Ask any auto scribe to name their top 10 cars and Volkswagen‘s GTI will probably show up somewhere on the list, or at least it did before this Golf R arrived.
At first glance it doesn’t look all that different, other than a few unique aero aids, 19-inch Pretoria alloys, a quad of chrome-tipped tailpipes poking through a rear diffuser, and a big “R” badge on the liftgate, but VW’s usual subtlety (compared to Subaru’s dinner table-sized WRX STI wing) masks a seemingly rally capable drivetrain boasting a 292-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with 280 lb-ft of torque (the same mill as used in the Audi S3 and TTS Coupe), a six-speed manual or dual-clutch automated transmission, and a sport-tuned version of Volkswagen’s already capable 4Motion all-wheel drive.
Before even being handed the Golf R keys, I’d already driven most cars in this hyper-hatch class (the new Focus RS excluded) and therefore had accumulative biases along with a longtime favorite, although full disclosure causes me to admit that my first “R” VeeDub tester was a bright red 2016 model. Yes, we received it, drove it, shot it, drove it some more (and some more) and then lost the interior photo set, leaving me with some wonderful exterior shots. So, this classy Limestone Gray Metallic-painted 2017 version is actually my second Golf R.
Annoyingly true to VW form, I had to test this quickest-ever Golf and fastest VW overall with the $1,100 optional automated transmission instead of its standard six-speed manual. Ditto for last year’s example, which is a shame considering how much more engaging a DIY gearbox can be, and how good VW manuals are. Therefore, despite driving two different Golf Rs, I can’t report on both transmissions. For those that count zero to 60 mph sprint times and other specs, this six-speed DSG is no doubt the quicker shifter at 4.9 seconds, with simple tugs on standard paddles all that’s needed to swap cogs.
While the process isn’t as physically involving, a good thing during busy commutes, it’s a lot more engaging than most automatics and a helluvalot more entertaining than some performance-oriented CVTs in this class, but truth be told VW’s DSG is nowhere near as over-the-top-capable as the one in Mitsubishi’s Evo MR—RIP. That’s the best autobox in this class, as is (or should I say, was) its otherworldly all-wheel drive system, but alas it is no more.
This said the Golf R’s powertrain provides a more mature and refined delivery than the Evo’s more immediate punch. This can be said of most other sport compacts its up against too, with the power supply nice and linear yet not without suitable drama. This is true for the suspension setup as well. It’s ideal for aging buttocks, pampering with standard adaptive dampers that offer three levels of comfort-oriented firmness.
Really, you’d think with all that power it would be a wild ride, but despite the R being brilliant fun off the line and even better through the corners it’s a refined near luxury machine compared to it’s domestic and Japanese contenders. Sure the sound of the engine reverberates thought the cabin at takeoff, but it feels more like a compact Audi than anything remotely high volume, the Golf being my reference here, not the R.
It’s one of the nicer sounding four-cylinder exhaust notes I’ve had the pleasure of hearing, complete with an obnoxious little blatt out the back after every shift when in Race mode, the shifts particularly quick when placed in this most entertaining setting. All modes are displayed in the top left portion of the big infotainment system, although before delving into the impressive details of these finer points, I’d better give you some background and an overview of what’s new.
The R arrived for model year 2016 and therefore the 2017 model carries forward mostly unchanged except for standard blindspot monitoring, and standard Driver Alert, which pays attention to a variety of parameters and then recommends you take a break when you may be getting tired. The 2017 model also includes a Sport HMI display that provides performance details within the base 6.5-inch color infotainment touchscreen (that also features a rearview camera), while the exterior paint palette has grown to include the Limestone Gray Metallic shown here.
You’d think this most potent Golf would be racier looking than the GTI inside, but in fact it’s cabin focuses on delivering a more mature (there’s that word again) premium experience than luring in those easily swayed by flashy styling and glitzy gizmos. Its high (for a mainstream volume-branded compact hatchback) $39,375 base price might have something to do with its more luxury-oriented approach, the GTI with its more provocative interior and eye-grabbing exterior, replete with front fascia styling strakes, targeting a younger demographic with its more attainable $25,595 starting price.
Therefore, leather upholstered sport seats with light gray contrast stitching come standard with the R, 12-way powered for the driver no less, as do piano black lacquered inlays with beautiful blue accent lighting on the doors. Additional sporting elements include a flat-bottomed leather-wrapped sport steering wheel, also with light gray stitching, a leather- and metal-adorned shift knob and leather boot (also contrast stitched), plus metal foot pedals with rubber grips.
The only way to make the Golf R more practical would be to add a wagon variant, but so far VW hasn’t responded to the ultimate wishes of its five-door zealots. Still, standard 40/20/40-split rear seatbacks maximize utility.
Some standard features not yet mentioned include adaptive HID headlights, proximity-sensing keyless access with pushbutton ignition, rain-sensing wipers, dual-zone auto climate control, one of the best standard infotainment system’s in the biz thanks to a big, beautiful 8.0-inch high-resolution touchscreen display, proximity-sensing digital switchgear, superb graphics, quick operation, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and MirrorLink smartphone connectivity, accurate navigation with detailed mapping, a Fender audio system with eight speakers plus a sub, satellite radio, a USB port, heatable front seats, dynamic cruise control, blindspot warning with rear cross-traffic alert, lane-keeping assist, and parking sensors and much more.
It almost seems silly to tout fuel economy numbers when discussing cars like this, but VW has done a good job of making the Golf R a daily driver that won’t break the bank thanks to an EPA rating of 23 mpg city, 30 highway and 25 combined with the as-tested DSG auto, or 22 city, 31 highway and 25 combined with the manual.
If you want superb power and grip from a car that flies under the radar better than any of its super sport compact peers, the Golf R should be high on your priority list. I only hope VW gives me a 2018 model to play with. Could I order that up with a manual gearbox please?
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press Copyright: American Auto Press