwrought or ornamental or out of place. Everything just feels right.
The Golf R’s steering firms up gracefully when the corners demand more, weighty and reassuring but also delicate at lower speeds. (I suppose it’s precise and taut, too.) Throttle response is excellent; firm brakes are easily modulated. The clutch is light but with long shifter throws, and leaving first gear can demand a smoothness best garnered over months of ownership, but for my quick drive it worked wonders. The six-speed manual gearbox is a joy to use -- I honestly expected to get a DSG with this car, but for hoary old snobs like myself, the fact that the Golf R still comes with an honest-to-God manual transmission surely counts as one of life’s little blessings. I think I read that on a greeting card somewhere.
And the engine -- oh, what an engine -- is a 2.0-liter turbocharged four, the Engine Format of the Moment across the whole of Europe, but every 2.0T engine deserves nearly 300 hp and exactly 280 lb-ft of torque. You feel the latter from around 2,000 rpm all the way to a blisteringly quick redline: first gear is over in a split second, so be sure to shift fast! (Opt for the DSG over the six-speed and your 0-60 times drop from 5.3 to 4.9 seconds. Not that you’ll likely feel the difference.) Torque all day, torque all night, torque in any gear: you can trundle along the freeway in sixth, firm up the throttle to pass a sucker, and watch your speeds climb from the Little Engine That Could. From first to six it’s a giggling laugh riot -- and then you wish you had more gears, and possibly a runway, and a radar detector.
And while the R itself doesn’t exist to boast about the Mark 7 Golf’s fanciful innards, this latest generation’s interior is Volkswagen's finest work. It’s not flashy or overdesigned or full of contrasting materials, but everything clicks right, every button press is reassured, every knob and switch and lid and scroll wheel and vent slat and touchscreen response feels like there was a team of scientists behind it in a lab somewhere, sweating over ergonomics and tactile functions and human finger resistance values to ensure a perfect touch.
The Golf R's 280 lb-ft of torque kicks in around 2000 rpm.PHOTO BY VOLKSWAGEN
A few more points: Europeans get five drive selector modes (comfort, eco, race) to play with, varying the throttle response and suspension settings, but I’m inclined to believe that we won’t get nearly that many. Call it nationalistic pessimism -- the Germans hoard all the good stuff for themselves. We may not also get lane assist, adaptive cruise control, and engine stop/start, but that’s OK: for a car that’s so heavily focused on driving, it does a pretty good job of driving for you. The ride is surprisingly smooth for such a sporty car, and the adaptive suspension makes little difference as it did in the last car, or the Scirocco R. Race Mode even opens up the exhaust, but owing to the Golf R’s relatively subdued nature, it never drones on.
When the 2015 Volkswagen Golf R does come to America -- for early next year, as previously threatened -- that subdued nature will play into our expectations. It will rank similarly with the shouty, lurid Ford hatchbacks, the Focus ST and Fiesta ST, as well as the perennially rowdy Subaru WRX STI and whatever vestige of greatness the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution still clings to. But the Golf R’s handling and agility is most similar to that of the Fiesta ST, with its magical brake torque vectoring fooling drivers into thinking it’s a RWD car; the Golf R will surely inspire test drivers to believe the same, until they attempt the smoky burnout. But the pricing between the Fiesta ST and the Golf R can be justified, if you like, as the difference between a regular Fiesta and an Audi A8. Neither are bad cars, of course. It’s just that for some, the extra lugg-jury will pay off.
It’s hard to explain. You can just feel it.
We live in a golden age of hot hatchery, one spurred on by technology and the global market: computer-controlled torque vectoring instills a handling magic never yet achieved, while the necessity of selling to a worldwide market enables the proliferation of the breed. Volkswagen didn’t have to build the ferocious, rare Golf R32 back in 2002. It could have just directed people to the GTI, which at the time also had a VR6, or Audi’s quattro-equipped TT. But it did so as a love letter to the segment it most popularized. And we’re a better breed of enthusiast for it.
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