How does the Golf R's halo/hero status match up with reality in your garage?
Well, it scores huge with 5-second sprints and a $36,475 price right off the bat. Then you get Golf R into its race mode and HANG ON for its throaty brummm up redline/supralegal speed.
It's been a thrilling few months of hot hatch and performance car reviews around here - so we feel well-placed to judge this hot hatch king. Focus RS will be the main competitor for comparisons, but also feedback on how Audi S3 differs too. Longtime Subaru WRX fan/owner helps to appreciate Golf R too.
Open up full throttle with the drive video below, followed by Exterior, Interior, Performance and Price section headings.
HD Performance Drive Review
Golf R's arrival out front made me giddier than a candy recess. Its Tornado Red bodywork, lowered ride height and R-spec style all around is instantly hot. So geeky and under-the-radar cool. Its quad pipes and sole R badge on the tail confirm this really is it on the road: the king! The fastest, sportiest and most cult-loved Volkswagen we have here in the USA. And the globe, to be honest. This is it.
From up front, the R-spec bumper feels about two inches lower to the pavement wit its body-colored splitter than normal Golfs. Its horizontal slatwork down below is all glossy and backed by honeycomb mesh and visibly hot intercoolers.
The side intakes are glossy and full of cooling radiators visible from all around. It's a wide and mean graphic of a face in rear-view mirrors -- even before they spy the R grille badge and LED indicators.
Amber LEDs for the entire lower section of the headlights are an LED-fan's delight. The full bi-xenon low/highbeams with adaptive cornering rock too, of course. Mean is the face with all four LED segments lit up as the DRL look for the Golf R. Certainly a step above GTI in terms of the lighting.
Around the profile, we have 18-inch machine-polished alloys filling the fenders well despite not being the optional 19s. A subtle R badge in the front fenders is nice, as is the deep side sill extension that is R-specific with a sharp trailing edge.
This sharp point picks up right behind the rear wheels in the R tail bumper. It flicks upward to frame the car as looking lower, wider and bigger than any other Golf on the road.
Clean gloss-black lower diffuser detailing is classy and cool from the lower rear. The bright pipes are heroes in planting the Golf R's stance and street cred.
Not as shouty is the rear wing. It actually comes off the tail cleanly for nearly a half-foot. But not shouty about its aero benefits or downforce needs, a la Focus RS.
As stock, Golf R's appearance looks as premium and modern as a Huracan for its LEDs and intake aggression. Big statement! But true.
And you can of course modify the design appeal with tinted glass. Nice if VW's stock tint for back windows were darker, but not a big deal of course.
Finally, gloss black is the matching shade for the Golf R's wing mirrors. Overall a comprehensive upgrade over standard Golfs -- one that is instantly special in traffic.
Golf R's interior is the least-different from the standard TSI models, compared with its exterior design and powertrain.
What you get inside the R is familiar, but ever-so-slightly upgraded and certainly much better feeling. Golf R's come from Germany and have that extra bit of perfection in their surfaces and interior build quality. Thunk the door closed and this machine feels indestructible. Clutch down and push-button to start your day -- and Golf R is ready! It fires up with a deep, meaty note and idle feel. This is a big-power four cylinder and it knows it. The electronic parking brake disengages automatically and you're off!
The cabin wears R badges for the flat-bottomed wheel as well as contrast stitching. Gloss black for all the trims adds a 4motion emblem ahead of the Golf-ball dimpled performance shift knob. So far, so good on the quality front.
A bit bummed the seats don't offer an extendable seat base squab, and also slightly bummed there is not more range of power seat travel. But you'll settle in nicely and be comfortable as well as supported. These are definitely awesome sport seats even without a big option package.
Little things are better all around: the frameless rearview mirror, the auto wipers, the alloy pedals and sill plates, auto climate control, drive modes, mid-cluster displays.... Somehow very convincingly premium, even with normal Golf dash and touchscreen.
This latest VW CarNet system is very respectable. It includes harddrive nav, bluetooth voice and streaming, apps, and settings behind simple touchscreen controls. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integrations are excellent and become second nature. USB plugin your phone and your top eight Apple iOS icons are right on screen in the VW. Pandora was our go-to and picks up right where you left off. CarPlay also remembers parking locations and much, much more. Great to have standard.
What's missing in here? We do not have the DCC chassis control on this Golf R so lack those settings. Plus, Golf R does without the very-nice moonroof that comes on the Golf SEL. You do miss it, to be honest, with the dark headliner and black everything.
Overall, this cabin is what makes Golf R so liveable day-to-day -- even with the BIG turbo power that changes everything...
Comfort and quality-wise, Golf R is way above Focus RS but way below S3 with its virtual cockpit and Google Earth nav visuals.
EA888 is this legendary engine's code and the tuning options/aftermarket support are HUGE! The snick into first is light and well-oiled in feel, as is the clutch and its smooth action. Almost too easy.
Normal, Sport, Race and Individual drive modes are selectable. In normal, the Golf R is fast and quiet. Slightly louder into Race or Sport on part throttle. (Race disables TCS and some ESC by default.) On full throttle in either sport setting, the car feels like a musclecar. It is loud and burbly and full of testosterone from up front AND especially out back. VW-tweaked sonics amplify some nose sound through the eight-speaker stereo -- delightfully.
The machine is rorty and snorty. Watch five seconds of the above video for proof!
And so, so full of torque. 292HP and 280 pound-feet of torque are the official numbers, along with 22/31/25 MPG ratings. The sprint time is about 5.2-seconnds to 60-mph and is down about a half second versus the DSG automatic Golf R.
That is totally irrelevant to stick-only drivers, though. And what this stick delivers is endless fun. So much torque makes any gear okay in traffic. 4th at 30-mph? Sure! Just gas it. Little turbo lag noticeable at all - just a massive thrust dump any time.
And so much tuning potential, obviously.
This base Golf R lacks DCC -- the adjustable dampers now standard on 2017 models after a mid-year tweak. The default setting feels perfect though, with good control in fast corners but a great ride quality too. The adjustment mostly adds firmness versus adding a softer setting, too.
The center-diff Haldex AWD unit feels pure and balanced. Very close to 50/50 in split, especially in the sport drive modes. The Golf R absolutely sling-shots around hard corners. It pulls cleanly with only the tiniest bit of understeer when overcooked. Overall, the cornering speeds you can achieve make braking feel optional ahead of any bends.
A joy on brakes, too, where Golf R clamps down and showed zero fade in our road-course demo drive video above.
A midyear change in Golf R's means our tester is no longer listed on the VWusa.com site. But fear not: they are out there in dealer stock. Our car stickers from $35,655 before $820 delivery charge. All in, it is just $36,475. Hero pricing for such huge power.
The currently-listed Golf R's are the DCC model with stick or DSG auto, and pricing about $2k higher.
A hatchback that thinks its a musclecar?
And can lose any musclecar at the first bend? Or first drop of rain/snow?
YES! Golf R is all that.
While less sophisticated in stickshift form, and slightly slower too, the Golf R manual is an amazing machine. The car's true secret is not just being VW USA's halo hero. But it makes normal drivers into heroes! So much passing power. Such pure and direct steering. So solid an 80-mph-plus.
The fact that it NEVER breaks traction inspires endless driver confidence.
So go ahead, blast this Golf R off the line at every stoplight you reach. Soon enough, you'll have the joy of dusting some big V8 in a sprint! Maybe start ticking your wins onto the A-pillar trim to keep track!