Volkswagen is credited with essentially creating the hot hatchback segment back in the 1980s. The “Mk1” Rabbit got a dose of go-fast and look-fast parts and thus the original GTI was born. At the time, large American luxury barges with their big V8s were the name of the game. Volkswagen wanted to go in a different direction, emphasizing driving fun in a small, yet practical package that also sipped fuel. Successive generations of the Golf (and GTI by extension) got larger, but also, faster. By the third generation, you could even get a six-cylinder VR6 engine under the hood. Many people on the internet like to remember how things “used to be”, but 2015 brought along the Mk7-generation Golf, GTI, and now the R.
The Golf R in its early days was also a testbed for a new technology: the dual-clutch automatic transmission (branded DSG, or Direct Shift Gearbox). This new hardware would go on to be one of the Volkswagen Group’s core areas of expertise. I’ve always loved hot hatchbacks, thanks to their blend of frantic fun, but also the ability to carry five and some cargo, all in a relatively city-friendly footprint. I picked up the key to a Tornado Red 2016 Volkswagen Golf R with the DSG transmission and Technology Package.
The Mk7 Golf rides on the new (for 2015) MQB platform, also shared with some vehicles in the Audi group. Compared to the outgoing Mk6 Golf, it retains a fairly familiar look, never really straying too far from what the Golf has historically looked like. I reviewed the GTI last year, and the aesthetic differences between it and the R can be subtle, if you don’t know what to look for. Other than the little R badges on the front grille, rear hatch, and both front fenders, you may notice the missing fog lamps – deleted to make way for additional cooling ducting and radiators. The headlights are also unique to the R, gaining a full LED strip that handles turn-signal duty. Out back, the taillights are similar to that of the GTI – I would have liked to see LED brake lights and taillights, which the previous Mk6 Golf R did have.
Four tailpipes are mounted low in the subtle rear diffuser – this is one of the cues you have that this is no regular Golf. The Golf R rides on a set of attractive 19-inch “Cadiz” wheels (that remind me a little bit of the wheels on the B8-generation Audi S4) and 235-section Continental summer tires at all four corners. The Mk7 Golf R is a handsome five-door hatchback, with a good mix of sharp edges and soft curves, producing a refined look that should age well in the future. Some cars in the same class offer more character by way of big spoilers and shouty colours, but the Golf R errs to a more conservative look.
Inside, the Golf R is a great place to spend time, with almost-Audi levels of equipment and feel. What I liked is how VW pulled down a lot of premium features from higher-end Audis to make the Golf R a comprehensively-equipped machine. Heated leather seating surfaces, adaptive radar cruise control, power everything, and good sightlines keeps the driver comfortable and inspires confidence. The interior is a little more high-tech than the Audi A3 and S3, both of which go for the slightly more minimalist look and feel. The only thing missing is a power sunroof – it is not available on the Golf R, likely for weight savings, and more headroom if you need a helmet on for those track days.
Front and centre is an updated VW infotainment system, which includes satellite navigation and SiriusXM radio. The big deal here is the inclusion of the Android Auto and Apple Carplay. Finally making its way into more vehicles across the entire industry, this integration standardizes the multimedia and navigation interface around the two most popular mobile phone operating systems available. All it takes is for the user to plug his or her phone into the USB port, and ensure the appropriate app is installed on your phone.
I’m an Android user, and found the new interface to be very well-designed for interactions on the go. The VW-issued map system is replaced by the ever-popular Google Maps, and the in-car entertainment interface is replaced by Google Play Music – something I was already using anyway, with Bluetooth streaming audio. The homepage works a lot like Google Now, in that it’ll give you estimated times for recently searched destinations, and it’ll even read new group chat messages out loud, and give you the (singular) option to reply with, “I’m driving right now”. The big advantage is that the system can be updated by Google and Apple over the air, instead of being locked into vehicle manufacturer-specific updates. In short, I’m happy that Android Auto and Apple Carplay are finally here. Android Auto is good enough that I want it in my own car.
So, we’ve learned that the Golf R does a great job picking up features, feel, and content from more premium makes and models. What makes the Golf R special, however, is the hardware under the hood. In this case, it’s the flagship member of the EA888 engine family, with a lot more boost and supporting modifications. This R-specific motor displaces 2.0L, features direct-injection, turbocharging, and intercooling to produce 292hp from 5400-6200rpm, and 280lb-ft of torque from 1900-5300rpm. It’s this torque figure that allows the Golf R to be so flexible to either drive around town or on the racetrack.
My particular tester was equipped with the six-speed DSG automatic transmission. Similar to the unit in the Audi S3 (called S-Tronic there), the DSG is well-programmed to hammer out rapid-fire shifts in Sport mode. There’s the ever-popular audible burp in between gears as the engine pulls throttle and timing as the DSG works its magic. Even in the standard Drive mode, the DSG behaves similarly to the unit in the GTI. Low speed creep remains a slight weakness nowadays – taking your foot off the brake pedal means first gear needs to be selected and the clutch automatically slipped to get you to roll forward. Acura in particular resolves this quirk by adding in a torque converter to dramatically make low-speed creep smoother.
