The raindrops, small as #12 shot, plink against the glass, coating the pavement in a greasy film. Not ideal for a spirited drive in a nearly 300 horsepower hot hatch, even one with AWD, but Southern California needs the rain, even if it’s just a half-hearted attempt by the clouds. The ground is still parched, the trees half blackened by the wildfires of the summer, while the remaining bark is a soft ivory like the leather in this Euro market test car, one of four examples that Volkswagen brought over with a manual transmission.
In my rearview mirror, the black and white Expedition from the San Diego Country Sherrif’s office fades away over the crest, and the two point oh tee mill pulls the car closer to 100 mph, exhibiting the kind of top-end torque that’s absent from its front-drive GTI sibling. But the 6-speed manual gearbox is the same, and all I can think is how much I’d rather have the DSG.
Since the manual won’t be available until 2016, Volkswagen supplied us with Euro-spec Golf R models with the big 19″ wheel package and the three-pedal transmission. Both of those sound like great ideas, but you’ll want a Golf R with 18s for the sake of ride quality, and the DSG because it’s so superbly matched to the rest of the car, that shifting your own gears detracts from the experience.
For one thing, the Golf R is quicker with the DSG. You can hit 60 mph in just under five seconds if you let the transmission do its work, but the manual adds an additional half-second. Shifts are quick, quicker when the car is in “Race” mode, but in normal driving, its tough to believe that just two generations ago, this was the same gearbox that would roll back on hills if you took your foot off the brake, and let you feel the clutch take up when rolling away from a stop light in first.
The second is that the manual gearbox isn’t that great. Having only driven the 6-speed manual in both the GTI and the R, one would find it perfectly acceptable. The throws of the shifter are light but precise, the clutch easy to modulate. But driven back to back with the DSG, it weakens the argument that “three pedals good, two pedals bad”. The fact that the pedals are spaced too far apart to execute a heel-toe downshift doesn’t help either. The only real benefit of the 6-speed manual is the $1100 discount off the $37,415 MSRP that the DSG version commands.
The rest of the package holds up its end of the bargain. The steering is just as crisp and direct as the GTI, and the flat-bottomed steering wheel is a nice touch. Compared to the most recent BMW 2-Series we drove, it makes The Ultimate Driving Machine feel like something from Toyota. The brake pedal feels a touch grabby, but its hard to fault the competence of the brakes themselves, which are the same as the GTI Performance Pack. For all the hype about the Haldex AWD system, the biggest positive attribute is the lack of torque steer when accelerating out of a corner – an affliction that affects the driving experience of the front-drive GTI. Otherwise, it was fairly transparent in its operation, which is to say it was hardly noticed at all. Perhaps a brisk drive in somewhere other than Southern California would have shown of its capabilities in a more demonstrative manner. Here’s hoping for a longer review during a Canadian winter.
Performance aside, the rest of the Golf R has all of the positive attributes of the other MQB based Golfs. The cabin seems impossibly spacious for a C-segment car, with ample space both fore and aft. The interior materials wouldn’t seem out of place in an Audi, but the current infotainment system is in desperate need of replacement – it doesn’t even have a USB port for your smart phone. Apparently, this, along with Apple CarPlay and Android integration will be available for 2016 as part of a revised infotainment system.
While VW is positioning the Golf R against the Subaru WRX STI and the BMW M235i, the real competition for this car is on VW’s showroom. There’s approximately $10,000 between the base price of a Golf GTI and a Golf R. Granted, a GTI 5-door with the DSG and Performance pack will narrow the gap some, but the biggest point of contention is that the GTI is just so good, even with front-wheel drive, that it’s hard to imagine making a case for the Golf R unless you must satisfy one of two criteria; you’re living in a snowy state where the AWD would be a benefit in poor weather, or you’re a member of the VW faithful who must have the uber-Golf, if only for internet bragging rights. Anyone else could get a nicely equipped GTI and an aftermarket ECU re-flash without ever regretting it.