“Volkswagen doesn’t understand America.” That’s what the critics like to say. It’s what they blame for a lack of cars that can crush it in the mass market and Volkswagen’s slump during the best sales year in a decade. But there is proof that Volkswagen is at least listening to some us, and the proof is in the all new, 292 horsepower 2015 VW Golf R I just drove.
(Full disclosure: Volkswagen needed me to drive the Golf R so badly they flew me out to sunny San Diego, which of course in German means “a whale’s vagina,” and put me up in a nice hotel right on the beach. It probably would have been easier to fly Damon down from San Francisco but I’m not sure he gets invited to these anymore for some reason.)
Here’s why I say this: this new Golf R, the fastest and most powerful Golf ever built, has all the stuff we’ve ever asked for in our R models in one vehicle, as opposed to the mishmash of good and bad and strange we’ve had in the past.
The Golf R and R32 before it have had a mixed track record in this country. The first one, the MKIV Golf R32, debuted in 2002, an all-wheel drive barnstormer powered by a sonorous, 237 horsepower VR6 engine that remains beloved by enthusiasts today.
That car was replaced by the MKV Golf R32, which had more power but came to our shores in 2007 with only a six-speed DSG. This was kind of before paddle-shift gearboxes went mainstream like they are now, and a lot of buyers balked at the lack of a manual. Then we got the MKVI Golf R with less power than its European counterpart and no DSG option at all, right when everyone was starting to warm up to those.
With the 2015 Golf R, Volkswagen has given Americans the greatest gift of all: The gift of choice. We can have it with either a manual OR a DSG for the first time ever. The DSG version goes on sale next month, the manual one later this year. Hooray for choices!
I drove both the DSG and manual versions on this trip. I liked the manual better. More on that in a bit.
Volkswagen also fixed one of the previous Golf R’s biggest drawbacks: now, stability control is fully defeatable from the factory. No longer will Golf R track days be met with constant interference fro electronic nannies when they’re thrown into corners in anger. No need for hacking like last time.
Volkswagen’s American staff told me they fought hard to make that happen, because they really don’t hate America after all.
The Golf R is essentially the same as its MQB platform-mate the 2015 Audi S3, a car I drove last year and liked. You get a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder motor — essentially a GTI engine with a bigger turbo, new cylinder heads, a high pressure injection system and other tweaks — with 292 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque. In typical R fashion, power goes to all four wheels via the fifth-generation Haldex all-wheel drive system.
I know you’re ready to dismiss Haldex out of hand because you’ve read those angry, grammatically incorrect forum posts from B6 S4 owners on Vortex 10 years ago (or last week) who derided it as “weaksauce” or “not real AWD” or “gay LOL.” Your information is out of date.
This new system uses torque vectoring and can send 50 percent of power to the rear axle or even de-couple it to boost efficiency. While it lacks a true limited slip differential, it does offer the GTI’s brake-based XDS+, except on both axles.
The end result is a powerful, fast, corner-attacking modern high-tech hot hatch that finally feels like it’s worth the extra cost over a GTI.
It’s not at all a bad-looking hot hatch, either. The seventh-generation Golf got some sleek lines and sharp design cues over its more lumpy-looking predecessors.
The R gets its own wheels, quad exhaust pipes, a unique front air dam, “R” badges all over the place and other touches to separate it from the more pedestrian Golfs. Our version won’t get the blacked-out taillights of the Euro-spec cars on hand for this drive, Because Regulations. Lame.
Thanks to their closeness, I often wondered if I liked the Golf R better than the S3. On the inside, I definitely do. Besides the aggressively bolstered and extremely comfortable seats, the R dumps the S3’s the bargain-basement air vents and long swath of cheap dashboard plastic for piano black, silver carbon fiber-ish accents everywhere.
It looks a lot nicer. After all, the S3 is a cheap Audi and the Golf R is a premium Volkswagen.
For our test drive, we set out for the area around Cleveland National Forest and some of the most beautiful scenery — and glorious back roads — I have ever experienced. But to get there we had to drive through San Diego, and around town, the Golf R is just that — a Golf, but with a slightly harsher ride. It’s sedate, decidedly normal, great for getting groceries and picking up your kids from whatever wholesome activity they take part in, like cage fighting.
That’s long been the appeal of the R models. They’re more civilized, more grown up, more appropriate for adults than some giant-winged Lancer Evo or WRX STI. But as I put the city behind me, I switched the car’s drive mode from “Normal” to “Race” mode and the car’s personality changed. Revs jump up, steering gets tighter and the gearbox gets more responsive as the car wakes up, ready to do what it was built for: goin’ real fast.
The worked-over EA888 motor continues to be a peach, delivering loads of midrange and even high-end thrust. It’s one quick-ass Golf: Zero to 60 mph comes in under five seconds. There’s a bit of lag at the outset, not surprising considering the size of the turbo, but once you get it going it delivers abundant power and acceleration.
While it’s never enough to overwhelm its driver or its chassis, it can still push you into the back of your seat and the car past the posted speed limit quicker than you expect. This is a fine engine, probably the best that’s ever been in an R model. Sorry, VR6 fans. You know I’m right.
