Hot hatches are an intriguing juxtaposition – car nuts either love them or hate them. Most of the time, these practical and cheerful little numbers are touted as being for younger enthusiasts. Recent years have seen the debuts of new entries such as the Ford Focus ST (reviewed here) and major updates to iconic numbers such as the Volkswagen GTI. The 2016 Volkswagen Golf R that I tested is a game changer – it’s currently the only hot hatch to post numbers close to the 300 horsepower mark, and is also likely the most livable of the whole bunch.
Subaru’s WRX STi (reviewed here) is one of my favourites; I love its power delivery, grippy all-wheel-drive and punchy personality. A common issue with it is that the STi’s firm ride, subpar interior and overall rough behaviour tempts more mature buyers to look elsewhere. This is favorable for Volkswagen, because the Golf R delivers almost everything the STi does, and is a ton more livable while being equally enjoyable. A huge advantage for me was the practicality of the hatchback, and the fact that the Golf R is an elegant and presentable vehicle.
Propelling the Golf R is a 2.0L inline four-cylinder, the head honcho of the VW Group’s EA888 family of engines. It’s turbocharged, direct injected, and intercooled, and my favourite four-cylinder engine on sale today. Output is 292 horsepower between 5400 and 6200RPM, and 280 lb-ft of torque between 1900-5300RPM. Simply put, this car flies. There’s very little turbocharger lag off the line, and the Golf R pulls hard right through to highway speeds. Our editor had the chance to review the car in a track setting and he came back head over heels for it.
Maximum acceleration is done via the built-in launch control mode. To engage this, set the drive mode to “Race”, set the DSC (Dynamic Stability Control) to “DSC Sport”, hold the brakes down and floor the accelerator. The car will remain still and the tachometer will shoot up to about 4,000RPM. As soon as you release the brakes (when it’s safe to do so), you’ll instantly feel the tires hunting for grip as the car takes off like a rocketship into the sunrise.
Volkswagen offers two transmissions for the Golf R, and thankfully one of them is a traditional six-speed manual. Our test vehicle was equipped with the gearbox that most Canadians will opt for; a six-speed Direct Shift Gearbox. This dual-clutch unit is held to the highest standard for DCTs, and is exceptionally satisfying. It blips and burbles, reminding you that you’re in full control, and the paddles are exceptionally responsive. The “Sport” mode holds gears longer and ensures that you’re in the right gear while cornering and accelerating, but I found myself making full use of manual shift mode the entire time.
The Golf R does have Volkswagen’s 4MOTION all-wheel-drive, but it’s a Haldex system, meaning the car is front-wheel-drive in normal driving. This version of 4MOTION is capable of sending up to 50% of power to the rear axle. There is also a brake-based limited-slip differential to help evenly distribute the torque and sort out the car even more. Overall, it’s a quick system, which means in the majority of everyday situations, the front-bias won’t be immediately evident. My test took place in the spring, so I wasn’t able to evaluate the Golf’s prowess in the winter, but my colleagues attest that the car is a beast when the white stuff falls.
In Canada, Volkswagen rates the Golf R equipped with this transmission at 10.2L/100km in the city and 7.8L/100km on the highway. The 55L fuel tank is sufficiently sized, and after a week’s worth of testing I was able to squeeze 8.6L/100km out of the R. Fuel mileage will improve significantly if you stay out of boost – spirited driving will negatively affect efficiency significantly. Also, this car requires 91-octane premium fuel, and with how pleasurable it is to drive every single minute, you will never be doubting your decision. The lesser GTI and Jetta GLI (reviewed here) can both get away with regular fuel just fine.
Something else that’s seriously appealing about the Golf R is the pricing strategy. Volkswagen prices the hottest hatch in Canada at an appealing $39,995 for the base model. This includes everything including the aggressive leather seats, 19” wheels, bi-xenons, smartphone integration with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. It’s important to note that the base model has the six-speed manual transmission. Opting for the DSG dual-clutch in this tester starts pricing at $41,395. The only option package available (with either transmission) is the Technology Package, at $2,015. This package adds adaptive cruise control, park distance control, satellite navigation, and blind spot monitoring. The total sticker on this loaded example was $43,410.
Out of the hot segment that the Golf R lives in, it easily has the slickest and highest-quality interior. It feels very obviously German, and all of the ergonomics and switchgear are dead-on. Fit and finish is perfect, and there’s nary a panel gap to be found. There’s some sexy blue accent lighting within the cabin at night, and it’s reflective of the Golf R’s cheeky yet classy nature. The touchscreen for the infotainment is large and easy to read, the instrument cluster is well-lit and looks great, and the bolstered seats are comfortable and hug the body nicely in corners while providing adequate support in everyday commuting.
There are a few great alternatives out there to the 2016 Volkswagen Golf R. Even still, it provides a driving experience that’s at least nine-tenths as good as the others while being far superior to endure on a daily basis. On top of it all, the car is affordable and attainable for enthusiasts with a palate for the classier option, and is expected to be pretty reliable in the long run. Sharing a platform and many dynamics with the Audi S3 and new Audi TT-S (reviewed here), the Golf R is a tiger excited to pounce at every opportunity it’s given.
2016 Volkswagen Golf R DSG Gallery