Engine: 2.0L turbo four-cylinder makes 292 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque
Transmission: six-speed dual-clutch or six-speed manual
Price: $37,415 to start or up to $39,910
EPA fuel economy: 23 / 30 MPG city / highway
Whether you own one or not, there’s no denying the buzz Volkswagen’s Golf creates.
It all started in the mid-1970s with the first generation that went on to birth several variations including the GTI that is widely credited with creating the hot hatch segment.
But it wasn’t until the early 2000’s that the Golf really came into its own with the R32, a groundbreaking product in its own time.
Of course VW didn’t stop there and for 2015, the U.S. is taking delivery of the fourth Golf R. This is the quickest and most powerful version of the Golf that VW has ever offered in America.
It has 292 horsepower, 280 lb-ft of torque and it can hit 60 MPH in 4.9 seconds with the dual clutch gearbox or about half a second longer with the manual. In either case, the thing runs like crap through a goose and you get launch control with the dual-clutch transmission.
As with R versions of the Golf in the past, it comes standard with Haldex all-wheel drive. The Golf R is a front-wheel drive vehicle by default, but it can send up to half of its power to the rear axle in order to maintain optimal traction. Truth be told, I was skeptical going in. Slip -and-grip systems tend to do too little too late, but it turns out my doubts were ill founded because it takes effort to upset this car. In light load scenarios like gentle highway driving, the Golf R de-couples its rear end to act strictly as a front-driver. VW says it only takes a few milliseconds for the multi-clutch pack to react and direct torque accordingly. Then again, that’s nothing new. The Golf R and preceding R32 variants all have a reputation for being remarkably stable.
But what’s different about it this time around is that the Golf R has electronic differential locking and VW’s XDS+ cross differential braking system on both axles. The system mimics a limited-slip diff by applying braking to the inside wheels to offer better traction and reduced understeer.
This is also the first time Volkswagen is offering both a manual and a six-speed dual clutch gearbox to us in its ultimate Golf at the same time.
Just like the GTI, it’s available with variable damper settings to offer a more comfortable or performance oriented ride according to your preference. This car sits two tenths of an inch lower than the GTI or 0.8 inches lower than a normal Golf.
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Pricey Golf or Bargain Audi?
So you can look at this car one of two ways. Either its like a Golf cranked up to “11” or – and I prefer this one – it’s a cheaper and more practical Audi S3. That’s because this car shares its platform and powertrain with the Audi apart from one thing: the option to choose a manual gearbox. I say more practical because the S3, like the A3, is only available as a sedan and the Golf is shaped like… a Golf.
The stick will show up later in the model year, meaning you’ll only be able to get a DSG if you’re one of the foremost customers. Honestly, I’m not sure which one I would buy. I love a manual as much as anyone else, possibly more, but the DSG really is that good, especially with a heavily boosted four-cylinder.
Rowing through the gears is intoxicatingly fun in this car. Grip the handle with your right hand, punch the lightly weighted clutch with your left foot, throw it into the next gear then let the left pedal out, squeeze the gas and hang on. It just wants to keep pulling like a puppy with a new toy. As much fun as it is, the fact remains that the manual is no substitute for the speed of a dual-clutch transmission.
This may not be an issue for you, but frankly the pedals in the manual are spaced too generously for my feet and that makes it tough to fully enjoy where it does best: streets and circuits.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get any track time, but that does bring me to an important point. Just like the new GTI, this car has adjustable drive modes that change shift mapping, throttle response, steering weight, and in models with adaptive dampers, it can offer a comfort mode as well. Oh and for the first time in North America, traction control is fully defeatable, which is good news if you plan to participate any sort of autocross competition or track lapping.
For better or worse, I was primarily focused on keeping the shiny side of the car facing up, and that’s where the all-wheel drive system comes into play.
Where’s the Fight?
The Golf R’s most direct competitor from a performance perspective is probably the Subaru WRX STI and it’s worth pointing out that the system in this car isn’t as aggressive as the STI’s. But here’s the trade-off, you’re giving up the all-out rally car credentials that the STI has for something that will do just as well in most cases in a much nicer package.
Of course, this thing isn’t exactly cheap. It starts at $37,415 equipped with the dual clutch automatic. With adaptive dampers and navigation, it runs up to $39,910. That’s a healthy margin over the STI’s $35,000 starting price, but keep in mind that a well-equipped version of that car is over $39 grand as well.
If you’re willing to sacrifice ride comfort in the name of all-out performance, stick with Subie. But if you don’t mind taking a little bit of potential off the top, the Golf R offers most of what the STI will in a much more comfortable and practical package. The good news is, you’ve got lots of time to decide because unlike past versions of the Golf R that were part of a limited release, this model is going to be sold all the way through the MK7 Golf’s life cycle.