Functionality meets fun

The Volkswagen Golf R has been long awaited here in the U.S. where customers have pining for this Europe-only car to make its appearance Stateside. Now with the 2016 model year, that wish has finally come true. The anticipation is justifiable when considering Volkswagen first debuted the Golf R32 back in 2003. It featured the first dual-clutch gearbox in any production car and had VW’s then-new 3.2-liter VR6. It set the bar extremely high in the hot hatch segment.

Volkswagen has plenty of competitors out there, but the Golf R still holds its own. It comes with 4Motion AWD, a standard six-speed manual or the optional six-speed DSG automatic, and of course, the 292-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. Those mechanicals are good for a sub-five-second launch to 60 mph and more fun on public roads than Johnny Law will allow.

At the same time, the Golf R is still… well, a Golf. It boasts 52.7 cubic feet of cargo room with the second row folded. There’s still 22.8 cubic feet of room with the second row locked in place. That means the Golf R is not only fun, but it’s functional. Obviously, that’s the appeal of a hot hatch. There’s little compromise unlike a 2+2 sports coupe or larger, heavier crossover.

I recently spent a week with the Golf R fitted with the DSG, DCC, and no N-A-V. Punny acronyms aside, the car was well equipped, but not loaded. Thankfully it had Apple CarPlay (and Android Auto) so I was able to use my iPhone for navigation. So what’s it like to live with the Golf R? I’ll let you know below.

Continue reading for the full driven review.

  • 2016 Volswagen Golf R - Driven
  • Year:
    2016
  • Make:
  • Model:
  • Engine:
    inline-4
  • Transmission:
    Dua Clutch Automatic
  • Horsepower @ RPM:
    292 @ 5400
  • MPG(Cty):
    23
  • MPG(Hwy):
    30
  • Torque @ RPM:
    280 @ 1800
  • Energy:
    Direct Injection, Turbo
  • Displacement:
    2.0 L
  • 0-60 time:
    4.9 sec.
  • Top Speed:
    130 mph (Est.)
  • Layout:
    Front Engine, AWD
  • Price:
  • car segment:
  • size:
  • Purpose:
  • body style:
  • Overall:
    8.2/10

Video Review


Exterior

The Golf R is Volkswagen’s hottest production hot hatch, but its appearance isn’t overstated. In fact, the Golf R looks nearly identical to the base Golf. Some folks might love the “sleeper” status, while others might opt for aftermarket add-ons for added attention. The R’s changes are slight. The lower front fascia is a bit larger, hanging lower to the ground and allowing for more airflow into the intercooler and radiator. It also has larger side vents where the Golf’s fog lights normally reside.

Some folks might love the 'sleeper' status, while others might opt for aftermarket add-ons for added attention.

The side of the car gets treated to a smallish chrome fender badge with the R logo. it’s a nice touch. Around back, the rear bumper is also unique to the Golf R, having a lower valance with diffuser-style accents and quad exhaust tips. The rear spoiler over the back window is also larger than normal. Whether it actually serves a purpose besides looking cool, I don’t know. The Golf R also gets a trim-specific set of 18-inch wheels. These five-spoked units look good with their machined faces and black-painted inserts and pockets. Body-colored door handles, a wider rocker panel, and R badging further separate this hot hatch from its economy car brethren.

Optional on other Golf trims and standard on the Golf R are the LED daytime running lights and HID headlights. Not only do they look great during the day, but they light the road well at night. That’s a lot more than I can say about other headlights attached to cars I’ve recently tested.

The Golf R isn’t the car regular folks walk across a parking lot to look at. It’s not the type to get attention at the drive-thru, nor is it one to attract the eagle eye of a State Trooper. The Golf R, from a distance, is a simple hatchback driven by a guy going about his business. There’s a lot of value in that. Trust me, parking lot fame gets old after a while.

Interior

Open the Golf R’s door and you’re instantly greeted with the usual Volkswagen interior. Smooth, clean lines with minimalistic styling and well-executed details that add character and charm all can be spotted before sliding into the driver’s seat. Speaking of the seats, the Golf R comes with heavily bolstered, leather covered seats that form-fit to your body. They aren’t too bolstered though, not like the overzealous Recaros in the Nissan Juke Nismo RS. They feel just right.

Open the Golf R’s door and you’re instantly greeted with the usual Volkswagen interior.

