Most car makers have “halo” cars. You know, special products (usually at nosebleed prices) to show off the best of what they can do, and to make you feel better about the garden-variety products that most of us end up buying. Think Nissan GT-R, Corvette Z06, Acura NSX.
VW has a halo vehicle, too. And while the family parts bin of Audi goodness could probably have given them some ridiculous $80,000 über Passat or something, they did something very cool. They made a VW Golf their showpiece.
So, is the VW Golf R a hatch that super-enthusiasts can really get hot about?
Well, you’re not going to swivel heads like a GT-R or NS-X. Or even a Focus RS or Civic R. But honestly, we’re good with that. We like our high-performance cars under the radar, and not attracting too much attention.
Which is not to dis the Golf R. It’s a handsome 5-door hatchback, that looks remarkably like its GTI sibling. Outside of small and tasteful “R” badging, unique 19” alloy wheels and tasty dual exhaust with quad tailpipes, it could be any Golf, out to make its way in the larger, working world.
Our tester added a little visual pop with its bright Tornado Red exterior, highlighting the crisp, modern lines that have aged exceptionally well on all Golfs.
An office built for the business of driving.
Like the exterior, the interior is familiar. And again, no bad thing. Like most VW’s, the quality of materials is top-drawer, and the layout is functional and smart. To the well-informed, you’ll notice the Golf R gets gauges illuminated in a cool blue, plus tasty blue indicator needles. More important are deep-dish, heavily-bolstered leather driving seats with Golf R logo. Not only excellent at holding you in high-G turns (more on that later) but also supremely comfortable and supportive for the day-to-day and long haul.
Those seats put you in front of handsome and good-ol’ analogue tach and speedo. 8K on the tach and 200 mph on the speedometer! (A little overkill, since the R it electronically limited to about 150 mph). In between is the expected trip display, with all kinds of good stuff, including digital speedo and even a lap timer.
On the center stack is the hard-working 6.5-inch navigation display, with VW’s cool proximity sensor – when it senses your hand is nearby a pop-up menu shows to allow you access to key features. Cool.
But there’s more! Car-Net App-Connect gives you smartphone access that’s user friendly and keeps you from digging around for your phone.
Best of all for drivers is the customizable digital 3-gauge Performance Monitor screen. With choices including G-meter, boost pressure, oil temperature and more, it’s a quick read for drivers on the go.
Another nice thing about using the Golf as your base is the everyday usability you get in the package. 4-doors make for easy rear seat access, while the folding rear seats and the ample size hatchback give plenty of load-lugging capability.
Built to haul. And to haul.
While all this stuff is nice, you’re paying premium prices for the steak not the ‘taters. So, let’s get into the tasty stuff. Under the hood is VW’s familiar 2.0-liter, turbo four, in this case squeezing out an exhilarating 292 hp, and 280 lb-ft. of torque. That max torque comes in at just 1,800 rpm, so there’s no hanging about here.
Connecting to the engine are your choice of 6-speed manual, or as in our tester 6-speed dual clutch DSG automatic. Stats for the DSG are astounding – 0-60 in under 5-seconds – and it fires off rapid shifts effortlessly, and has a psychic sense when you’re planning to downshift.
Dealing the power out to all 4 wheels is VW’s 4Motion system, and it’s here that you notice the biggest difference compared to the R’s sibling, GTI. With the limited front slip in the Performance Package GTI, you have one of the best handling front drive cars ever, but there’s always going to be some limitations when the front wheels have full-time jobs doing both putting power down and turning.
In the R, power gets delved out to all 4 wheels and it allows you to get on the power sooner off the line and out of corners, and would probably make a big difference in slippery stuff as well. There’s also a qualitative difference here, the all-wheel-drive makes the car feel more substantial (it is heavier) but also you feel both ends of the car working to get you around as quickly as possible.
Our top of the line tester also had DCC Dynamic Chassis Control Adaptive Suspension, which lets you dial in your ride from creamy commuter to aggressive attack mode. More real-world usability.
Anything else I should know?
Available on our high-end model is VW’s Driver Assistance Package including lane-departure warning, forward collision warning, blind spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control and parking sensors. Excellent stuff, and an excellent value at $895.
So how much for this super V-dub? Well, the Golf R starts at $36,475. Our top of the pops tester with DCC and Navi started at $39,580. Adding in the Driver Assistance Package for $895, and our R rang in at $40,475. By comparison, a loaded GTI comes in around $36k. The Audi S3 which is identical mechanically, start at $43,650 but jumps to $48,950 when similarly equipped. All things considered, the R is a great value.
We loved our time with the Golf R, it can be everything from a sensible hatchback to a stealthy sub-supercar, and does any task exceptionally well. Highly recommended, but with this much road-eating ability, one caveat:
VW’s Halo car may bring out the devil in you.
Ben Lewis grew up in Chicago, and after spending his formative years driving sideways in the winter – often intentionally – moved to sunny Southern California. He now enjoys sunny weather year-round — whether it is autocross driving, aerobatics, and learning to surf.