Anybody here ever go to Catholic school? I sure as hell did. About six of them over the course of seven years. I learned really quickly how to distinguish the nuns who scolded from the nuns who slapped, paddled, or punched. (Sister Andrea! What’s up?) I also learned that kids rarely attend Catholic school alone. They have brothers. Sometimes they have big brothers. I remember one family — the Szolozsis — who had nine sons. Nine sons. If I’d been Papa Szolozsi, I’d have bought a lottery ticket. Anyway, I went to school with the third-youngest. Anybody who beat that kid up had to face the bigger brothers one a time until he either took a beating or whipped ’em all. Alternately, he could get his bigger brothers involved. Happened all the time, this escalation of big brothers. High school sophomores would knock each other unconscious over fights that had started a week before in second grade, while the two second-graders, who were now best friends forever once more, would dispassionately observe the proceedings.
Since the WRX arrived in American parking lots, ditches, and tirewalls a decade ago, followed by its bigger brother STi and the brother’s rival Lancer Evolution, fans of Volkswagen’s GTI have been put in the position of a the wimpy grade-school kid hoping his European bigger brother would arrive to set things straight. The original R32 turned out to be the kind of reasonable, cultured sibling who would rather talk things out than fight. “Look, I have this wonderful leather interior. Do we have to settle this on the dragstrip?” The second-generation R32 was kind of like having a big brother from the special-needs classes; all the mean kids pointed and laughed whenever he showed up.
Welcome the newest big brother. No more messing around with six-cylinder refinement and nose-heavy dynamics. The new Golf R packs a spec sheet straight out of Japan: cranked-up two-liter turbo, six-speed manual, all-wheel drive. Tell the STi we’ll meet him next to the incinerator at lunch…
…where we will proceed to receive a vicious ass-kicking of the first degree. Forget any hopes you had of this admittedly very aggressive and impressive Golf beating an STi down a dragstrip, around a racetrack, or through an autocross course. It’s not going to happen. It’s down on power, very likely up on weight, and every control available to the driver feels like it’s been dipped in molasses. Those of you hoping that the Fatherland would use this Golf R to finally assert supremacy over the disposable speed machines from two of America’s shadiest dealer bodies can stop reading now.
What? You’re still here? Okay, we can talk about why the Golf R gets third place in our Intramural League. It’s easy to explain why it beats the Beetle: it’s faster and more capable without being any less fun to drive. Fair enough? At this rate, this review could end so quickly I’ll have time for a completely misguided “styling analysis”. Unfortunately for me, I now have to explain to you why the Golf R falls behind the other two contenders, the GLI and GTI. This will be a little tougher to accomplish.
What is a Golf R? Glad you asked. It’s a Golf with a 256-horsepower variant of the 2.0T which failed to impress in our Beetle Turbo review. Unfortunately, that engine comes bolted-up to Volkswagen’s make-do AWD system. A few years ago, I dinged the Audi TT-S for having too much weight and too much drivetrain for the 2.0T to shine. In the heavier Golf, that problem is compounded even further. While I am certain that somebody, somewhere, will turn a 13.9 quarter-mile in this thing somehow, in my test drive it felt nothing more than sluggish, and barely any quicker than the Beetle.
Our test car was a Euro-spec Golf R, which supposedly has 265 horsepower compared to the US model’s 256. You’re unlikely to notice the difference, if it actually exists. What you do notice from the first minute you drive the car is the absurdly tall gearing. First gear is WAYYY too high (numerically low), making getting under way a dicey proposition. I observed a pair of girljournos stall it five times in a row trying to leave the lunch area at the press event. I never stalled the R, but I sure as hell had time to contemplate the eternal mysteries of the world while trying to do a 5-60 roll.
Second and third gear are marginally better, so that’s good news: if you are prepared to stay above 45mph at all times during your backroad drive, you’ll be fine. Torque steer is nonexistent, for two reasons. Reason one: an improved AWD system keeps the rear wheels driven at all times, thus preventing the torque-steer-then-shift-drive-to-the-back-axles that happens in most transverse-engined FWD systems including, say, the Flex Ecoboost. I mention the Flex Ecoboost because if you own a Golf R you’d better steer clear of that thing. From a dig you’ll get smoked. Reason two, of course, is that the engine isn’t really strong enough to produce torque steer. As often happens with big-boost versions of low-boost engines, the flexibility seen in the regular 2.0 is totally abandoned for the purpose of producing a power number that matches the Mitsubishi Evolution.
The 1994 Mitsubishi Evolution.
Want some good news? The interior is an exceptionally pleasant place in which to spend those long drives down the dragstrip. The seats are great, the stereo should be outstanding, and everything you can touch feels relatively expensive. Even the steering feels expensive, and deliberately so. This is accomplished, as far as I can tell, by modulating the power assistance in such a way as to create a very odd feel. It’s still obviously assisted, it just isn’t assisted much, and the effort is evened-out no matter what you’re doing with the car. I race a small car without power steering. It’s much lighter around dead center than this Golf’s steering is. Quite odd. Perhaps it has something to do with damping out the steering oscillations induced by an active AWD system.
Down the backroad portion of my test loop, I struggled to make any serious time. Not because the car couldn’t handle it, but it simply didn’t feel interested in going quickly. It wasn’t always obvious what was going on with the front end, and the gearing simply couldn’t work with the engine to provide reliable thrust. Luckily the brakes, which look to have been borrowed from an A6 or Phaeton, were uber-reliable despite having Sliding Caliper Disease. That’s how you drive a Golf R. Late brake, middling corner speed, stand on the gas almost immediately and wait for the boost to climb the gearing hill. The whole experience ended up being very point-and-shoot. This is fine for the average “I experienced understeer at 38mph” journosaur, but your humble author was frustrated beyond all reason. The current Evo and STi aren’t as great as their 2008-era predecessors, but either one handily outclasses this Volkswagen.
The alert VW fanboy has already stopped reading this review to run to his forum and write
lolz baruth failz again… he is 2 stupid 2 realeyes that the golfr is a EUROPAEN DRIVING MACHINE AND LUXURY compeating with the DRYER THREE SEREIS and the MB C63 AMG… i hate this guy and his pheatons… i will totally buy a golf r in eight years when they are cheap used and i finally get that job at best buy
Yes, Mr. LAMBODRIVER69, I understand that the Golf R was never intended to compete heads-up with the STi and Evolution. The problem is that here in the United States, that’s all it gets to compete against. A Mustang GT will rip its windshield off and dump oil on its seats. A BMW 328i goes just as fast, maybe faster, and is likely to cost less. Perhaps the people who choose a Golf R will never consider the Japanese cars. That’s a shame, because the Japanese cars are worth considering, to say nothing of the aforementioned Mustang.
The bottom line: This big brother won’t fight when you need him to, so don’t bother. As we will find out in the second half of this comparison test, however, the kids are alright on their own.