2015 Volkswagen Golf R First Test
The Converter: Then I Saw Her Race, Now I’m a Believer
I haven’t liked the Volkswagen GTI since the ’90s. Specifically, the end of the ’90s, when my friend Damon used to see how fast his Mark II (in production from 1983 until 1992) could go across the Richmond Bridge near Berkeley. (About 120 mph was the best we ever saw.) After that? The VR6-powered Mark IV was legitimately potent, and the Mark VI and VII GTIs weren’t terrible, but let’s just say I wasn’t shocked when the latest VW hot hatch got ranked tenth out of 10 cars in 2014 Best Driver’s Car. Yes, I think the tartan seats are super cool, and I know loads of VW fanatics consider the car some sort of benchmark for the segment. Some professional car writers I work with, too. But I’ve always maintained that if you’re buying a souped-up factory hot rod, spend the $28K on a Subaru WRX. It’s a better driving car. I’ve purchased two. Or, if you really want the supreme FWD experience, do what I did a few months ago and buy a Ford Fiesta ST.
Now, quite obviously, the Mark VII Golf was our 2015 Car of the Year. I voted for it; an easy choice. No car anywhere near the Golf’s price can touch it. You’ve probably seen the Volkswagen commercials touting the well-won award. They say “Motor Trend’s Cars of the Year,” instead of just simply “Car.” The plural is true, in a sense. We had four different Golfs present during our testing: the normal one, the diesel, the electric, and the GTI. Had we only had the GTI? I think you’d be watching another manufacturer’s commercials. One of six criteria for COTY awards is Performance of Intended Function. The GTI is intended to function as a great driving car, but it has poor body control, it is rudely front-wheel drive in terms of feel, and there’s no way to turn the nannies all the way off. Anyhow, I’m not a fan of the GTI.
Man, I want to buy a Golf R.
More power? Oh, absolutely. The Golf R has the same 2.0-liter turbo inline-four as the GTI. The great news is that VW’s go-fast team turned the wick way up from the standard car’s 210-220 horsepower to a much more like it 290 hp for R duty. Torque also rises from an already healthy 258 to 280 lb-ft of the stuff. The Golf R does gain a bit of weight thanks to its AWD system, clocking in at 3,384 pounds, up from 3,209 pounds for the DSG-equipped GTI. However, as you are imagining, straight-line performance is greatly improved. The six-speed manual GTI is the quicker, lighter (3,088 pounds) GTI, hitting 60 mph in 5.7 seconds and running the quarter mile in 14.2 seconds at 99.9 mph. The twin-clutch GTI needs 5.9 seconds to achieve 60 mph, and does the quarter mile in 14.5 seconds at 97.9 mph. Score one for the Luddites. Except for the fact that the Golf R hits 60 mph in a legit quick 4.5 seconds and does the quarter in 13.1 seconds at 104.9 mph. This blue car you’re looking at is the DSG-equipped Golf R. We’ve yet to test the manual version in U.S.-spec form -- yes, you can get a Golf R with a six-speed row-your-own. Stay tuned.
Never mind the power -- the real story of the Golf R is the way it drives. Beautifully, confidently, elegantly. As mentioned, to me the GTI feels painfully front-wheel drive. Not only is it plagued by torque steer, but there’s too much understeer. The ride is too squishy, too. Needs more springs. All these bad feelings are compounded by the fact that if you can somehow get the GTI to start rotating, the nannies are right there and all too eager to tamp down the fun. The Golf R has slightly better weight distribution than the GTI (60/40 split, compared to 61/39), but the feel of the car is much more balanced. The recalibrated suspension no doubt helps, as does the power being routed to the rear wheels. You can be so smooth while pushing the Golf R hard that the traction and stability controls will rarely come on. This is quite unlike the GTI, where the nannies show up early and often, and they come down like an anchor. With everything switched off, the R feels about the same as it does with everything on, which is exactly like it should be. This means that VW’s engineers did much heavy lifting and dialed in the suspension real proper like. Did I mention how good the ride is? Great job by them.
In terms of measurable handling performance, the numbers speak clearly, but maybe not so loudly. The DSG GTI gets around our figure-eight course in 25.4 seconds, a good, solid time. The manual version is better still, doing the deed in an impressive 25.1 seconds. To give you some perspective, the 310-hp Ford Mustang EcoBoost takes 25.5 seconds. The manual GTI is capable of a sticky 0.96g max lateral acceleration, whereas the dual-clutch version can only pull 0.92 g. The boosted Mustang can also pull a max of 0.96 g. The Golf R, on the other hand, can tackle the figure eight in 24.9 seconds. Anything less than 25 seconds is serious performance car territory -- the Ford Mustang GT, Dodge Challenger Hellcat, and Alfa Romeo 4C all need 24.7 seconds. However, the Golf R is just 0.2 second quicker than the manual GTI. It’s interesting that the Golf R’s max lat number is lower (0.94) than the GTI’s. As is its braking performance. The GTI with manual can stop from 60 mph in 100 feet flat, an elite distance. The DSG version needs 103 feet, still excellent. The Golf R needs 108 feet, which is merely in the realm of very good, rather than write Mom about it.
I beg you to remember, however, that numbers are just part of the overall equation. After a few days living with and abusing the Golf R, I can say without reservation that I’d love to own one. Simply a brilliant machine. You’ll notice I’ve been avoiding the 3,367-pound gorilla in the room, also known as the Subaru STI. Those of you who follow Motor Trend on Instagram (and if you don’t, for shame!) already know that we’ve had this here Golf R parked next to a 2015 Subaru WRX STI. I’m going to save the results for a future, coming soon comparison, but I think I can annoy everyone by saying you’ll be surprised. I’ll leave you with this: While capable of making the best hatchback on planet Earth, in my opinion Volkswagen has long struggled to give Americans the small, sporty, world-class car we crave. After all, the glorious Scirocco R is (stupidly) Europe-only. However, the Golf R is so good that I’m now a convert. But more than that, I’m blown away. The Golf R is a serious accomplishment, and one that should be celebrated. Cars of the Year, indeed.
|2015 Volkswagen Golf R|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$39,910|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door hatchback|
|ENGINE||2.0L/292-hp/280-lb-ft turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed twin-clutch auto.|
|CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST)||3,384 lb (60/40%)|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||168.4 x 70.8 x 56.5 in|
|0-60 MPH||4.5 sec|
|QUARTER MILE||13.1 sec @ 104.9 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||108 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.94 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||24.9 sec @ 0.85 g (avg)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||23/30/26 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS., CITY/HWY||147/112 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.75 lb/mile|