I make my living coming up with colorful descriptors -- shifters that engage like bolt-action rifles or tires that grip the road like a kitten scrambling up a drape. (I didn't come up with either of those, by the way.) But as I pushed the new Golf R through the snake-like curves of the About.com Top Secret Curvy Test Road, all I could come up with was, "What a neat friggin' car!"
Latest in a short line
A quick history review: The Golf R is a descendant of the R32, first imported to the US in 2004. It had a 240 horsepower 3.2 liter narrow-angle V6 engine, 6-speed manual transmission (rare at the time), and all-wheel-drive, and it was a great car -- very fast and a lot of fun. The R32 returned in 2008, this time with a 250 hp V6, and -- for US models -- a 6-speed twin-clutch automatic transmission (DSG in Volkswagen parlance) as well as a $33k price tag. Despite a limited run of 5000 cars, the '08 R32 didn't strike the same chord as the original. I blamed the automatic transmission and the high price.
So now we have the Golf R, successor to the R32. The engine (link goes to photo) is down to four cylinders; this time it's a beefed-up version of the GTI's two-liter turbo four, tuned for 256 hp and 243 lb-ft of torque, enough to out-power both the '04 and '08 R32s. All-wheel-drive returns, but the DSG automatic has been banished; a 6-speed stick is the only choice. Pricing now starts at $34,760, $1,500 more if you want a sunroof, navigation, and a premium stereo. There's a four-door version priced at $36,860, which includes the sunroof and nav package.
How does it all work?
Let's get down to brass tacks: How does it drive? Well, like I said, it's one neat friggin' car. The Golf R feels like the R32's younger, trimmer, and smarter brother -- it lacks the R32's raw anger, but it's much more enjoyable to drive fast.
While the R32's V6 rumbled like a wannabe V8, the Golf R's turbo four makes a subdued thrum which I'd associate more with the power source of the Bat Cave than the Batmobile. The four also lacks the V6's low-end torque, but once you get the engine above 3,000 RPM and the turbocharger starts doing its thing, it's very quick. And though the turbo lag is more pronounced than the GTI, once it's on the boil, it delivers power in much the same way: Smoothly and evenly from the first huff of boost to the redline. That gives the driver a lot of flexibility in picking gears, and how nice it is to choose: Clutch and shifter feel are outstanding. The DSG might have made the car quicker, but I didn't miss it one bit.
The Golf R's handling is Volkswagen at its best: Fantastic grip and very nice balance, with great seat-of-the-pants feedback and plenty of warning from the tires before they break traction. Out on the About.com Top Secret Curvy Test Road, the Golf R was an absolute delight: Quick, easy to drive, and relatively undemanding. I cound I could probe its prodigious limits of handling with ease, grace, and (relative) safety. I loved it.
But not all is rosy...
If this car has a downside, it's the ride: The suspension is very stiff. If you've ever watched a Formula One car bounce along every imperfection on the track, well, that's what the Golf R feels like. It's not uncomfortable -- the suspension shaves the hard edge the bumps, so the impacts are never harsh, but there are an awful lot of them. Electronically-adjustable shocks are standard equipment on the Golf R, and switching to Comfort mode made the ride almost tolerable, but I wondered if Mrs. Gold -- who loves to drive fast but has a dodgy back -- would find the Golf R's ride too rigid for comfort.
As it happens, I never got to find out, as mid-way between the About.com Top Secret Curvy Test Road and the About.com Top Secret Photo Location, a yellow EPC warning light (which I later learned indicates a problem with the drive-by-wire throttle) came on. The power was severely reduced and I couldn't rev the engine much past 3,000 RPM. I'm a Windows user, so I tried rebooting; shutting the car off and restarting made the problem go away, but it came and went throughout the afternoon. Eventually I wound up cruising home with full power and no cruise control. Come the next morning, the car was its bright, chipper self, but this brings up all the usual questions about Volkswagen build quality. Now, in the Golf R's defense, this was a German-spec car that had been ridden hard and put away wet -- but that said, it's rare to see a glitch like this in a new car, even one that lives the hard life of a media test vehicle.
The VW folks asked if they could collect the car right away in order to have it checked out, and I was genuinely sad to see it go; I was looking forward to a few more days exploring and extolling the Golf R's practicality. There's a reason the Golf's size and shape haven't changed much in the last twenty years: It's just about perfect. The Golf may not be a big hit over here, but Europeans buy millions of them, the way we buy Camrys and CR-Vs here in the States. With four doors, plenty of rear seat legroom, and a roomy (if hard to open) hatchback, the Golf R is just every bit as family-friendly as it is fun to drive.
Facing the competition
The Golf R faces stiff competition from the Japanese, specifically the $26,345 Subaru Impreza WRX and the automatic-only Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart, priced at $28,790. Obviously, both cars are a lot cheaper, but the Golf R does come with standard features such as heated leather seats, dual-zone climate control, and Bluetooth. The Golf R is an infinitely nicer car to sit in; it's finely-trimmed interior contrasts with the Subaru (dated) and the Mitsubishi (chintzy). Out in the curves, it feels quicker, more mature, and more buttoned down, but I can't say I smiled any less in the WRX or the Lancer than I did in the Golf R. And let's not forget the Golf R's little brother, the $24,465 GTI: It's slower, not quite as grippy, and lacks the all-important element of all-wheel-drive. But it's $10,000 less expensive, and it's certainly not $10,000 less enjoyable. And speaking of money, for the same price as the Golf R, you could buy a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, which is insanity on four wheels.
I'm sure that die-hard Volkswagen fans will embrace the Golf R in the same way they did the original R32. This car has all the right elements: An excellent engine and well-designed suspension that delivers big speed and big thrills. I have no doubt there will be plenty of people willing to pay the price premium to get the best Volkswagen has to offer. Bottom line: This is a neat friggin' car! -- Aaron Gold
- Very fast
- Lots of fun
- Reasonably practical
- Lacks the low-end power and angry soundtrack of the R32
- Uber-hot, all-wheel-drive version of the Golf and GTI
- Price range: $34,760 - $36,860
- Powertrain: 2.0 liter turbocharged inline 4/256 hp, 6-speed manual, all-wheel-drive
- EPA fuel economy estimates: 19 MPG city/27 MPG highway
- Best rivals: Subaru Impreza WRX, Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution