Nostalgia is a strange part of the human condition, isn’t it? We all tend to grow sentimental when recalling the good times, as memories of places that are long gone or loved ones who are no longer with us are triggered by something as simple as a song or film from our childhood. But my nostalgia tends to be mostly mechanically focused, so when it comes time to act wistful over something like the original Golf, I’m fortunate enough where all I have to do is reach out to a friend who owns one and go for a cruise.
A part of me wishes we still referred to the Golf as the Rabbit, just so the modern Golf R could rock a badass nickname like the “Wild Hare” or the “Rabid Rabbit.” It’s impossible to ignore how focused and refined the R is over the already sublime GTI, but most people would never know it based on looks alone. With a solid week of driving behind me, I can confidently claim that this car is still an animal regardless of name, and that any fan of the hot hatch segment should drive one at least once in their lives.
There’s so much brilliance packed into this little hatchback that you quickly get the notion it isn’t just another car built to blast by people in the left lane. Too often the hype surrounding a performance car is centered around powerband numbers or zero to 60 times, causing buyers to lose sight of what has always made Volkswagen’s performance cars so appealing: their ability to straddle the line between sensible and sensational.
Unlike the Focus RS, STI Impreza, and the upcoming Civic Type-R, the Golf R holds back in the aero department, instead offering a subtle approach that borders on putting the vehicle in the “sleeper” category. There are more pronounced aerodynamic touches out front, and that quad exhaust is pretty noticeable, but if it weren’t for a few R badges, most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the R and the lesser GTI. This can be both a blessing and a curse, as it keeps the vehicle off the radar on spirited drives, but also may prevent it from attracting enthusiasts who want more aggressive hot hatch styling.
Exterior pros and cons
+ A simple yet sharp piano black rear diffuser matches the gaping grilles out front, while a snubby shark fin antenna and subtle “R” badges offer sleek punctuation marks.
+ The quad exhaust is notable but not ostentatious, and fits snugly within the rear diffuser, with just the right stagger and angle. Attractive 5-spoke, 18-inch alloy wheels, auto adapting bi-xenon lamps, LED running lights, and rain-sensing wipers wrap things up nicely.
+ Unless you look closely, it’s hard to tell that this is the most powerful Golf ever made for America, which is a blessing if you plan on using the vehicle at its full potential on the open road.
– On the flip side, some buyers prefer a showy hot hatch, and they might find the subdued styling to be a little too light-handed.
– No keyless rear entry or sunroof, and the side mirrors do not retract automatically for street parking purposes.
The R’s powertrain is without question its strongest selling point, offering an engaging, refined, and even reassuring take on all-wheel drive turbo technology. It’s a brilliant setup that never seems to act strained, regardless of driving condition or speed you put it in, and the learning curve associated with getting the hang of it all is pretty easy.
Powertrain pros and cons
+ Manageable power is the key to success in something so small. With the 4Motion all-wheel drive system, 280 pound-feet of torque and 292 horsepower also returning a reasonable 22/31 mpg rating, the Golf R does just about everything well.
+ Just like every other manual Volkswagen on the market today, the R has a gearbox that’s slicker than silk and fun to drive, with automatic transmission options giving buyers the choice to paddle-shift their way onto the interstate.
+ Exhaust note is surprisingly subtle despite the appearance of that staggered quad exhaust; even race mode remains subdued in the decibel department.
– Only runs on premium gas, performance mode doesn’t seem to do very much for throttle feel, and exhaust notes may be a bit too muffled for some buyers.
Comparing the cabin to the drivetrain may sound a little screwy, but if you step back and compare the two, you’ll see that they share some similarities here. They’re beautifully built, well refined, aggressive enough for the average enthusiast, and somewhat straight-laced. I found the cabin of the R to be a very well designed and executed area that happened to lose points over little oversights, if anything because it felt just a little too serious.
Interior pros and cons
+ German interior styling is top-notch and sleek, with the kind of quality buttons, switches, materials, and practical design cues one would expect in a car of this caliber.
+ Winning touches include the beautifully balanced sport steering wheel, oversized door cupholders that fit water canteens, grippy aluminum race pedals, blue LED mood lighting, and a shifter assembly that’s simply sublime.
+ Heated front seats, a very quiet cabin, and loads of headroom add appeal.
– No center storage beneath armrest, mediocre rear bench legroom, and no LED mood lights in the back.
Tech and safety
Minute interior misses aside, tech and safety features were the only other areas of the R that left me wanting, not because something didn’t work well, but because there were a few crucial components missing all together. It may do the best with what it has, but compared to what the competition offers for the same amount of money, the misses tend to add up quickly.
Tech pros and cons
+ Vehicle tracking data is detailed and easy to understand, and even offers a lap timer function.
+ Driver information display covers a lot of vital stats, and like every other part of the car, it has a stylish, streamlined approach.
+ Push-button start, electronic e-brake, drive mode selectors, and touchscreen all feature commendable response times.
– No standard Fender audio components, and both touchscreen and driver display features remained decidedly “minimalist” when compared to the competition.
– Safety features include airbags, stability control, ABS, crash response, and TPMS; don’t expect any fancy autonomous tech or suite of sensors here.
All-wheel drive 4Motion system at the ready, the Golf R pounds the pavement like a track-tuned superstar, and even though the Bridgestone Potenzas beneath it screamed in protest at times, the little hatchback held itself together in every driving environment I could put it through. It’s the jacked up version of the already stunning GTI S we tested last summer, so being slightly more potent and far more traction-focused, I found myself driving with a level of ease and assurance that brought on a feeling of invulnerability.
It’s got a great torque curve and those 292 ponies for top end punch, directional inputs are lightning fast, and that six-speed manual gearbox is so smooth that gear shifts become almost telepathic. But while it carves corners with acute precision and the reassurance of big, grippy brakes, there’s a level of serenity inside that causes the car to feel slightly toned down, and borderlines on being unsatisfying.
Once familiarity settles in, you begin to get the sense that this car is almost too controlled, too neatly dressed, and entirely too well mannered. It’s a strange thing to find fault with, because it feels like you’re chastising your hyperactive little brother for being on his best behavior. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but you get the notion that someone’s trying too hard to be grown up, even when deep down you both know damn well that you should be out causing some trouble.
Wrap up and review
Have you ever felt like something was too good to be true, only to discover that it wasn’t what it appeared to be? The Golf R is that kind of experience. You see the R badge, the quad exhaust, the engine specs, the zero to 60 times, and all of the hype from Volkswagen fans and the press, only to discover that it’s more refined and well-mannered than expected. If that isn’t your thing, you may find yourself beginning to lose interest.
There’s so much to a Golf R that warrants buying one, but if you’re looking for a balls-out, screaming hot hatch, know that after a while you could get bored with it, leaving you with the decision to either move on or modify. It’s the modern Volkwagen way, where comfort, convenience, and German idealism take precedence over performance. Without a snarling exhaust note, more performance rewards in track mode, and an additional 20-30 ponies and/or torque, the R feels a little too restrained and grown up for being in the hot hatch segment.
But that’s not to say that the R doesn’t have its place, and as far as amazing daily drivers go, this would be a great one to have at your disposal, especially since it costs $35,650 out the door. It’s also good on gas, comfortable and easy to drive, and being all-wheel drive, can give a stiff middle finger to Old Man Winter once the Potenza summer tires get peeled off in favor of more snow-focused rubber. If anything, Volkswagen should make a limited version of the R just for northern markets, all dressed in white and rocking a multitude of winter-prepped armaments. Maybe even call it “The Snow Hare.” The company can thank me later.