Grabbing the leather-wrapped steering wheel with its white contrast stitching is a pleasant experience. The rim is thin yet well molded, and the flat bottom reinforces the hot hatch theme. The piano black trimmings on the wheel, matched by the other piano black pieces in the cabin, give it a welcomed touch of luxury. Contrasting the shiny black surfaces are satin aluminum accents. The combination works well together.

The Golf R’s gauge cluster is typical Volkswagen. A large tachometer is clear and easy to read while the speedometer over exaggerates the car’s top-end abilities, leaving the scale too large and hard to read at a glance. Thankfully a digital speedometer resides in the central driver information display.

The 6.5-inch infotainment system works well and offers all the typical radio sources, including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. There’s even a CD player for us old-school folks. Hard keys line the sides of the touch screen, making for quick shortcuts to functions. Gladly there’s even a tuning knob for the radio.

The HVAC controls are equally easy, offering dual zone functions and fan speed with the three easy-to-reach knobs. Digital temperature read-outs, well-labeled buttons, and an automatic control rounds out the system. Below the HVAC controls is a rather deep cubbie compartment hidden by a flip-up door. It hides a USB port and enough space for your phablet phone.

2016 Volswagen Golf R - Driven High Resolution Interior
- image 692501

Of course, this wouldn’t be a review of the Volkswagen Golf without talking about the back seat and cargo area. Rear seat passengers will find accommodations roomy and comfortable. Air vents help keep temperatures in check, while a folding center armrest with cup holders makes long trips more enjoyable. Legroom is pretty good for this class of car and headroom is exceptional.

Pulling tabs on the seatbacks tumbles the seats forward, opening up the cargo area for a whopping 52.7 cubic-feet of space. That’s more than many crossovers. The seats don’t lay completely flat, but sit at a mild 10-degree angle. It shouldn’t get in the way of hauling your IKEA purchase back home. A removable cargo shade helps keep prying eyes from seeing what’s behind the second row when it’s folded up.

Drivetrain

Here is what separates the Golf R from its lesser counterparts. Under the hood is a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder making an impressive 292 horsepower at 5,400 rpm and 280 pound-feet of torque at only 1,800 rpm, and carries that peak torque up to 5,500 rpm. The engine features a dual overhead cam design nestled in an aluminum cylinder head and mounted on to an iron block. Direct fuel injection helps the computer deliver precise amounts of fuel.

2016 Volswagen Golf R - Driven High Resolution Drivetrain
- image 692490
Unlike some dual-clutches out there, this one works well around town, even at low speeds.

The engine comes standard mated to a six-speed manual transmission. Having driven a Golf R with this gearbox, I can say it offers absolutely smooth shifts with minimal effort with positive engagements in each position. A smooth clutch with a linear bite makes the most of the gearbox. You can be as silky smooth as an automatic or pound out gears like you’re in a Fast & Furious movie.

My tester came with the highly regarded DSG dual-clutch gearbox. Unlike some dual-clutches out there, this one works well around town, even at low speeds. It shifts are predictable with no judder or commotion. Pull the gearshifter back into Sport mode, however, and it fires off shifts like a dual-clutch is supposed to. Bam, Bam Bam… the DSG does its job in short order, moving the Golf R to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds. Paddle shifters offer well-timed control of the gearbox, as well, with very little lag time between the pull and shift.

Mated to the DSG is Volkswagen’s 4Motion AWD system from Haldex. It gives the car the tenacious grip needed to harness all 292 horsepower at launch. It also makes the car far more fun in the corner, while helping eliminate torque steer.

Pulling the entire powertrain package together is the Golf R’s DCC, or Dynamic Chassis Control. Three driving modes and a configurable individual mode allows the driver to dial in how he wants the car to behave. Comfort mode softens up the suspension, loosens up the steering, makes the throttle less twitchy, and gives the car a subtler demeanor. Race mode, however, does the complete opposite. The suspension firms up, the steering becomes far more precise, and the throttle responds instantly to any little input. The transformation is fantastic. Normal mode lives somewhere in between and Individual allows the driver to customize which parts are left in what setting. The suspension can be in Comfort while the throttle is put in Race – it’s all a matter of personal preference.

