Take the iconic Volkswagen GTI. Add a larger turbo to the 2.0-liter engine to bump the official horsepower rating from 200 to 256. Add all-wheel-drive to mitigate torque steer. The resulting Golf R ought to be hot hatch nirvana. Jack Baruth found something else. But he drove a Euro-spec car. Perhaps VW performed some beneficial tweaks with the Americanized version?
The GTI looks too wild for your tastes? You should find the Golf R more suitable. Outside, the GTI’s red grille trim, red calipers, and highly-styled rims have been replaced by much more subtle bits. The R does have larger lower front fascia openings, side skirts, and a centrally-located dual exhaust, but these are sufficiently restrained that only the VW cognoscenti will likely notice them. (When they do you’ll get a thumbs-up.) The rest of the population will see just another GTI, if they notice the Golf R at all. If you’ve been inside a GTI with the Autobahn Package’s black leather interior, you’ve essentially been inside this car. The taste police simply replaced the GTI’s red instrument needles and stitching with blue and white, respectively. It’s as if they wanted others to see a regular Golf, which might (together with the possibility of a lawsuit) explain why the nameplate reads “Golf R” rather than “GTI-R.” Do sleepers excite you, or put you to sleep?
Interior functionality is identical to the GTI. Compared to a Focus ST, room for elbows and knees seems more abundant and the car feels larger. The front seats provide good lateral support and comfort—with one possible exception. I couldn’t adjust the power four-way lumbar support so it did less harm than good with my particular lower back. Opt for the four-door, and the seats lose the power four-way lumbar (in favor of manual two-way) but gain power recline. With either body style the seats have a single manual height adjustment, so there’s no way to separately adjust their tilt. R-exclusive amenities are limited to headlight washers and dual-zone automatic climate control. Automatic headlights are not available. Keyless ignition is standard, but unlike with most such systems you must keep your finger on the button until the engine is spinning. (Even at the end of my week with the R I kept forgetting this.) Otherwise, ergonomics are quite good, with simple, easy to understand and operate controls.
Any sleeper worthy of the name combines invisible styling with strong performance. The Golf R has the former. Towards the latter, on paper the car has 56 more horsepower (256 @ 6,000 rpm vs. 207 @ 5,100 rpm) and 36 more pound-feet of torque (243 @ 2,400 rpm vs. 207 @ 1,700 rpm) than the regular 2.0T mill. In reality, the lesser engine outperforms its specs to such a degree that, if you remove traction off the line from the equation, the GTI gets to 60 about as quickly as the 291-pound-porkier Golf R (Car and Driver‘s 5-to-60 “street start” is seven seconds flat for both). As speed increases, the Golf R does gain strength, and once over 60 it would leave a GTI increasingly farther behind while sounding especially good for a four. At lower speeds its greater reliance on boost is readily evident. The mandatory six-speed manual’s shifter isn’t far removed from standard Wolfsburg issue, with longish throws, notchy engagements, and a touch of slop.
The Golf R’s more powerful engine, all-wheel-drive, and higher curb weight take a toll on fuel economy, reducing the EPA ratings from 21 mpg city, 31 mpg highway to 19/27. The trip computer (which might or might not be accurate) reported 26 mpg with a light foot in suburban driving, and low 20s with a heavier foot.
Throw the Golf R through some curves, and its reason for being becomes even harder to discern. The stability control cannot be defeated, or even dialed back. Combine this with the all-wheel-drive system, and the chassis is stable to a fault, going where you want it to but not interested in any dancing. The only available, decidedly non-Autobahn tires, H-rated all-seasons, don’t feel sharp or grippy. Little of what they communicate survives the trip through the electrically-assisted steering system to an overly large flat-bottomed wheel. (The high effort criticized by Jack in the Euro-spec car appears to have been Americanized away.)
Virtually nothing about how the Golf R drives suggests a special performance variant. The edginess and immediacy of an Evo is absent. On the flip side, the Golf R’s ride is far smoother and quieter than the Mitsubishi’s. But a Focus ST is much more fun to drive than the uber-Golf while being nearly as civilized.
For die-hard fans of the brand, the Golf R’s $5,495 premium over a leather-trimmed GTI seems well worth it. Overlooking that feature differences aside from the engine account for only about $2,300 of this difference (according to TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool), said GTI is already quite pricey for a compact car without a fancy label. So the Golf R starts at $34,785 (up $25 from the tested 2012). Add $600 for a second pair of doors (not on the tested car). Add $1,500 for sunroof and nav. Start thinking of what else you could get for nearly $37,000.
At this price, all but the truest VW fans will want more striking styling, quicker acceleration, more engaging handling or more extensive amenities—perhaps even all of the above—than the Golf R offers. It’s not necessary to go crazy with the styling or the tuning; taken too far, these also limit the appeal of a car. The broader Volkswagen group knows how to pair an exhilarating driving experience with tasteful styling and a high degree of livability. Among similarly configured cars, they did it with the Audi TT RS. They just didn’t do it here. Maybe in Europe the Golf R somehow makes sense. For enthusiasts playing the field on this side of the Atlantic, they didn’t tweak it enough.
[Note: Some very insightful comments from Charlie84 below point out that 1) the Golf R's engine is far more solidly built than it needs to be for 256 horsepower, 2) it's easy to modify this engine to produce over 300 wheel horsepower (so about 350 at the crank), and 3) the car is far more fun once this is done. This implies that VW intended for owners to modify the car. So why not just provide more power stock? Some possible reasons: 1) durability (of driveline components if not the engine itself), 2) fuel economy, or 3) marketing, as a more powerful car might be seen as treading on Audi's turf.]
Volkswagen provided an insured vehicle with a tank of gas.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta.com, an online source of car reliability and pricing information.