2016 Volkswagen Golf R Review: Quick Take

This is the first year the Golf R is available with an automatic transmission.

Driving a Volkswagen Golf R has always put you in a special club of “Save the Manuals” fanatics, so more than a couple enthusiasts (me included) melodramatically proclaimed that “this is the end” when VW announced that a six-speed DSG would become available in the hot hatch for the first time ever.

I really liked the fact that this hot hatch used to be manual-only, because it weeded out all the posers who can’t drive stick, but how does the R do with this new DSG? Is the hot hatch just as hot without three pedals?

Do Not Fear, Enthusiasts

The quick answer to that question is that this six-speed DSG is probably the best dual clutch automatic transmission on the market right now, so my fears about an automatic neutering the R and making it boring were completely unfounded.

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The shifts are like rapid fire, and the DSG never gets confused and always seems to know what gear to be in. There’s no weird shuddering at low speeds, and it’s not shy about dropping down a gear to keep the engine in its sweet spot when you need more power. Of course, the manual is always going to be more engaging, but the automatic is just so good, it doesn’t really take away from how fun the R feels and it will even get to to 60 mph about 0.7 seconds faster than the manual can, even though the manual is 80 pounds lighter.

ALSO SEE: Volkswagen Golf GTI Review

Helping it hit those speeds are is a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with 292 hp and 280 pound-feet of torque, which comes online at a low 1,800 rpm. Those numbers may not seem like much in a world of 700-hp Hellcats, but in practice, you’ll never find yourself wanting more power. Getting up to highway speeds or juking around traffic in town, the R feels so much faster than its numbers suggest. It’s a nimble car with fantastic steering and it’s easy to really get the most of it, which to me, is worth more than massive power figures.

Volkswagen GTI Review

Race Mode

When I first got into the R, it felt a lot like a GTI, maybe a bit stiffer and slightly quicker. But then I switched it into Race mode, and it changed the car’s personality entirely.

One of my complaints in the GTI and the R in its regular driving mode was that it was too quiet. Well, race mode has your back. All of a sudden, the R puts its mean face on, it’s faster, it’s  more responsive, and has a growly sound to match. It’s the kind of sound that encourages you to get up to hijinks and really explore the car’s limits. It’s loud enough to make you smile, but isn’t so loud that it’s obnoxious and you feel like a teenaged idiot with a fart can.

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The Value Question

The R starts at just over $36,000, in the U.S., which is a bargain for a car with this type of poise and performance, but loaded up, it can surpass the $40,000 mark. Luckily there aren’t a lot of options to drive up the price (the DSG and a driver assistance/safety tech package are the only options), but $40,000 can be a lot to pay for a VW, especially when you can get a Subaru WRX STi for less money. My advice? Just get the manual because it costs about a thousand dollars less.

One thing the Golf R does better than the Subaru is that it feels more buttoned down, more composed and a hell of a lot more refined. It also has a way nicer interior, it’s more comfortable, has a better infotainment system and the suspension is a bit more forgiving. But really, the R’s biggest competition is the GTI. The R has the added benefit of being all-wheel-drive, but the GTI is so good that it makes the more expensive R a bit harder to justify.

2016 Volkswagen Golf R Review-14

The Verdict: 2016 Volkswagen Golf R Review

All in all, the GTI has always been one of my favorite cars, and the R makes it even better. It’s well-rounded, refined, fun, practical, and it’s just as happy ripping through twisty roads as it is just going to the grocery store. And this is still true, even with an automatic transmission.

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