Test Driven: 2013 Volkswagen Golf RPosted: January 24, 2013
The Golf R carries on the torch, held by the R32 before it, as the ultimate Volkswagen Golf. The R32 first came on the scene in 2002, sharing most of its mechanical features with the top spec Audi TT. It was placed above the famous GTI in the Golf lineup, and offered a bigger VR6 engine that sent power to all four wheels, opposed to just the front in the GTI. The Golf R has changed from the original R32 in many of its details, but still offers the same package in the modern lineup. America was not originally supposed to receive the Golf R when it debuted in 2010, but there was so much outspoken demand for the car that they were landing on our shores by the spring of 2012. This is a car I have been wanting to test for a while now, and as it turned out my family decided to buy another Volkswagen. So after we committed to the buy, I asked if I could have a drive in the Golf R to sweeten the deal a little, and they were more than happy to oblige.
While looking over the details for this article, I was amazed at how much the R-model Golfs have remained the same over the years in many respects. While the Golf R is no longer has the famous VR6 motor found in the R32s, it still offers the exact same package in the exact same market segment. At around $35,000, the car I drove is right in the same price range as some very serious performance machines. That said, being a turbocharged and all wheel drive, there are really two main rivals for this car, the Subaru WRX STI, and the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. Funny enough, these are the same rivals that both R32s have done battle with in past generations, and the way they relate to each other has not changed one bit. Lets look at what this means for perspective buyers, because while these cars may seem very similar on the surface, they are actually very polarizing once you get into the details.
Compared to the rally cars the Golf R looks tasteful. Both the STI and Evo feature excessive looking vents, scoops, and spoilers. While entirely functional for performance, all of this makes them both look like ricers in the eyes of everyone who doesn’t know about cars. The Golf R, on the other hand, will still look like just a Golf to most people. For those who are into cars, there will be no mistaking the R-model when they see one. The front facia is far more aggressive than a normal Golf, the twin exhaust pipes are a dead giveaway, and the car’s sits noticeably lower on its sport suspension. The bright blue color of the car I drove definitely does away with most of the subtlety of this car, but in darker colors, even I often have to do a double take to recognize one. I really love this bright blue though, it hints at the car’s sporting character while still keeping things classy.
Why does all this matter, you might ask? Lets consider a situation where you are taking a girl out for your first date with her. Lets assume, like most women, that she is not all that interested in cars, past the point of what it says about the guy driving it. The Golf’s subtlety means there is more to it than there may seem. It’s not all in your face about its performance like the rally cars are. There is something much more juvenile about the STI and the Evo, at least as far as uneducated appearances go. The Golf R is certainly going to give a more mature first impression, to be sure.
The story with the exterior continues inside of the car. The Golf R has by far the nicest interior in terms of build quality, materials used, and overall polish. When it comes to comfort, the Evo’s racing seats are just plain hard, and the STI’s, while more livable than those in Evo, still pale in comparison to the seats found in the Golf R. Once seated you will find the seats very well bolstered, but also soft enough to get comfortable. They will hold you in place nicely during hard corners, but you don’t feel like you are in a focused race car, like you do in the Evo. As expected, driving position in the R is great, and everything is laid out in a way that is very straight forward…. this is a German car after all.
The back seat in the R is also quite useful, even in this two door model. Climbing in over the front seat is always a pain to deal with, but once situated, the back seat is not bad at all. I am 5”11, and I had a decent amount of legroom, and plenty of headroom, thanks to the hatchback roof design. A four door Golf R is also available, for those who plan on bringing friends along often. This car is plenty comfortable for four adults, but a fifth is probably a squeeze to make only if necessary. Also, being a hatchback, there is still a decent amount of trunk space behind the rear seats. Most daily items should fit in there just fine, but the rear seats do fold flat to give you quite a bit more room should you need it.
So, going back to our date scenario, the Golf R is a very “nice” car inside. It has a much higher quality feel to it than the rally cars, and is by far the most comfortable for both front and rear passengers I would say. A girl isn’t going to care about anything the car can do if she is uncomfortable, so if you want to impress a woman with your wheels, start there.
On the road
Okay, so now you have dropped you date off, and all you wound up with was a goodnight kiss. It’s time to drive home like your pants are on fire, because they probably are! Now all that image and polish stuff doesn’t matter, lets see what this thing is like to drive.
