You read the headline correctly: This is a review of a 2016 VW Golf R — not a 2017. Why are we just now getting to review this model? Because when a car is this good, every media outlet wants to drive it. Luck of the draw meant we got this Lapiz Blue example of the 2016 Golf R late in the calendar year. That’s how it goes sometimes.
The Golf R is now available as a 2017 model, with an MSRP starting a little bit north of $35K and topping out at $40,475. We hear you saying it:
“Forty-large for a VW Golf? Come on, now.”
No, you come on, now.
The Golf R easily wears its performance halo.
What’s most notable about the VW Golf R might be just how easily it blends in with other Golfs. The uneducated eye will have a hard time noticing there’s anything special about it. For those who love a good “sleeper” performance car, the Golf R is a great sleeper.
Those in the know will be able to spot a few R-specific elements on the Golf R. It gets unique front and rear fascias, including a rear diffuser and rear spoiler that may be the R’s biggest giveaways. Those who spot that rear diffuser might also see the dual exhaust tips poking out the rear of the car.
The front bumper gets larger air inlets and a slightly different grille insert that features a discrete R logo. Unique bi-xenon headlight housings also feature LED daytime running lights that create an easily identifiable twin-U shape that traces beneath the headlights themselves.
Beefy 225/40 or 235/35 series tires look like they mean business, for those who bother to notice, and they’re wrapped around unique 18-inch “Cadiz” or 19-inch “Pretoria” rims. Our tester had 18s, which didn’t look outsize or too flashy for the car. Again, it flies under the radar.
Inside the VW Golf R we found black leather sport buckets for front occupants. The seats were embroidered with the R logo and provided great support without being uncomfortable. The driver’s seat featured 12-way power adjustment.
The steering wheel was all-business, with a flat bottom and nicely contoured thumb grips at 10 and 2. Behind it were simple analog gauges designed to relay the info we need with a minimum of distraction — how Germanic of them — while a central digitized display would provide us with ancillary info such as distance to empty or on-the-go fuel economy numbers. We could easily page through the info on the display by using controls on the steering wheel.
In the driver’s footwell were stainless steel-looking sport pedals — only two of them, as our test car was equipped with VW’s DSG automated manual gearbox. The console featured the shift lever for this transmission as well as a couple of cupholders and a switch for the electrically actuated parking brake. Sorry, drift fans — no manual E-brake lever here. Heading the center console was VW’s 6.5-inch Composition Media infotainment touchscreen — but more on that in a moment.
Perhaps the best thing about the interior of the VW Golf R is that it has the same practicality as any other Golf. There’s plenty of storage out back for the weekly grocery run — 22.8 cubic feet, according to VW. Two kids in car seats will fit in the back seat, though anyone sitting ahead of a rear-facing child should probably be short in stature. That’s a minor complaint for a car that does a whole lot with a relatively modest footprint — just 168.4 inches long by 70.8 inches wide.
Ah, here’s what you’re paying for. Under the hood of the 2016 VW Golf R is the EA888 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine hotted up to 292 horsepower and 280 ft-lbs of torque.
All that torque comes on at just 1,800 RPM. When we dropped the throttle to the floorboard, the sense of thrust was near-immediate. Beyond that, the rate at which speed continued to gather was a rush for which no Breaking Bad-wannabe crank dealer has concocted a match. VW says the Golf R gets to 60 MPH in less than five seconds. Believe it.
The engine routes power through VW’s DSG six-speed automated manual gearbox that then sends it to all four wheels via VW’s 4Motion all-wheel drive system. Grip was outstanding, even when rounding bends at speeds that would send mere commuter subcompacts skittering into the ditch.
Surely all this power and all-wheel drive means poor fuel economy, right? Wrong. The Golf R is rated at 31 MPG highway. Our experience suggests that number is within the realm of possibility — if we could have kept our foot out of the gas.
On the interstate, the power roll-on handily dusted dawdlers who suddenly realized they were impeding traffic only when we attempted to pass them. They’d pick up speed to our cruise control pace, we’d toe into the throttle, and the rest was history.
One such dawdler was clearly a VW fanboy. Driving a Mk. VII GTI, he sped up and clearly eyeballed our Golf R. Then he dropped a couple of gears and sped away. We didn’t play his game, secure in the knowledge that our Golf R would have destroyed his ego — and possibly our driver licenses.
Volkswagen fit our Golf R tester with the aforementioned Composition Media touchscreen, and it proved simple to use. Syncing an Android 6.0 smartphone was easy-peasy. It pumped sound through eight speakers. It wasn’t VW’s much-ballyhooed Fender Premium Audio setup, but it was still very good.
The VW Golf R we tested featured VW’s Car-Net smartphone integration system. This gave us Android Auto, which worked pretty seamlessly when we connected the smartphone via USB cable. Though this particular Golf R did not feature factory navigation, it was easy to navigate to our destinations using Google Maps via Android Auto. Nice workaround, VW.
Though not strictly necessary, given the VW Golf’s easy line-of-sight visibility for the driver, our Golf R had a great reverse camera. Backing into every parking space just because we could was fun.
At an as-tested price of $37,570, the 2016 VW Golf R is premium priced, for a Golf. But taken as a whole, it’s a heck of a lot of performance wrapped in an unassuming package. Some of us love that kind of thing.
Undoubtedly the best-handling Golf one can buy, the Golf R features a multilink rear suspension with antiroll bar, which matches the front coil-spring setup’s antiroll bar. Body roll? What’s that? And the acceleration and effortless power — goodness, it’s better than drugs.
VW says the Subaru WRX STi is squarely in the Golf R’s crosshairs. The WRX STi is similarly priced but arguably built to a lower-rent standard, especially inside. The WRX STi also is not nearly so under-the-radar as the Golf R, what with its big, gaudy rear wing. Other would-be competitors such as Ford Fiesta ST may similarly feel like tarted-up econoboxes with garish bodykits. That’s forgetting that the FiST is based on a car that has a nasty habit of rolling over when pushed.
For the family who wants to travel expediently without attracting too much attention from the constabulary, the Volkswagen Golf R is a gem.
Disclosure: Volkswagen provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.
Lyndon Johnson is a husband and father of two who has now spent more of his life as a journalist than as a non-journalist. He serves as assistant editor at his hometown weekly paper in rural Tennessee and freelances in the automotive journalism world.