Behind the Wheel

Luckily I was able to get some track time with the Golf R a few months ago at the Texas Auto Writers Association’s Springtime Auto Roundup. Volkswagen brought in Scott Speed, hotshoe extraordinaire and driving partner to Tanner Foust on VW’s Global Rallycross team. Not only did I have my hand with the Golf R on track, but Scott gave hot laps, showing just what the Golf R was capable of with a professional behind the wheel.

2016 Volswagen Golf R - Driven High Resolution Exterior
- image 692474
It feels very tossable on crowded streets and it’s simply easy to live with.

Lap after lap with journalist cycling through the passenger seat, the Golf R proved itself a solid track car. Continuous hard braking did result in fade, but nothing Scott couldn’t manage. Power deliver never let up, with the turbo four kicking out all 292 horsepower all day. The Golf R present that day had the six-speed manual. I have to admit I fell in love with the shifter. It’s no dual clutch in terms of speed, but its smooth throw and positive gear engagements line up perfectly with the linear and predictable clutch pick-up. It combines for a manual that’s easy and fun to drive.

Off the track and back home in Florida, by week-long test car and its dual clutch gearbox proved just as much fun doing daily errands. The drive moves really change the car’s attitude, making it a blast to drive in race mode. Thankfully normal mode is soft enough to make the wife happy.

The steering is quick, the suspension feels well-tuned, the tires are grippy, and the engine never feels underpowered. Besides that, the car has great outward visibility thanks to the large greenhouse and short length. It feels very tossable on crowded streets and it’s simply easy to live with. That is what makes the Golf R so good – it’s fast and fun when you want it, but practical enough to be a daily driver.

And despite the power, the EPA rates the DSG-equipped Golf R at 23 mpg city, 30 mpg highway, and 25 mpg combined.

Pricing

2016 Volswagen Golf R - Driven High Resolution Exterior
- image 692484

For the 2016 model year, prices were quite a bit lower than for 2017. My week-long tester carried a starting price of $35,650. Opting for the DCC & Navigation package, like the tester I sampled in Texas, pushes the price to $37,895. For 2017, DCC becomes standard and the price climbs to $39,375.

My tester came with one option – the DSG gearbox, which adds $1,100. Destination charges are listed as $820, bringing the MSRP to $37,570 before taxes and other fees.

Competition

Ford Focus RS

2016 Ford Focus RS High Resolution Exterior
- image 620092

The Focus RS has been as highly anticipated as the Golf R here in the U.S. Now for 2016, the Focus RS is here and making quite a splash. It features a 2.3-liter turbo four-cylinder making an impressive 350 horsepower and 350 pound-feet of torque. It comes mated to a six-speed manual transmission and a full-time AWD system. There’s launch control, drift mode, and sticky tires that make the whole thing work. The Focus RS doesn’t come cheap, though. It carries a starting price around $36,600 and can be optioned to just above $40,000.

Read more about the Ford Focus RS here.

Subaru WRX STI

2015 Subaru WRX STI - Driven High Resolution Exterior
- image 580711

The WRX STI has long been the reigning champ of hot hatch/rally sedan here in the U.S., mostly because it had little competition. Now with the Golf R and Focus RS running around, the STI has to defend its reputation.

The Subi is a barrel of fun, as proven during our previous testing evaluation. It comes with 305 horsepower and 290 pound-feet of torque and a proper six-speed manual. Its AWD system is also built to handle loose surfaces thanks to its driver-programmable torque split. And I’d feel much better about shooting down a dirt road in the STI than I would the Ford or VW.

Prices are still high with the Subaru, with the STI starting at $35,195 for the base trim and $39,995 for the STI Limited.

Find out more about the Subaru WRX STI here.

Conclusion

2016 Volswagen Golf R - Driven High Resolution Exterior
- image 692469

The Golf R was certainly worth the wait. It combines a powerful drivetrain with sure-footed handling and outstanding abilities with an everyday sensibility mixed with a comfortable and well designed interior. It is certainly the most mature between the Ford and Subaru. For drivers who desire that parking lot fame, the Golf R might not be the right choice. But for those who want to live a weekday life without interruption while bombing back roads during the weekend, the Golf R is certainly not a bad move.

It offers an outstanding combination of functionality and fun not found many places in the automotive market place. There’s a lot to be said for that.

  • Leave it
    • * The DSG is faster but the manual is more fun
    • * Some might say it looks understated
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