Starting with the controls, the steering is light, but very sharp and connected. The clutch is also light, but offers a good feel for engagement. Gear throws are light in effort with medium distance, but it’s also notchy, so you know when you’re in gear. The brakes feel nice and solid from the pedal, but tests have shown them to have nowhere near the amount of stopping power as those found on the rally cars. Throttle response is aslo a tad slow, and I found my blips for downshifts needed to be more deliberate to compensate (I am used to my STi).
The Golf R feels very solid, and well planted on the road. The chassis responds to steering inputs with immediacy, giving a crisp energetic feel to the way it drives. I was able to take a few corners pretty hard during my drive because I wound up with a winding onramp all to myself. The car turns in with confidence and holds on with a substantial amount of grip. I fed in throttle as early as I felt I could in the corner to try and slingshot down the straight before the merge. The Golf R’s limits are high, but all that awaits you when you approach them is understeer. The car held on well enough, but by the exit the tires were screeching, and the nose was beginning to plow wide.
Now, I don’t really have a problem with a road car’s natural tendency to understeer, almost all consumer vehicles have it tuned in for safety reasons, but this was a bit different. It felt artificial, and came on rather suddenly. It was grip, more grip, more grip, plow. There wasn’t a gradual onset that would allow you sense where the limit was, and balance the car out, like there is in my STi or an Evo. What happens is the stability control kicks in, applying the brakes on the inside wheels. This keeps the car on the road if you go into a corner way too fast, but here I was easing up to try and find the chassis’ balance, and it simply wouldn’t let me get there. The system doesn’t want to let the rear of the car rotate, so you can never really play with the chassis like you can in the Subaru, and it doesn’t hold you at that glorious point of neutral balance like an Evo. This would all be fine if you could turn the stability control off, but in the Golf R, you can’t.
So it turns out the handling of the Golf R is a bit compromised by its overly intrusive computer assistance. The system is too focused on safety in my opinion, cutting things off before you are really able to find the car’s balance. I am not against having a fancy stability control system, in fact the Evo’s electronic aids are part of what helps to make it so physics-defyingly balanced through corners. The Evo’s systems are basically tuned to engage at the car’s limit, and hold it there. I wish VW had done that with this car, but they went the entirely safe route instead; likely because the Golf has such a short wheelbase, and could easily spin around if allowed to fishtail.
All this said, most of the time on the street you aren’t getting anywhere near the limits of a car’s handling. When having fun on winding back roads, I normally keep myself to 7-8/10ths, and in that sort of driving the Golf R would shine brightly. Like most all wheel drive cars, it has a huge amount of cornering grip before things start to give way. The Golf R’s dynamic all wheel drive system defaults to sending power to the front wheels, but can send 100% of power to the rear if need be. It is a lot more planted than a GTI on varying road surfaces too, so bumps, dips, or loose gravel won’t upset the R nearly as much. In the context of a being a fun street car, the Golf R’s handling is superb, but if you want to go all-out on a racetrack, the handling of both rally cars is in an entirely different league.
In place of the 3.2L V6 (VR6) found in the R32s, the Golf R has been fitted with a more powerful version of the turbocharged 2.0L four cylinder found in the GTI. Supposedly the US Golf R is slightly detuned from the european version, at 256hp, but chassis dyno results have shown around 225awhp, suggesting our version has the same 267hp the europeans have. This was backed up from the driver seat because the R felt noticeably more rapid than the GTI, which makes around 225hp, but it also did not pull quite as hard as STI’s and Evos I’ve driven, each with around 300hp.
All that said, the Golf R has a nice amount of punch to play with, especially with 258ft/lbs of torque on tap from 2500rpm. It is unmistakably turbocharged in the way it delivers its power, though, with a noticeable build up before the car really takes off. In the lower gears the R puts you back in your seat with force, and in the higher gears it will have no trouble reaching what we will call “autobahn speeds”. The car pulls well at any speed, so while R32 lovers will miss the glorious soundtrack of the VR6, I think the wider powerband makes up for it. Plus, as four-bangers go, the 2.0T has a nice enough growl to it.
I looked up some tested performance figures for this car, and I had to scratch my head a little because they are almost exactly the same as the original R32’s. 0-60 comes in 5.8sec, 0-100 in 14.6sec, the 1/4 mile in 14.3sec at 99mph, and a computer limited top speed around 130mph. It certainly felt faster than the 2008 R32 I tested back in 2011, but that could just be due to the increased torque of the turbo motor.
