Around the globe the Volkswagen Golf is regarded as the "Papa" of family compact cars with liftgates. The GTI version has few peers for the "benchmark of all hot hatches" title. Americans' allergies to hatchbacks enable the Jetta sedan to trounce Golf sales by a margin of four-to-one. Sales of the GTI makes up half of those.
So what on earth is Volkswagen thinking by bringing out a new version of its "uber" hot hatch for these shores, the Golf R version? "Drive...He Said" set out to uncover the answer as we were handed keys to a 2012 Rising Blue Metallic VW Golf R 3-door.
And what makes our $35,000 Golf R tester, without navigation, $10 grand dearer than the GTI?
The Parts Which Make the "R" in the Golf R:
- Three or Five-door hatchback compact. Length and Wheelbase are unchanged from the GTI at 165"/101"; Ditto cabin volume and cargo space at 94-cu.ft/15.2-cu.ft. Width is 0.3" greater, thanks to rocker panel cladding; Height falls 0.3" as a result of lower springs. Curb rises by 10% to 3300 lbs.
- 2.0-Liter (same as GTI) alloy head / iron block DOHC engine with 9:8.1 compression ratio, featuring strengthened crankshafts, variable control of intake valves and direct injection;
- a larger spool Borg Warner K-04 water-to air-cooled turbocharger developing 17 psi of boost, up 20% from the GTI
- 256 hp at 6000 rpm / 243 lb-ft of torque at 2300 rpm; a 2% improvement despite a 37% reduction in displacement from the 2008 Golf R32 VR6. Power/torque is 25%/20% greater than in GTI.
- a close-ratio 6-speed manual gearbox with a cable operated shifter; DSG is not available this time around. Final drive ratio is a shorter 3.24:1.
- standard 4-Motion all-wheel drive on demand. The Haldex Gen. IV unit features faster viscous clutch coupling; a locking electronic rear differential splits up to 100% of torque out back.
- 0-60 mph @ 5.8 seconds despite a non-fully defeatable stability control
- Combined fuel economy of 25 mpg
- Electrically-assisted power steering with a quicker 15.6:1 ratio
- Front strut / rear multi-link suspension benefits from stiffer bushings, quicker damping rates and higher spring rates.
- 225/40 Dunlop Sport 01 H-speed rated all-season tires mounted on 18" 5-spoked alloy wheels.
- 4-wheel disc brakes with single piston sliding calipers painted black; rotor diameter increase by 1.2" front and back to 13.6"/12.2;" Higher friction pads are fitted and rear rotors are now vented.
- Standard kit includes adaptive bi-xenon headlamps with white LED DRLs; Climatronic climate control, heated leather-trimmed highly bolstered sport bucket seats, a 300 watt Dynaudio sound system with touch screen, and some turned aluminum trim on the dash and doors with a smattering of "R" badges ans stitching.
The Sum of the Parts That Make the Golf R Go:
- Despite full torque coming on some 600 rpm higher than in the GTI, turbo lag is negligible. Dump the clutch at 4500 rpm. Heads jerk forward. The exhaust lets out a roar. A puff of white smoke is emitted as the tires grab. This mill sounds happiest between 4000 and 5800 rpm. Under 2000 rpm it feels lumpy. Along with the drivetrain.
- Watching the tach and speedo needles race each other is as cool as playing the Gran Turismo video game. Coincidence that the Golf R is offered on GT 5?
- The shift action in the manual gearbox requires concentration. Otherwise there can be confusion between fourth gear and sixth ( and vice versa). Locating reverse can be a test of patience. A clutch pedal whose effort is on the high side doesn't help matters.
- Charging out of fast bends the Haldex 4-Motion system acts like a rear driver with a limited slip differential. The front axle shafts are instantly de-coupled with all 100% of torque being split between the rear wheels. The locking e-differential sends up to 85% to one side. As the Golf R undesteers ever so slightly simply squeeze the throttle to correct direction.
- At speed the nicely weighted steering is linear. During parallel parking it feels as if the power assist has given out.
- The tires provide a good compromise between grip and quiet touring. On occasion, though, they were prone to tramline.
- Brake pedal feel is on the over-sensitive side for the first 2 mm of pedal travel. On the track the binders are so tenacious as to warrant respect. Credit the more aggressive pads. Any tailgater who get brake-checked by a Golf R risks becoming immured.
- The higher spring rates quell tail lift entering corners hard and reduce brake dive in this nose heavy-car.
- The Golf R's otherwise acceptable ride compliance deteriorates along with road surface conditions. Uneven pavement can produce some jitter and the worst heaves or holes impart a pounding that would be a mere thud in the GTI.
We Finally Got Our Scirocco R With AWD - well sort of:
- The more aggressive front fascia with horizontal slats for additional air flow and the more flared headlamp assemblies borrow heavily on those from the Scirocco coupe. Actually it's not too far-off in appearance from the Mk VII Golf.
- The extended rocker sills, rear roof spoiler, lower diffuser with twin tail-piper jutting out the center are illustrative of a "sleeper." Local constabulary are likely to take less notice of a Golf R than of a Subaru WRX STI.
How the Golf R Treats Occupants:
- A cabin penned more than 5 years ago is still at the top of the heap in this segment. You won't find this level of refinement in a Mitsubishi Evolution. Some monotone hard black plastic trim signals that funds was diverted to develop the Mk VII.
- A highly insulated cabin and muted exhaust make for interstate cruising as placid as in any other Golf.
- The beefy square-bottomed steering wheel is a good match for the body-hugging front sport buckets which do a fine imitation of Recaros.
- Instrumentation is still in keeping with VW's time honored paradigm of clarity. The blue needles add lustre to the white-on-black gauges. Some switchgear would cut it in an Audi A3. The steering column stalks would not.
- The Golf R multifunction display, nestled between the main gauges, can be a labyrinth. Do we really need to be able to control the intensity of the front footwell illumination?
- Those who plan on frequently transporting either extra adults or child-safety-seat-confined kids would do well to consider the extra $500 for the two rear doors. Six footers will be pleased with 35" of rear legroom and over 38" of headroom; that's mid-size sedan territory. Extra long doors in the three door and the high rocker sills can make egress a chore.
Worth the Dough With the Mk VII Golf On the Way?
One shouldn't expect a replacement Golf R until late 2014 at the earliest. Should ours still be assembled in Wolfsburg, Germany, a marked price increase is not out of the question.
For the driver who only now and again "opens it up" on public roads and constantly contends with daily stop-'n-go on chassis-jarring urban by-ways, the $10,000 lower priced Golf GTI may be as much car as you'll ever need.
GTI fanboys might deride the Golf R as a blowhard which won't outrun either the comparably priced Evo or WRX STI in a straight line. Our reply: They haven't tracked a 2013 Golf R on a real road course. A virtual Nurburgring Nordschleife doesn't count.
By George Straton, Chicago Now, December 21, 2012