2018 Volkswagen Golf R First Drive

2018 Volkswagen Golf R First Drive

With the update to the 2018 Volkswagen Golf family comes a new transmission. For now, only one car in all of North America can be purchased with VW’s seven-speed dual-clutch DSG transmission and it is, of course, the Golf R. But can it hold a candle to the manual transmission?

Long the darling of the brand, the Golf R walks the line between premium and people’s car, between luxury and performance car, and its latest iteration continues in the fine tradition with a bigger infotainment screen as standard and a suite of premium options to go with it. Outside, the new R tail gets a new bumper, new headlights, and slightly revised shape with a more vertical hatch.

From the driver’s seat, though, not a whole lot has changed. Sure, there’s that new infotainment screen and the standard virtual cockpit, but otherwise, you have to pay very close attention to notice any differences. Under the hood, not much has changed either, with the same 2.0-liter engine with the same 292 horsepower, sending power to four wheels through the same 4Motion system — the sameness is not a problem because everything was great to begin with.

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So what’s the hubbub all about? Well, with a new transmission comes a new character, closer gear ratios that cover a greater range of situations, from off-the-line theatrics to dead quiet highway cruising and improves gas mileage by one (city) mpg. One extra gear may not sound like a lot, but the difference is noticeable.

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As mentioned off the top, performance is helped by the addition of the extra gear —  acceleration feels a little more urgent (an official zero-to-60-mph time hasn’t been posted yet), but the real advantages come in real-world situations. The extra gear means that you can be in the power band longer. Torque was never really hard to find in the R, given the EA888’s flat torque er… curve, but at 5,400 rpm, max horsepower wasn’t always readily available. And that’s where this seven-speed really shines.

The result is that you can spend more time dancing with the horsepower, which is lovely. It’s not just the amount of gears that has improved, but the transmission’s settings, too. Most DSG transmissions struggle with the task of prediction. I concede that predictions are hard, but the DSG’s complete refusal to even try has caused them to seem indecisive through corners.

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Slow down perfectly, let off the brake just right, turn in at the ideal moment, and ease onto the gas – nothing… the moment passes – nothing… the corner exit is now in the mirror – nothing… you start rocking in your seat willing the car forward – and finally, the car picks the right gear and gives you a kick in the pants. Volkswagens are hardly alone in this. The leap from cruising highways and carving canyons can often be subtle and hard to spot unless you’re inside the head of the driver, but it’s also deeply annoying.

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The Golf R’s new transmission settings, though, can commit to a level of discomfort that makes “Sport mode” truly feel different and allows the car to hang onto gears long enough that downshifts aren’t required every time you mash the pedal. That does a pretty good job of solving the problem, though even that can’t solve the problem completely.

If you want to avoid the deficiency of urgency, you have to select your own gears, which can be done either from the shifter knob or the flappy paddles. Both are good, though the paddles feel especially good in this latest version. They’re snappy and tactile and just do their job without getting in the way of the stocks. Again, it feels like there’s more difference between the settings in this new Golf R. Shifts are accomplished at blink-of-an-eye speed in Race mode, but are a little more comfortable in comfort mode. So all in all, the seven-speed is an improvement over the six-speed DSG that it replaces, and that can still be found in the GTI. But can an extra gear and an extra clutch make this better than the Golf R’s six-speed manual transmission?

No.

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Sure, it’s fast. Sure, you can stay in power band for longer. Sure, you can flip paddles like all of your favorite race car drivers. But so what? Going faster is personal pursuit, and I acknowledge that for VW, the improvement is impressive, but from the driver’s seat, their achievement is just that: their achievement. It doesn’t make me feel any better. When I’m in a manual car, I can see what’s ahead of me and predict when and where I’ll need what. It’s a skill and the honing of that skill is what I enjoy. You don’t drive to go fast in the same way you don’t eat because you want to poop. Going fast is a result of the joys of driving, it’s not the joy. And the six-speed manual in the Golf R is still really good, so keep buying that.

However, if I could exercise my right to cognitive dissonance, I also don’t want the pace of progress to slow and what this new DSG transmission is, is good. Very good, in fact. And if my nonsense about shifting for yourself doesn’t resonate with you, you’ll be impressed by just how much better the seven-speed is. Like the new Golf, it’s not a wild leap forward, but it’s a thorough reworking and it’s a little bit better in nearly every way than the six-speed DSG. So if you wanted a DSG, be happy.

This article originally appeared on VW Vortex