I love the way the Golf R sounds when you’re just pushing it. The whoosh of the turbo masking the slightly buzzy engine, while letting off quickly brings a hint of popping fuel on the overrun. It’s one of the surprising things I discovered during the week with Volkswagen’s newest halo performance car.
|1. Powered by a 2.0L turbocharged 4-cylinder the Golf R makes 256 hp and 243 lb-ft of torque
2. With standard 4MOTION AWD and a six-speed manual it will hit 60 mph in 5.6 seconds.
3. Pricing starts at $33,990, or $34,590 for the five-door.
Halo car? Generally that term is reserved for six-figure supercars with uncountable horses underhood, but in the case of the Golf R, the idea fits. Production for North America is extremely limited; Canada sold out of its 500 allotted units within a few hours of being put on sale, while the United States might get five times that. So, say, 3,000 total for such a huge population means it’s just as rare as nearly any Porsche, Audi or Corvette.
And in the bright Rising Blue Metallic paint, enormous gaping air ducts, twin center-mounted exhaust and R-specific 18-inch wheels really help set the ultimate Golf apart from its more plebeian counterparts. Car-fans and VW nuts spotted it almost immediately.
Watching out for drivers piloting three-color third-gen Jettas and gently-aged Passats distracted by the R’s presence was a daily exercise. This car certainly turns heads, although they’re usually wearing flat-brimmed baseball caps perched at jaunty angles...
So what exactly are those fans excited about? Well, the R is the most powerful production Golf yet, offering 256 horsepower and 243 lb-ft of torque out of that familiar 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. Previous R models – dubbed R32 – used normally aspirated 3.2-liter V6 engines, but topped out at around 240 horsepower. Like those older generations, though, the new ‘R’ does get 4MOTION all-wheel drive, which gives it plenty of traction and stability, especially in messy conditions. It also helps the Golf R run the 0-60 mph test in only 5.6 seconds.
Volkswagen’s best only comes with a six-speed manual transmission, unlike the original R32s that used six-speed DSG boxes. Given its reasonably increased output, fuel economy figures of 19 mpg city and 27 mpg highway aren’t terrible.
Full disclosure: I really wasn’t bowled over by the Golf R the first time I drove it. Admittedly, it wasn’t for very long and I had recently driven sharper sports machines like the Scion FR-S and Ford Focus ST, and the Volkswagen’s more cruiser-like behavior didn’t get my pulse racing.
However, having spent a full week with one, I learned that the R does scratch that performance itch, especially during some horribly snowy and slushy storms. With a set of excellent Continental winter tires, the 4MOTION system gives the car an extra-planted feeling. The power comes on progressively from about 2200 rpm without any real spikes, so you have an extra cushion against breaking the tires’ traction. But, the computer and center differential are smart enough to allow very slight slip angles under throttle, giving it a sense of being more agile than I’d gotten during our first encounter.
One thing that’s gotten Volkswagen in a little heat is that it’s virtually impossible for the average owner to turn off the traction and stability control system. There’s no button or switch in the cabin, and it can’t be accessed through the trip computer either. During my time with it, there were only a couple instances where I could feel the system gently intervening and tighten the car’s line, and it wasn’t terribly intrusive.
Otherwise, the one real complaint is that the car’s electrically assisted power steering doesn’t talk back much. It’s direct enough, and the car responds well to input, but feedback is really missing.
When you get a rhythm going along your favorite roads, the one thing you never have to worry about in the Golf R is staying in place. The thickly bolstered sport seats lock you in place and make throwing the car around significantly easier.
The rest of our tester’s interior is essentially ‘loaded Golf’, including the big color touchscreen dominating the dashboard, which also gives access to the optional navigation system. The Dynaudio speakers rock out most music plenty loud, the climate control works great, while the heated seats help on cold winter mornings.
The best part about the Golf R is that it still has all the positives of less expensive models, meaning good visibility, a spacious cargo area that can be expanded thanks to a split-folding rear seat and a decent number of cubbies. Rear-seat space isn’t bad and hooking in a child seat is just as simple.
Pricing for the three-door Golf R starts at $33,990, while the five-door is $34,590. Add another $1,500 for our top-end tester’s sunroof and navigation, and that’s it.
Here’s where the Golf R starts to get itself in trouble. The Focus ST has more power and torque, is more satisfying to drive and starts at $23,700, but even loaded up to match the R’s spec, it still well under $30,000. If you need all-wheel drive, the Subaru Impreza WRX offers 265 horsepower and all the toys for $29,300, while the 305-horsepower road-eating STI is just about even at $34,300.
And that’s where the R falls down with most people: the value equation doesn’t mix... But that’s most people. There are obviously enough fans of what Volkswagen’s done here to sell out quickly, and I’d guess they’ll be very satisfied with their choice.
For me? Despite my history as a Subaru enthusiast, given the opportunity, I’d give the Golf R a whirl again.