This speed deficit when compared to the rally cars has been a common theme amongst R rated Golfs over the years, but the Golf R is the first one that can legitimately fight back. You see, while the VR6 was a great engine in many ways, it was also difficult and expensive to get more power out of with modifications. The 2.0T is happily a different story, and can be brought up to over 300hp with just a stage one flash…. that’ll even things out with the stock rally cars for just a few hundred bucks. After that, though, the Golf R still cannot quite match either the Subaru or Mitsubishi in their ability to gain lots of power from further basic modifications. The Subaru can see up to around 400hp (330awhp) from its stock turbocharger, and the Evo can manage 450hp (350-360awhp). The Golf R, on the other hand, at least from my research, can only manage around 330hp (260awhp) before it needs a bigger turbo. That said, it is my understanding that the R’s engine uses all forged steel internals. This means that its power potential, once it has a better turbocharger on it, could be superior to the rally cars because they each need new pistons (and rods for the Subaru). Obviously Evos are known for huge power once their cast pistons have been replaced, but in the realm of spending just a few grand on a turbo kit, the Golf R may turn out more cost effective. This is just going off of what I’ve read on the forums and other internet sources, though, so please do your own research as well.
In the Market
The Golf R, as well as the STI and Evo, can be had in the $30-40k range, depending on options. As I said before, the car I drove was right in the middle at $35k. As far as market advice goes, it is hard to give any because the pricing is the same for each car. These cars are very similar in that they are all based on practical economy cars, all have great turbocharged performance, and all feature all wheel drive. They are high performance cars that can tackle anything the elements will throw at them, and that automatically groups them together for perspective buyers. A car like a Mustang is great when it is sunny and dry, but when there’s a blizzard, it’s useless. These cars, on the other hand, are just as much fun, and functional, in the snow as in the dry. This allows you to either get to the office, or turn your neighborhood into a world rally stage.
Despite their big similarities, in the end we have three completely different cars here, and the Golf R has asserted its own defined place in the lineup. In a nutshell, the Evo is a track car, the STI is a rally car, and the Golf R is a road car. If you care about build quality, the “nice” factor of a car, and have outgrown the boy racer look, then the Golf R is your pick of the group. It also happens to be the most fuel efficient option, at 19/27mpg, and the advantage in its highway mileage is fairly substantial; a big consideration for commuters. The R is the most grown up, and best polished car here, and even though it comparatively lacks in performance, it is still damn quick in the real world. In terms of speed and handling, these are all titans compared to the normal cars that most folks have.
I really liked the Golf R, and I say that as an STi owner. I like the way it looks, the quality of the interior, the hatchback practicality, and even its performance (although there is much I’d try to change with mods). It is a very appealing car as is, so when I say I would like to see improvements, that isn’t because it is bad, but because it could be better.
In my mind, if VW had made the Golf R perfectly it would have at least 300hp from the 2.0T in stock form. However, if they really wanted to excite people, they should have thrown in the 335hp 2.5L five cylinder from the Audi TT-RS because that really would have shown up the rally cars on the straights. As far as in the corners, I think VW could have done a much better job with the stability control. The focus is too much on pure safety and not enough on achieving the best performance. Many of the fastest cars out there right now utilize a well designed stability control system to help them be as fast as possible through corners, and I think such a system would be ideal for the R. If VW were to make these changes to this car, and keep everything else the same, I think they would wind up controlling this niche market segment. They need to aim to “beat”, not merely “compete”.
As it sits, the Golf R is still a very solid car to buy if it fits your desires. It offers a mix of performance, quality, and refinement that usually is only found on cars that are far more expensive. It is the ultimate Golf for VW fans, and many aspire to have one just for that fact alone. But also look at it this way: If you are a young executive, moving up the corporate ladder, then think of the Golf R as a logical stepping stone toward the eventual Audi S4, BMW M3, and Porsche 911 that will come as your career progresses. The R possesses the same sort of well rounded character that offers loads of excitement while keeping things classy.
WoM Score: VW Golf R
Primary Function: Performance: 1
Secondary Functions: Luxury(2), Practicality(2), MPG(2): 2
Visual Appeal: 1
Build Quality: 2
Value for Money: 1
Final Score: 7/10
PS: A big thank you to Ken Doebler at Volkswagen of Langhorne for letting me take the R for a spin.