Amongst the biggest controversy the brand has faced, Volkswagen has managed to find a silver lining.
I’ve always been a fan of Volkswagens, but the first one I spent an extended period with that left a lasting impression on my mind was the previous-generation Golf R. Packing 250 horsepower, all-wheel-drive, and a six-speed manual, the Mark 6 R was a young auto geek’s dream come true. When the all-new Golf debuted on the MQB platform last year, the only thing that continued to go through my brain was whether or not we would get an R variant in North America. Just over a year later, my prayers have been answered. Thomas Tetzlaff, PR manager for Volkswagen Canada, seems to know my tastes pretty well on a personal level. As soon as it became available, a 2016 Volkswagen Golf R in six-speed manual guise was sent over.
We actually had the chance to sample something very similar last year, and the keen reader will already have observed this. The Audi S3 shares the same MQB platform as the Golf, albeit being priced a little bit higher. The S3 shares the same powerplant, dual-clutch transmission, and all-wheel-drive system as the Golf R. There are a couple of reasons why one would opt for the “lesser” Volkswagen though, and the first is body style. As elegant as it is, the Audi S3 cannot be had as a Sportback in North America. Secondly, the six-speed manual transmission equipped here is not available on the Audi.
Being the hottest model in Volkswagen’s lineup, the motor is the Golf R’s strongest conversation piece. It’s an EA888-series 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder, shared with many other applications throughout the Volkswagen family. However, it’s tuned much more aggressively here including a considerably higher amount of boost and unique engine tweaking. There’s also direct injection on board, which makes for 292 horsepower available between 5400 and 6200RPM, and 280 lb-ft of torque between 1900 and 5300RPM.
A 300-horsepower hot hatch is a fantastic idea, especially as a rival to the Subaru WRX STi and the upcoming Ford Focus RS. Since we haven’t driven the Focus RS yet, our comparisons will be limited to the Subaru. The standard Golf GTI is front-wheel-drive, so the AWD aboard the R is a great addition. This is a Haldex setup, which is front-biased. It is, however, able to send up to 50% of power to the rear axle. We didn’t do any winter road testing (stand by in the coming months for that), but the Golf R was very balanced during cornering and had no torque steer on hard acceleration. The limited slip system is brake-based and ensures torque is distributed evenly.
My colleague Louis recently sampled the Golf R with the DSG transmission, and we predict it will be the one the vast majority of buyers will opt for. For the purist though, Volkswagen has made this six-speed manual available to the Canadian market. The shifter is one of the best I’ve used, and the clutch has a very definitive bite point. There’s no noticeable learning curve, and I was rev matching and heel-and-toeing downshifts within minutes of jumping into the R. This transmission is so buttery smooth that at one point, I had a passenger who had no idea the car was a manual until I pointed it out.
Handling in the Golf R is point-and-shoot. The steering wheel is flat-bottomed and sends the car exactly where pointed with impeccable precision. As with the vast majority of modern cars, there isn’t much in the way of analog feedback, but the rest of the car is so crisp that it’s forgivable. Just throwing the Golf into a freeway onramp is satisfying – this is a car that puts a smile on your face each and every day of the year. Unlike its lesser brother the GTI, the Golf R allows you to disable any and all stability control systems for maximum fun during the winter months. With the right rubber, there is just so much grip in this car it’s simply unreal.
Setting off the rear of the 2016 Volkswagen Golf R are quad exhaust tips, two on each side of the car. They let out a great sound, but it’s amplified even more on the inside. This is because Volkswagen actually pipes artificial engine noise through the speakers. The car’s drive mode control allows you to alter quite a few settings, from drivetrain to steering and even engine noise. Setting everything to “Comfort” tones down the fake sounds, but it also sets the dynamic damping (Dynamic Chassis Control) at the softest setting. When in “Race”, the dampers are at their sportiest, and ride is firm but not as jarring as the Subaru WRX or STi.
Now, the Golf R isn’t as efficient as a TDI or TSI model, but I observed considerably better fuel economy in this hot hatch than I did in the WRX STi. My week consisted of mostly highway driving, but with a generous amount of spirited acceleration and hilly roads. Even still, I finished off my week at 10.4L/100km, over about 550km of driving. It’s worth noting that this test was done on winter tires with winter blend premium fuel. The 55L fuel tank should only be fed 91-octane or higher due to the high compression ratio and forced induction. Buyers doing mostly highway driving that have conservative right feet can expect numbers in the 9.6-9.9L/100km range over a longer term.
For 2016, the Golf R starts at just $39,995 in Canada. The DSG transmission adds $1,400 right off the bat, but that’s something I would forego in favour of the manual transmission model I drove here. For $2,015 extra, the Technology Package includes adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring, lane assist, satellite navigation, park distance control (front and rear), and automatic emergency braking. Personally, the standard tech on board the Golf R would have me skip this package too. The addition of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto means even the base model uses navigation, and Google Maps or even the native Apple Maps on my iPhone are both wholly superior to the VW unit.
I’ve never been the biggest fan of the Fender audio system in higher trim Volkswagens, but the entertainment tweaks across the lineup for 2016 include upgrades to this system. The stereo remains at eight speakers, but there is a lot more clarity and tight bass, which the old setup was lacking. I was able to use the built-in equalizer to get the sound exactly how I wanted it, and I didn’t have to touch it again the entire week I had the car. Thanks to the conventional USB port, iPod connectivity was no issue at all.
However, all wasn’t perfect during my week with the Golf R. Firstly, I don’t understand why Volkswagen won’t offer the ‘flagship’ of the Golf family with a sunroof. To compare, the last Golf R sold on our shores was the Mark 6, and you couldn’t get that car without a sunroof. This would probably be a deal breaker for me as I would need a sunroof in my daily driver, and this car is far too much fun to restrict to weekend use. Also, I found the dual zone automatic climate control to be a bit finicky. It would flip-flop between extremely hot and frigid, with no real middle ground. I’ll definitely chalk this off to being an early production glitch.
Amongst the biggest controversy the brand has faced, Volkswagen has managed to display a silver lining in the shape of this 2016 Volkswagen Golf R. It’s a serious contender in the hot hatch segment, and may very well be the hottest hatch currently available for sale here. The upcoming Ford Focus RS is going to be the Golf’s biggest rival, and we can’t wait to put the two head-to-head to see how they compare. The Golf R’s simplicity and great ergonomics lead me to choose it over the Subaru WRX STi as a daily driver, because in this case, the Japanese car is just way too focused and hardcore for my bones to endure all week long. The R is the sweet spot and is a welcome addition to the enthusiast’s garage.
2016 Volkswagen Golf R Gallery