EDITOR WES RAYNAL: When we named the GTI our 2015 Best of the Best/Car we said things like “At the heart of automotive enthusiasm sits a pantheon of vehicles most can agree define our sport, so to speak. Among the vaunted council of the car gods the Volkswagen GTI is arguably the most endearing …” and “the GTI offers pure driving enjoyment geared toward, but not compromised by, its everyman intent.” And “I can’t imagine getting more for your money than you get with this 2015 GTI.”
So what of the R? For the R’s $11,800 premium over a GTI, you get 82 more hp (or 72 if your GTI has the Performance package), all wheel drive, bigger brakes, and an even more gussied-up interior (sport seats, leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel, ambient lighting, R instruments). Build quality is over the top. There’s also subtle but noticeable body changes, including R bumpers, side skirts, 18-inch aluminum wheels, bixenon headlights and four chrome exhaust tips. The 292-hp figure is the most VW has ever offered in a U.S. Golf.
Is it worth the extra jingle? If you have it, then sure. If you want almost as much fun on a budget, then get the GTI.
Speaking of fun, yes indeed, this is one fun hot hatch. In fact, it made me laugh out loud at times. The MQB chassis is rock solid, grip is outta sight, and the ride is a near perfect balance of comfort and firmness. Among the best I recall. The steering is way light tooling around parking lots and such, weighing up nicely as speeds increase. I don’t recall, really, a car that feels this planted both going straight down the freeway and whipping it through corners. It’s one of those rare cars that the harder you push, the better it feels.
Comparisons to Subaru’s WRX STI are inevitable I suppose, or the Benz GLA45 AMG (wearing a sticker nearly 30 grand higher) but personally, I think the VW looks better inside and out than the Subaru, and build quality and solidity is miles ahead. The Benz is on par if you want to spend the dough.
Again I ask, is the VW worth the extra money over, say, a GTI? To me it is. Why? Because I think of it this way: The R will hang with a 911 and costs half as much. Or this way: It’s an Audi S3 for $3,700 less.
The R is a car I most looked forward to driving. I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, I can’t think of anything I don’t like about it. It’s now among my favorites. I just don’t know how long my license would last if I owned one.
ROAD TEST EDITOR JAKE LINGEMAN: Man this car is good. It’s like a more refined, quieter, grown-up WRX STI, for adults. Surely though, that arrest-me-red paintjob would get you noticed by the 5-0.
The six-speed dual-clutch is fan-frickin-tastic. There’s zero break in the acceleration when shifting. It’s fast too. Hit that left paddle and bang, it’s down a gear lower, nearly instantaneously. They’re also great for simmering down the torque on a high-speed turn. Right at the point where it feels like the Golf might slide, just grab a paddle and continue on your way.
It has a great sound too, fake or not. It’s not too loud or droning, but has a nice growl when your foot is to the floor. It does rev high at speed, about 3,000 at 75 mph, but I suppose that’s what you get with a 2.0-liter turbo. It seems to get a little rumblier when in race mode.
Steering is direct with a good amount of feel. You can sense what the tires are doing in a corner. And with all-wheel drive, it feels supremely stable. There’s barely any roll in corners and no dive on braking. Hence, it does ride hard. I did my best to avoid the potholes, but when you do hit them, you’ll feel it.
Basically, the Golf R has all of the things going for it that the Golf does, except for the easy ride, and adds a turbocharged, wound-up, four pot with 292 ponies. There’s not much to dislike. Except the price.
This R, at nearly 40K, would be tough buy for a kid fresh out of college, which is who I think VW is aiming for. Without putting a ton of money down, there would be a big monthly payment. Probably save on insurance, considering the hatch, but if its more than 500 bucks a month, that’s a lot of money. Like I said, it is more grown up than the STI and Evo, and you’d probably get pulled over less too. Just not with this paintjob.
DIGITAL EDITOR ANDREW STOY: Ah, for want of a stick shift. The Golf R is a damn near perfect car except for its blasted DSG software -- I'll get to that in a minute, but I don't want to lead with the negative on an otherwise extraordinary machine.
Volkswagen is totally kicking dust in its big brother's face these days. The Golf R is a better all-around S3 --to my eyes far more attractive inside and out, with the usable space of a hatch and for thousands less than the Audi. Build quality in the VW is superb -- there wasn't a rattle or untoward gap anywhere in our undoubtedly flogged tester, and the chassis confidence is exactly what you'd expect from a performance-tuned version of the best platform in the business. Add in a brilliant turbo four with gobs of power and zero peakiness, plus plenty of rear-seat legroom even with a 6-foot-plus driver and ask yourself, "What else do I really need?"
A crossover -- you're 'Murican, after all, and you need a third row for the two times a year you take Grandma to Shoney's. This, then, is a perfect second car for a young professional family, one that already has a Q5 or Touareg for hauling the brood. With all due respect to Jake, kids fresh out of college aren't buying Golf Rs (they're dreaming about them, but they're not buying them) and VW knows that.