I started the day in a blue U.S.-spec car equipped with the six-speed paddle shift DSG. Look: this is just a damn good gearbox. It’s been on the GTI and Golf R so long now that it feels like an old friend. (FUN FACT: The first production car with a dual clutch gearbox was the original R32.) Everyone knows it ranks among the best transmissions around, but I still have to say how good it is.
Shifts are incredibly fast in both directions and the gearbox’s sport mode injects the R with notable vigor. It can be a bit lurching from a stop into low speeds, but that seems par for the course for dual-clutch gearboxes. Otherwise, it’s close to perfect.
And yet as quick as it was, as I worked my way through the winding California mountain roads, I wondered if this Golf R was too civilized. Too tame. Too much Golf, not enough R. I felt like I always had to push it to be fast and hard; the car never encouraged bad behavior.
I certainly didn’t get bored, but if I wanted to have fun, even in its “Race” mode, I had to force the car to have fun. That’s not something you can say about an STI. I wondered: Maybe this new Golf R just isn’t hardcore enough?
The MQB chassis is masterful — the car feels incredibly planted. There basically isn’t any body roll. The electric steering, which adjusts depending on the car’s setting, is a delight to use and one of the best applications of that technology I’ve encountered.
This new Haldex is quite competent, but I still found myself coping with annoying understeer as I plowed through these twisting roads. The R just didn’t sweep into corners as quickly or as directly as I wanted or expected. This is a long-running Volkswagen and Audi character flaw and I was a little bummed to find it here, though the handling is robust by every other measure.
I handed over the DSG-equipped Golf R mostly charmed, but not really blown away. Then I took the keys to a different Golf R, a white one. This happened to be a Euro-spec version, but it was identical to ours save for the fact that its stereo only blasted German house music. (Weird.) Also, this car happened to have a manual gearbox.
Let me tell you this about the Golf R: get it with a stick shift.
It’s hard to describe exactly how this happened, since DSG is so good, but the top Golf is exponentially more engaging with a stick shift. Shifts might not be as fast because they’re done by a human and not a computer, but the car is far more lively, more involved, and more of a blast to drive this way. Simply put, it’s just more fun to wring out the engine and nail a perfect upshift right at redline with the stick.
This manual gearbox is a great one, too. Shifts are light and crisp and reasonably short; the clutch is buttery smooth and incredibly easy to use. There’s so much available midrange torque that you can basically leave it in third gear in the twists, but blasting out of the tight ones in second is a true thrill.
Paddle-shift gearboxes are fantastic on supercars or dedicated track cars like the 911 GT3 RS, but a manual is so much more appropriate on a hot hatch, and you can feel that here. It better suits the car’s character. At least we have the choice now.
This white Golf R had something else the blue one didn’t: DCC, or Dynamic Chassis Control, a fancy name for adaptive magnetic dampers. They’re an option.
Let me also tell you this about the Golf R: pay extra for DCC.
Coming back on the same roads as before, DCC in “Race” mode was a revelation. That nagging understeer was gone. The car was a noticeably more adept handler, more direct and more pointed, diving into corners with incredible precision. I still had to push it to be fast, but with the manual and this superior suspension, it wanted to be pushed, like the naughty little hot hatch it is. It felt like a proper all-wheel drive performance machine.
Before this, I mostly liked the Golf R; after that I got it. The car and I understood one another, and it was a beautiful thing.
As I made my way back into the city, I set the DCC to “Comfort” mode and cruised on the highway at a nice easy pace. Once again, it was buttoned-down, refined and indeed comfortable as advertised. It drove like any Golf, except one with a sizable amount of highway passing power.
It was hard not to be impressed by the Golf R. I like it better than the S3, largely because the interior’s better and because the addition of a manual makes it so much more fun. I like it better than one of its intended competitors, the Mercedes CLA45 AMG, because that car is a fantastic engine and not much else.
It’s still never quite as hardcore as the Subaru WRX STI, but its handling gets close with the DCC while being a hell of a lot nicer and vastly more comfortable. Volkswagen also thinks it competes with the BMW M235i; I’m not so sure about that, but I know you can get a Golf R with more practicality and about 80 percent of the fun.
So then we get into the other big factor with the Golf R: cost. It is not cheap. The base price is $36,595. My blue tester, with the no-cost DSG option, no navigation, no DCC and a tiny 5.8-inch touch screen came out to $37,415. Regardless of which gearbox you choose, you’ll definitely want DCC, which also comes with a bigger screen and navigation. That one starts at $39,090.
That’s a lot, especially for a Golf, but unlike some of its German competitors you get a lot for that price. It’s basically loaded in R trim. The last M235i I drove, equipped with almost nothing, cost $46,000; the last CLA45 was $57,000. When you think of it this way it’s a solid value. I also think buyers get a lot over a standard GTI for the first time ever, and that’s always been the problem that’s dogged the R models.
This is easily the best R model since the first R32, and its prowess and options show that Volkswagen maybe does listen to Americans, or at least, the hardcore enthusiast Americans.
So while we seem to have their attention, I have drafted a list of other demands from America to Volkswagen:
Bring over the Golf R Wagon
Bring over the Scirocco
Make a diesel R wagon, with a stick shift
The diesel R wagon should also be rear-wheel drive
Make the BlueSport Roadster finally, and with a decent engine please
The Beetle should be rear-engined again
The rear-engined Beetle should also be air cooled
Minor stuff, right? Should be totally do-able, Volkswagen. You’re welcome.