The big horsepower and torque figures would be for naught if they couldn’t be delivered to the ground. To ensure maximum traction, VW adds their 4MOTION all-wheel drive system. Based on a fifth-generation Haldex design, it can dynamically send more power to the rear axle – up to 50%, of which this ratio can be varied between both rear wheels. Under steady-state cruising, the Golf R is primarily a front-drive vehicle, but the system reacts quickly enough such that the driver won’t feel the power move around all four wheels, in most cases. A brake-based limited slip system further assists with torque distribution.
Like the Audi S3, the Golf R features a launch control mode: select the Race drive mode, engage DSC Sport for good measure, apply full pressure to the brakes, and then apply full pressure to the accelerator. The revs are held at around 4000rpm, and when you release your left foot off the brakes, you’ll instantly feel all four wheels clawing at the ground for traction. Keep your right foot down long enough, and you’ll hit 100km/h in just about five seconds.
In addition to the added all-wheel drive traction, the Golf R also features much larger brakes (ventilated at all four corners), with the R logo stamped onto the front calipers. Hiding behind the wheels are firmer spring rates (with a slightly lowered ride height), thicker sway bars, and variable dampers – configurable with the Drive mode selector just behind the engine start-stop button on the centre console. What I liked is that the system remembers what mode you had it has set to, every time you start the car. In the Individual mode (pulled from Audi), you can configure a multitude of items: transmission calibration, steering assist, how aggressive the adaptive radar cruise is, and even the sound that enters the cockpit. That’s right – the VW Golf R plays simulated synthetic engine sounds through the stereo. It’s a little quiet in Comfort mode, and the Sport mode plays a slightly gruff sound that is unlike most turbocharged fours out there today.
Regardless of all the excellent go-fast hardware built into the Golf R, efficiency still remains high on the list of priorities. If you want your hot hatchback to “do it all”, it also needs to be relatively frugal when you’re on your daily commute to and from work. VW Canada rates the Golf R with the DSG at 10.2L/100km in the city, and 7.8L/100km on the highway. I ended up at an indicated average of 10.6L/100km over about 800km. This consisted of a lot of stop-and-go city driving. It shouldn’t be difficult to get closer to highway rating if you stay off the go-fast pedal, but what’s the fun in that? The Golf R will accept 55L of premium fuel.
The R sits at the top of the Golf lineup, making for a spread of over $20,000, when you compare the base-model Golf TSI, to the fully loaded Golf R with DSG transmission and Tech package. If you choose to row your own gears and skip the Tech package, you can get into a Golf R for as little as $39,995. It’s pretty well-equipped as it is. The DSG transmission adds $1,400, and the Tech package adds the aforementioned adaptive radar cruise control, blind spot monitoring, the larger 8-inch infotainment system, and various parking sensors for $2,015. Things like the leather seating surfaces, push-button start, and the adaptive dampers are all standard equipment. The as-tested price of my particular Golf R tester comes to $43,410. It’s a lot of car for the money regardless of how you equip it.
The VW Golf R is the kind of car that excels on spec sheets. I mean, it possesses all the right hardware that one needs to go fast and have fun (well within legal limits, of course) – all-year round. Most of my colleagues prefer a more comfortable and isolated ride, and some of them prefer the overpowered and overfed boosted luxury cars we’re seeing come out from Germany nowadays. I’m the outlier, preferring a raw and involving experience. Firm suspensions and loud exhausts are acceptable in my books, and the overall feel is really what matters the most. I’m also a firm believer that just about anybody can go fast in a straight line, so agility (in a very general sense) is what I’m after.
The Golf R plays right in the middle of that high-value, high-performance arena. The most natural competitor is the Subaru WRX STi, which costs almost as much, and offers a similar (but quite different) implementation of turbocharging and all-wheel drive speed. It all depends on what you’re looking for, but right from the start, I can say with confidence that the Golf R is much friendlier car to live with on a daily basis. You can dial the suspension back down to a relatively comfortable mode, and the interior is built to an Audi-level of refinement. The hatchback design also wins, now that Subaru isn’t really building the STi with five doors anymore. The exterior design is much more pleasing, too – the Golf R is simply a handsome car, whereas the Subaru WRX STi shamelessly panders to a younger crowd.
However, at the end of the week, I think I would still opt for the Subaru, between the two. The Golf R is a fantastic vehicle that delivers one of the best-rounded, quality feels, and outright speed for the price, but to me, it felt a little like a (much) faster GTI. This isn’t a bad thing by any means. I like to work for my speed, and the Subaru WRX STi nails the driving interface just that little bit better (in terms of what I’m looking for). However, to the vast majority out there, the Golf R is one of the best go-fast packages you can get for under $50,000. I even like it more than the Audi S3, because I feel the common MQB-platform is best when you get it with five doors. Next on my list is to spend some time with a manual-transmission Golf R. The fact that it exists may be enough for some to really pay attention.
2016 Volkswagen Golf R Gallery