Few vehicles in Volkswagen’s current lineup are as divisive among the Car and Driver staff as the Golf R. Even a casual mention risks stirring the office pundits, triggering impromptu sermons dissecting the Golf R’s price-versus-performance statistics and quoting heavily from the holy book of the Golf GTI, a deity around these parts. It’s not that the R’s detractors don’t recognize its sublime blend of performance, comfort, and utility—after all, collectively, these same folks continue to vote the Golf R onto our 10Best Cars list along with the rest of the Golf lineup—but at $40,635 ($41,735 with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic), its critics say the Golf R simply doesn’t offer the same bang for the buck as the GTI, which starts at $27,265. Equally concerning to some is that it basically looks like a regular old Golf; if you’re going to cross the $40K threshold, they reason, why not move into a badge that carries more cachet?
Aficionados of bewinged extroverts such as the Honda Civic Type R and the Subaru WRX STI will never cotton to the Golf R, which in terms of exterior braggadocio barely manages a whisper. Sure, it sits 0.2 inch lower than the GTI and sports a small roundup of R-exclusive signifiers (R-specific front bumper, side skirts, rear diffuser, and spoiler; quad chrome exhaust tips; R badges on the front fenders; black-painted mirror caps; and standard 19-inch Englishtown wheels), but none of these details shout for attention. The punk kid sitting next to you at the light in the Civic with a fart-can exhaust will never know what happened.
The metaphorical big stick here is the Golf R’s turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four and standard all-wheel drive. Rated at 292 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque, the Golf R engine outguns the GTI���s by 72 ponies and 22 lb-ft. A six-speed manual transmission dispenses torque via Volkswagen’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive system. Although essentially the same EA888 2.0-liter that is fitted to the GTI, the version in the Golf R has been thoroughly massaged and features reworked or entirely new components including the cylinder head, exhaust valves, valve seats and springs, pistons, fuel-injection system, and turbocharger.
the raucous Ford Focus RS’s 4.6-second blast to 60 mph can knock the Golf R off its perch, and the quarter-mile contest between the two is a dead heat.
Human interaction with the Golf R is instinctive. While the shifter may lack some of the tactile nuance of the best of the breed, it moves from gate to gate with the same exacting confidence found in the GTI. The clutch-pedal action is light to a fault, though, and while it is progressively weighted, takeup starts abruptly at the top of pedal travel. The brake pedal is a veritable rock by comparison, and pressure rather than travel dictates the amount of stopping action. Requiring 159 feet to stop from 70 mph (previous tests of the Golf R produced 157-foot stops), it easily bests the 174-foot figure recorded by the GTI but simply can’t approach the supercar-like binders—and lighter weight—of the Honda Civic Type R, which stopped in 142 feet. The WRX STI and the Focus RS come in at 158 and 159 feet. Numbers aside, the Golf R’s braking action in traffic is smooth, progressive, and predictable, the trifecta of desirable braking attributes.
Another factor its critics seem to forget is that with the Golf R there’s very little guesswork in terms of the options sheet. The $40,635 price of our test example includes not only the DCC adaptive suspension and VW’s new, top-tier MIB II infotainment system with navigation and an 8.0-inch touchscreen display, but also a six-year/72,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty. And that’s on top of the model’s feature-rich, all-in packaging strategy, which essentially makes the R the burrito supreme of Golfs.
While the current Mark 7 Golf R is still a capable weapon in the battle against hatchback boredom, we have it on good authority that the next-generation Golf R is on the horizon and will likely arrive stateside as a 2021 model packing a V-6 and possibly producing up to 350 horsepower. But currently or in the future, it’s up to you to decide how potent a Golf you can afford.