Volkswagen’s Golf R
ROUGH ‘N READY. REALLY.
On some days it can seem like yesterday, but then, with no Facebook in 1974 there’s no prompt from Facebook Memories. At that moment I was on a VW showroom in Dallas looking at the Volkswagen Rabbit (‘Golf’ in most markets) for the first time, and wondering how-the-hell a company known for little beyond its Beetle could design and construct a platform so radically different. And the new Rabbit was radically different, especially when thrown into a marketplace dominated by large, rear-wheel drive sedans; this is well before the minivan muscles in, and long before a pickup became seemingly everyone’s daily driver. A few years later that Rabbit ‘hatched’ the GTI, and some twenty years after that the GTI was joined by the Golf R. Happy anniversary.
Volkswagen didn’t invent the hot hatch, but the Wolfsburg-based company was certainly mixing it up with those that did. Like Britain’s Mini before it, and various bits applied to Fiats by Carlo Abarth, there was early recognition that combining the tidy Golf/Rabbit platform with more horsepower and a planted suspension would give the owner-enthusiast enough juice to thrash most affordable sports cars and the occasional GT.
In the almost forty years since I visited that Dallas showroom in 1974, VW is now in the 8th generation of its Golf, and while everything has changed in its design and engineering, little has changed from its original intent. The GTI and Golf R retain a tidy footprint, four doors and a hatchback. The GTI remains front-wheel drive (with a standard limited slip differential) while the Golf R negotiates the pavement – or gravel! – with an all-wheel drive system managing its 315 horsepower and 280 lb-ft (295 lb-ft with its available DSG automatic). In looking at the Golf R – in all its 20th anniversary splendor – I can’t get beyond how balanced the 4-door hatchback looks; there’s absolutely nothing to its unibody that’s unnecessary or extraneous. If the Challenger, Camaro and Mustang have grown into NFL linebackers, the Golf R is Simone Biles, with most of her athleticism.
After a week in Toyota’s Supra, inserting yourself into the Golf R could be likened to sliding into a Town Car, as the roofline and door opening are the automotive equivalent of the welcome mat. Once seated you’ll note the ergonomically enhanced steering wheel, fitted with a perforated covering that picks up where the perforated leather seating stops. And those buckets deserve a shout-out for their support, without confining the wider, bigger ‘you’.
In this Mk 8 iteration, Volkswagen went of-this-century with its dash and infotainment, to the extent that many of us born in the last century don’t really know what to do with it. Why one simple operation – say, changing the fan speed – requires two motions is beyond me. And while on some level I can see the point in a reconfigurable gauge package, what’s so wrong with just one clear display of necessary information?
Obviously, a lot of money went into the design and construction of this new dash, but I’d prefer getting the upgrade as an option – and then declining it. Perhaps I’d opt instead for a door-mounted armrest that didn’t look or feel as if it was sourced from Kia’s $20K Rio…in a $45K Volkswagen.
Of course, the Golf R’s raison d’être is the driving experience, and on most levels the Golf R won’t disappoint. In delivering the 2.0 liter turbo’s 315 horsepower through all four wheels there’s no tug on the steering; the small hatch simply goes about its business, whether the road surface is wet or dry, smooth or – you know – American. And it goes about that business quickly; in its testing Car and Driver magazine went from 0-60 in just under 4 seconds, and hit an even 100 in an even 10 seconds.
Both numbers, Regular Readers will recall, are in the same ballpark as those achieved by the same magazine for the Supra 6-speed. And for those wanting to drive from Dallas to Austin for lunch, Car and Driver estimates the Golf R’s top speed at 155, giving you downtown Austin from Big D in less than 90 minutes. Plus, of course, your time making bail.
And this: My wife Tina found the Golf R ‘zippy’. And she hates ‘zippy’.
Beyond the euphoria generated by straight line acceleration is the security provided by a planted, responsive chassis, nicely weighted steering and stop-on-a-dime stopping. And in going about its business, the Golf R offers a quiet appropriate to that composure; this is a hot hatch for adults that don’t want, at their life stage, to be confronted with the distractions of adolescence; they’re years removed from high school, and want transportation to drive like a graduate degree – not a GED.
Beyond the dash, if there’s one (or two) nits to pick, it’s with the limited selection of colors for the Golf R, and it’s $45K price point. Our test car’s Lapiz Blue is gorgeous, but how do you build a German car and not offer some variant of silver or gray? Beyond the blue, VW gives us a pearlescent black or solid white – and that’s it. The more volume-oriented GTI has both a metallic silver and non-metallic gray, and while knowing they build and sell more, Golf R customers are spending a lot more.
And to be specific, the bump between the base GTI and the Golf R is $14,000. To be sure, if you go up the GTI food chain you can spend almost $40K, but 90% of that higher trim goodness is available for less than 80% of that window sticker. While the Golf R has no direct competition, Hyundai can sell its Kona N for $35K, and while that’s front-wheel drive only – and it’s a Hyundai – I’d think VW’s marketing team could come up with a viable offering of standard equipment and put the Golf R on the showroom for $40K. That remains quite a bit of money, but then, the Golf R is quite a bit of car.