So what of the transmission? It's not that VW's dual-clutch is bad (far from it); it's that performance-tuned dual-clutch gearboxes suck in city driving. All of them. If you live in an area where red lights are a rare sight and ribbons of asphalt wrap crested buttes, the above comments are rendered irrelevant. But if you hit a dozen four-way stops before you get out of your subdivision, you'll hate this gearbox. Wait for the stick to get here.
"You suck, Stoy, just put it in M and use the shift paddles," you say (and if you don't, one of my colleagues will). My response? No. It doesn't feel natural, and I'm not going to pretend it does. What's left, then, are normal and sport automatic modes. If you leave the DSG in normal mode for puttering, the uptake on initial acceleration is awkward. Put it in sport mode and getaway is smoother but the car holds gears way to long for regular driving; tap the paddle to upshift, right? Sure…but after about 10 seconds it downshifts itself (quickly) delivering an unexpected blast of engine braking that sends your face toward the steering wheel. Not fun.
The bottom line is that no transmission control algorithm knows what I want to do all the time; while it may be quicker than me around a track, it'll never deliver the same amount of driver satisfaction.
But guess what? The S3 gets the same powertrain, so it's still Golf R for the win. Actually, scratch that -- that would mean it's the GTI with a six-speed manual for the win.
See how much money I just saved you? Put it toward your crossover.
ASSOCIATE EDITOR GRAHAM KOZAK: As much as I enjoyed the moderate glitz and winding roads of the San Diego VW Golf R U.S. launch event -- I came away feeling pretty good about the car, too, for what that’s worth -- it’s always nice to give things a shot on home turf. Initial positive impressions were reinforced by this more recent drive: The Golf R is a really, really good car, but you should wait until the manual goes on sale to scoop one up.
Yes, I know the manual is theoretically slower and all of the development drivers in the audience will roll their eyes at our affection for a stone-age technology. Opinion on the DSG is mixed among AW staffers: Jake likes it; Andy doesn’t; Wes doesn’t seem to care.
I’m with Andy on this one. To eliminate that infuriating first gear lag, you have to throw the car into Sport mode and drive like a banshee -- or use the flappy paddles, which isn’t really satisfying. As with the GLA45 AMG, transmission tuning just isn’t very well suited to the sort of driving that buyers are going to be doing 95 percent of the time.
In fact, I’d rather deal with the manual in stop-n-go traffic; the clutch isn’t heavy and engagement is smooth. I’d point out that sticking with the stick will knock down the sticker slightly, but the reality is that the Golf R will always be substantially more than the GTI (but less than the S3 and far less than the GLA45 AMG).
But enough about transmissions. The rest of the car? Great inside and out. Quiet, composed and understated. (Except for that cheesy synthetic engine note. It’s one of those things you don’t mind until you notice it, after which point it bugs you.) Most folks who look at this will just see a Golf, but those who are in the know will give you the nod of approval.
The $37,415 question, of course, is whether the Golf R is worth $37,415. I’m at the point in my life where a comparably priced WRX STI actually makes sense -- or, as I probably should say, there will never be a point in my life when a WRX STI will make more sense. So I’d probably throw in with the winged wonder this time around. Were I a bit older, maybe with a family, I feel I could justify the Golf R as a 100 percent responsible, sane and -- yes -- practical choice.
You could get a GTI and call it a day; you won’t regret it. But if you’ve outgrown your WRX STI and still want to have loads of understeer-free fun on your back road of choice, this is your ticket.
WEST COAST EDITOR MARK VAUGHN: They spend big bucks for compact cars in Europe because they really need the compact size over there. Here in the land of westward expansion and endless elbow room on the lone prairieee we have a long history of big, big cars and even bigger parking spots. We have grown up thinking bigger is better. They grew up thinking better is better. Thus in Europe they have small cars that cost $40,000.
Is anyone in America going to spend this much for such a small car? (Heck, a Ferrari is a small car, isn’t it?) The market for a Golf R is not big but the buyers are very enthusiastic. And with good reason. The car is pretty impressive when you push it.
Sure, around town it's awkward. The six-speed dual-clutch automated manual doesn't engage the same way a regular automatic transmission would. From idle to slow forward movement the Golf R hesitates. Not enough to constitute a real problem, but enough to constitute a mild irritation that will keep it from ever escaping from its enthusiast micro-niche. There's a hill holder feature to counter this when you're starting on a hill, but I never really needed it.
Get out of town and open it up, though, and it's in its element. Wide-open throttle is a joy as it winds up across the tach and through the gears. Acceleration was described by one passenger as “alarming.” Hammering around twisty mountain roads the R tracks true, albeit with more body roll, dive and squat than you might want (I must disagree with my learned colleagues above on this point, it's a little more flopy than a performance hatch should be). But it does ultimately hold on.
So it’s got what you call character. Is this the character for you? If you grew up modifying Rabbits and Golfs all your life and now finally have some cash to spend on a more sporty commuter, and if your commute takes you over Angeles Crest Highway, then yes, this is for you. If your drive is stop-and-go slogging and there isn't a twist for at least a couple states, then you may want something else. Would I prefer a Subaru WRX STI? No, I appreciate the comfort and general daily liveability of this car. So even given its flaws, I might pick this for an under-40k fun car.
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