by Justin Kaehler
Just last year, it seemed Volkswagen had reached peak hatchback status, but evidently, they had grand plans. The respected company is now ready to release its ultimate hatchback, the Golf R. It’s the fastest, most powerful Golf ever made and has the specs to back it up. It’s bigger and more spacious than the previous generation R, but also lighter and packs a hefty punch. Then there are the larger brakes, big wheels wrapped in performance rubber and a stiffer suspension—it’s a Golf that handles as well as it accelerates.
Powering the car is an EA888 TSI engine, which is a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. Power is rated at 292 horsepower and 280 lbs/ft of torque, and this power gets to the ground via all four wheels, thanks to an advanced 4MOTION all-wheel drive system. The initial batch of Golf Rs will feature only the six-speed DSG transmission (drivers who like to row their own gears will have to wait a bit for the six-speed manual, which will be released as a model year 2016 car).
Still, there’s plenty of speed on tap. VW claims that the Golf R takes just 4.9 seconds to rocket from 0-60, and can hit an electronically-limited top speed of 155 mph. Thanks to the efficiency of the engine, this need for speed doesn’t mean the car is a gas guzzler. MPG numbers have also been improved, and the Golf R is rated at 30 mpg combined.
While car junkies can (and do) talk numbers for days, what matters most is the driving experience. As with other turbocharged VWs, the Golf R has a nice and flat torque curve, meaning that there’s a ton of accessible power. Keep the throttle mapping in “Race” mode and the Golf R immediately responds to your right foot (it gives the exhaust a nice, beefy burble too).
The Golf R’s advanced all-wheel drive system does a solid job sending power to the wheels that need it most, so that the car stays agile, poised and in control—even when the roads get challenging. And when driving a Golf R equipped with the available DCC Adaptive Chassis Control, this Race mode also stiffens up the suspension, sharpening the handling even further.
But when cruising down the highway, or stuck in gridlock traffic, putting the Golf R in “Normal” mode transforms it into the Golf one might expect from VW. It’s not the fastest thing on the streets, and it takes a while for the throttle to respond, but it delivers a civilized ride suitable for a wide range of passengers. And for those who like a sharp throttle but cushy suspension, all parameters can be customized to the driver’s liking in the available Individual setting.
Inside the Golf R opts for elegant subtleties over flash. Those familiar with other hot hatches may be dismayed to not see a ton of red stitching or aggressively bolstered Recaros. Instead the Golf R features a tastefully appointed cabin with white contrast stitching, embroidered R logos on the seats and blue needles in the gauges. Piano-black accents and faux carbon fiber trim also add some visual interest. The touchscreen command center features a proximity sensor, revealing added buttons and controls whenever your hand gets near—a clever way to add functionality while retaining valuable screen real estate.
Outside, the Golf R doesn’t shout about its performance credentials. It’s got some new aero bits, bi-xenon headlights in black housings, a twin exhaust and R-stamped brake calipers, but if you miss the tiny “R” badge on the grille and rear hatch, most would have a difficult time differentiating the Golf R from a standard version. This subtlety is nice, and feels grown up, but when throwing down almost $40K for a DCC-equipped version (standard versions start around $36K), it may be a tough sell to its intended market. VW sees the Golf R as a direct—though cheaper—rival to cars like the Mercedes-Benz CLA45 and BMW M235i, and both cars unabashedly use visual means to shout about how fast they are. Even more direct competitors like the Subaru WRX STI and newly announced Ford Focus RS proudly feature dinner table-sized wings.
But certainly not everyone needs a car that begs for attention. VW put 500 Golf Rs on pre-sale, and every single one sold in just 11 hours. More Golf Rs are on the way, and unlike past iterations, VW will build as many as they can sell. And as the Golf R offers an ideal blend of fun, speed and practicality, our guess is that they’ll sell a whole lot.
Images by Justin Kaehler