What is the Golf R? That’s an important question to ask because how you answer it is going to seriously impact your opinion of it. Is it a $40,000 Volkswagen Golf? Is it a GTI for people who think they need all wheel drive? Is it the hatchback version of the S3 that Audi won’t sell us?
In a sense, those answers are all right. The R is an all-wheel-drive Golf with a reworked version of the GTI’s turbocharged four-cylinder engine that now makes 292 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque. Those numbers are identical to the Audi S3, which is built on the same platform as the Golf R, and equipped the way you’d want it, it will cost you right around $40,000.
After spending a little while behind the wheel though, I can tell you that none of those answers really “get” the Golf R. What Volkswagen’s really made is a no-compromise, everyday sports car.
Just looking at the Golf R in the parking lot or stopped in traffic, most people wouldn’t ever notice that it’s anything different than a regular five-door Golf. Yes, the quad exhausts immediately stand out to anyone who pays attention to such things, and there are “R” badges on the front and back, but for the most part, what you get is a Volkswagen Golf.
There’s seating for five, even if you probably wouldn’t want to fit more than four, and the hatchback design provides plenty of headroom. If you’re looking for more cargo space than the trunk provides, the rear seats offer a 60/40 split, and they can even be folded down completely to create more than 50 cubic feet of cargo space.
In Comfort mode, the Golf R handles city streets and long, straight highways with ease. It’s fairly efficient too, getting an EPA highway rating of 30 miles per gallon. Yes, there are more efficient vehicles out there, but that’s still not going to break the bank. Around the city, you’ll appreciate good visibility and the Golf’s relatively small size when trying to navigate narrow streets or parallel park in a tight spot.
Inside, the materials all feel fairly high quality and even premium. There are a few places with hard plastic, but overall the cabin is classy and well put together. The steering wheel especially feels great in your hands and stays comfortable after several hours of driving. The seats, while well bolstered and definitely sporty, are comfortable. Even after spending most of the day sitting in them, I didn’t feel fatigued or exhausted.
The Golf R may be practical and economical, but it doesn’t want you to drive it like an economy car. What it wants you to do is to put it in Race mode, head for the hills, and drive it like it’s a good old fashioned sports car. When you do that, boy oh boy does it get good.
Even in Comfort mode, you can still hear the quad exhaust somewhat, but once you choose Race mode, it gives up on pretending it isn’t a sports car and really lets the engine breathe. I’m a hooligan who would have loved to hear some burble at idle and a little bit more snarl, but that doesn’t mean the exhaust note sounds bad. In fact, it actually sounds really good. It’s just not quite as raw as I perhaps would have liked.
Floor it, though, and you’re met with enough acceleration to push you back into your seat. No, you won’t be chasing down F-Types and Corvettes in your Golf R, but it’s definitely fast enough to have a lot of fun. The official 0-60 time is a tick under five seconds with the DSG transmission, but if you can drive stick, trust me, you want the manual transmission. Volkswagen’s DSG is a great transmission, but hot hatches are almost always better with a manual, and the Golf R is no exception. It may be slightly slower from 0-60, but being in charge of shifting your own gears just adds to the R experience.
In tight mountain switchbacks, the Golf R is a bit too brawny to have that flickable fun that you get in the Fiesta ST, and under hard cornering, the all wheel drive system can’t completely eliminate understeer. If you spring for Dynamic Chassis Control, however, the electronically adjustable adaptive damping system manages to turn the Golf R into an incredibly neutral handler. Suddenly, you can throw it into a corner and trust that it’s going to go exactly where you point it. You can brake late and really push it a lot harder than you can even push a GTI. In case you’re wondering, yes, that’s a lot of fun.
That ability to be both quite practical and quite a lot of fun is really where the Golf R shines. The WRX STI is going to offer you more performance for your money, as will the CLA 45 AMG and M235i. It’s going to be hard to get as much practicality out of those three when you need them to do daily driver duty though. If your heart wants a sports car, but your head knows you need something more practical, then it’s going to be incredibly hard to beat the Volkswagen Golf R.