Even though this looks like an ordinary Golf, I can assure you it is not. It is not the TDI diesel, nor the sporty GTI. Rather, this is the high performance R model. The Golf itself is one of the world’s best selling cars, and it all started with the 1974 first generation (sold as the Rabbit in the U.S). Dubbed the MK1 (generations of the Golf are codenamed MK), the front engined and front wheel drive replaced the rear wheel drive and rear wheel engined Beetle. With this generation came the GTI version, one of the first “hot hatches.” In Europe mainly where hatchbacks are the norm, Europeans crave the hot hatchbacks for their blend of high performance and ultimate practicality. As the Golf grew in age and size, so did the GTI. It was not until MK4 generation (1997-2004) that Volkswagen upped the GTI with the R32. In contrast to the GTI’s four cylinder turbo engine (a GTI hallmark) and front wheel drive underpinnings, the R32 employed a 3.2 liter VR6 six cylinder engine and all wheel drive. With 237 horsepower, the R32 was faster than the GTI and considerably more expensive. When the next Golf debuted in 2005, GTI and R32 variants followed. Unlike the first R32, this generation R32 was not popular. It still came with a V6 and all wheel drive, but whereas the previous R32 was exclusively six speed manual only, this R32’s only transmission was a paddle shifter dual clutch automatic transmission. A car like the R32 is supported by a specific community, and the community values European driving dynamics which includes the need for a manual transmission. Volkswagen redesigned the Golf in 2008, and instead of a R32, the high performance variant of the Golf was named “R” which I think is due to the fact it uses a more powerful version of the GTI’s four cylinder turbo instead of its own V6. Having had the chance to drive a MK6 GTI, I was interested in how this MK6 R compares in terms of handling and performance.
The R looks distinctively German, in other words, classy and upscale. In the front, there is enough R touches to set it apart from the Golf variants, with a blacked out grille and a single R logo. The lower bumper is tastefully racy, and the detailed headlights lend a touch of class. The side profile is typical of a hatchback, with an upright windshield and an uniform roofline. The rear is nicely finished with distinctive taillights and sculpted center mounted exhausts. What I like about the design is how detailed it is. Like in the front, the VW logo dips into the hood, and the hood outer edges draw outwards to match the angle of the headlights. In the side, you can see the subtle body shoulder that stretches into the mold of the taillights. The interior is simple with piano black inserts and splashes of brushed metal although it could feel less like a regular Golf and more like an R.
I have known the owner since middle school. I still remember that he was a motocross racer, and as a result I always saw him with a body part in a cast. I thought the reason he was always breaking bones was because he liked to go fast on his motorbike. So when I asked him to show me how the R handles, he really showed me how it handled, and he showed me the absolute limits of the R in corners. Essentially what I learned was that the Golf R can be driven like a go kart, and its grip is outstanding. The grip is so outstanding that if it weren’t for the seat’s bolsters, the door would be the only thing keeping me from falling out of the car. When I got behind the wheel, it felt like a GTI. The steering feels organic, and it builds up weight naturally. I would have preferred more feedback, but it is very precise. When you push it, it becomes a different car. Whereas the GTI is slow and steady, the R is straight to the point. The Haldex all wheel drive system feeds gobs of power to the outside wheels when cornering, and as a result the R is able to carry a lot of speed in the corners. It changes direction quickly, and its composure is to be believed. Turn hard at high speeds, the tires never elicit any noises, and it just gets the job done. There’s no drama. The brakes are superb, with a responsive pedal and excellent stopping power. The funny thing about this car is that it’s both fun and robotic at the same time. I literally can giggle so hard I can’t breathe at its race car limits, but as I said, there’s no drama which translates to no excitement. One of the reasons that the Volkswagen GTI is enamored is because of its ability to be both fun and comfortable at the same time. With a stiffer suspension, there is some tautness to the ride that is not present in the GTI, but it is still comfortable.
