Golf R: Jekyll-and-Hyde Hot Hatch
Let’s get this out of the way at the start. This week’s test driver is a Volkswagen Golf. And it costs $41,735. Now, having written that, this isn’t your normal everyday VeeDub hatchback. Just as the folks at Ford have done with the otherwise budget-minded (and now, sadly, mothballed) Focus RS, the engineers in VW’s skunkworks have massaged, tweaked and tuned the company’s beloved four-door hatch into a thoroughly amusing means of getting from points A to B. The result is the Golf R. I spent a week recently with the Focus RS, an insolent and raw-boned AWD performance hot hatch powered by a 350-horsepower turbocharged inline-four engine that made itself known to our neighbors through its snap-crackle-pop exhaust system. Able to rip through the 0-to-60 mph run in roughly 4.5 seconds, it’s a Tasmanian Devil of a car with aptitude and attitude to spare. Parts of which the Golf R is not, frankly. This ultimate manifestation of Golf-ness certainly is capable of running with the equally pricey Focus RS — both feature roughly similar acceleration specs and match up nicely in terms of handling and braking. The Golf R stands apart due to a laid-back personality and comparative absence of boy-racer gingerbread. There’s no gaping front air intake of coffee-table-sized rear roof spoiler (although I’m sure the aftermarket outfits would be happy to oblige any interested owner). And while Volkswagen is offering the 2018 model in 40 different, eye-popping colors as a $2,500 Spektrum option, the Golf R looks strikingly like its less burly model mates. The R entered the 2018 model year largely unchanged, save for VW rolling the two previous trim lines into one. There’s a single flavor offered now, and it comes loaded with all the bells and whistles. The as-delivered asking price of $41,735 includes a long list of performance, comfort and safety gear: trim-specific 19-inch alloy wheels shod in low-profile performance tires, the company’s 4Motion AWD system, automatic adaptive LED headlamps, leather-upholstered heated and air-conditioned front sport seats, 12-way power-adjustable driver’s seat, LED taillights, rearview camera system, premium Fender sound system, blind-spot monitoring and lane-departure sensing, adaptive cruise control, auto-dimming rearview mirror and lots more. As expected, the R is a joy to drive. Tractable and easy-going during the daily commute or running the kids to school, it springs to life with a dab of the gas pedal. The turbo is quick to spool up, delivering the 280 foot-pounds of maximum torque at a low 1,800 rpm, at which point the R sprints down the road with an enthusiasm normally associated with muscle cars. The EPA estimates an automatic-equipped Golf R will get 25 mpg in combined driving — only three mpg shy of its downmarket brethren. Handling is spot-on, thanks to the dialed-in steering setup and the suspension’s trick DCC (Dynamic Chassis Control) system that constantly adapts to match road and driving conditions. And unlike some of its competitors, ride comfort isn’t compromised in the name of performance — indeed, the R delivers a smooth and almost luxurious ride over all but the most rutted road surfaces. The R-emblazoned front sport seats are firm, supportive and deeply bolstered, offering plenty of head, leg and shoulder room. The split-folding rear bench’s legroom is effectively nonexistent with the front seats slid all the way back. The rear cargo area can swallow 22.8 cubic feet; flip the seat backs forward and volume swells to 52.7 cubic feet. Instrumentation is clearly marked and easy to operate. I especially liked the infotainment system’s proximity-sensing LCD touch screen and brightly illuminated digital gauge cluster, as well as the quick-shifting DSG automatic transmission’s timely shifts. In all, the R serves up a fantastic mix of comfort, performance and utility, all of which make compelling arguments that this little hot hatch is worth signing on the dotted line in the finance department. Consider, though, that the current and highly regarded VW Golf GTI costs roughly 15 grand less (granted, it gives up 70 horsepower and an AWD system to the R), or that a premium-badged and mechanically similar Audi S3 costs a few thousand more, and the R becomes slightly less of a slam dunk in this segment. 2018 Volkswagen Golf R Vehicle type: Four-door, five-passenger compact all-wheel-drive sports hatchback. Base/as-tested prices: $40,885/$41,735. Engine and transmission: 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four (292 horsepower, 280 foot-pounds torque), seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. EPA estimates: 22 mpg city, 29 mpg highway, 25 mpg combined. The good: Holy-Hanna performance in keeping with the princely price tag; powerful and smooth-spinning turbo-four engine easy to live with in town and a blast on the highway; optional DSG automatic delivers snappy shifts and better acceleration than the standard six-speed manual tranny; dialed-in steering setup makes for instant directional response; sport-tuned suspension still yields a supple and comfortable ride; standard all-wheel drive; handsome and understated exterior design keeps the trim-specific bling to a minimum; attractive cabin another bang-up job from VW. The bad: Complete absence of second-row legroom with front seats slid back; so-so fuel economy (no big surprise with 292 ponies on tap, though); nearly 42 grand for a Golf? Bottom line: Able to run with competing AWD hot hatches like the Ford Focus RS and Subaru WRX STI, the Golf R wins the day in terms of daily liveability and usefulness.