In contrast to the previous R/R32’s unique six cylinder engines, this R uses the GTI’s forced induction 2.0 liter four cylinder engine. However, modifications including a reinforced block, larger turbocharger and intercooler, and stronger pistons and rods increase the horsepower count from the GTI’s 200 to 256. There is a hint of turbo lag at low revs, but it pulls cleanly. Floor it past 2,500 rpm, and there is an impressive midrange punch. It is fast, with 0-60 in around 5 and a half seconds. The only transmission available with this generation is a six speed manual transmission. As always with Volkswagen shifters, the shifter has a light action, and it is slick and precise. In fast shifting, the short throws make it a pleasure to use. The ratios are well spaced, and the transmission complements the engine well. The clutch is well weighted and exhibits excellent feel, although another Volkswagen trait remains: the clutch travel is long.
Refinement is excellent, with the Golf R as hushed as a luxury sedan. The tires exacerbate road noise, but aside from that, the cabin is quiet with minimal wind noise. The engine hums at low revs, but stays in the background. When you open it up, it lets out an exhilarating whine which becomes additive.
In typical Volkswagen fashion, the cabin is beautifully finished. The buttons and knobs have a reassuring action to them, and the interior is well assembled. The soft touch dash and plastics give it a high quality feel. The flat bottom steering wheel feels great to hold, and the shifter feels premium as well. Finding a driving position is easy, but because of the long clutch travel, you’re forced to seat closer to the steering wheel than you would like. The seats are excellent. The cushioning is just right, and the seat back offers good support. What I love about the seats are the bolsters. Thank goodness for them, because if it weren’t for them, I would have been falling all over the place during hard cornering. They might feel confining to some, but for me, I liked that the seats hugged me. The controls are an example of simplicity. The lower mounted dual climate control system is thankfully separate form the navigation system, and with a few number of legible buttons, it was a breeze to operate. The radio controls are embedded in the navigation system, but fortunately, the navigation system itself is intuitive, with a responsive touch screen interface. Things are less rosy with the gauges. While I love the pale blue needles and the classy white fonts, the speedometer features another fault seen in other Audis and Volkswagens (Audi is Volkswagen’s luxury division), the speeds go up to an unrealistic 200 mph, and as a result, they are crammed together. The front is roomy, with loads of legroom and headroom, and the case is the same for the rear. It might be a squeeze for three adults, but two adults will be comfortable in the rear. As for the cargo area, this is where the hatchback design comes in handy. Considering the size of the Golf, the cargo area is bigger than I expected. It is comparable to a small SUV, and there is neat underfloor storage compartments underneath. The cargo area can be expanded by folding the rear seats as well. With a high roofline and wide door openings, access is excellent as is visibility.
When I tested the Golf GTI, I could see why people raved about it. It delivers a fine blend of practicality and sportiness with a splash of luxury. It showed me why Europeans crave the “hot hatchback”. However, as great as the GTI was, it just left me wanting for more. I remember reading car magazine reviews about the GTI, and how it was the “grownup’s car.” I can see why because it just felt subdued, even when you pushed it hard. The engine was perfect, the handling was perfect, the styling was tasteful, so I don’t really know why it didn’t catch my heart like with some people. But the R caught my heart. It feels exactly like a GTI, and sometimes it doesn’t. I think the main reason why I love the R is because of its Jekyll and Hyde personality. In normal driving, it feels like a GTI: quiet and comfortable. But when you unleash it, in the same sense you release a hungry lion and there’s its prey in front, it becomes a wild animal. The speed that it can go in corners is simply unbelievable. Thanks to its genius all wheel drive system, the R can handle corners as well as a Nissan GT-R (I’m exaggerating), and it feels completely unflappable. But it is not just that. There is a sense of ferocity and strength that is not present in the GTI. The fact that it gets decent fuel economy, unbeatable practicality, superb quality, premium look inside and out, and that it comes with a manual transmission only (the redesigned 2015 Golf R gets the option of a paddle shifter automatic. Boo!) is icing on the cake.