The Many Faces of Volkswagen’s Golf R

Lop off two cylinders and bolt on a turbo. That’s the new performance car mantra. In an era of tougher emissions and fuel economy standards, there is indeed — contrary to the ancient American proverb — a replacement for displacement. That explains why Volkswagen’s venerable VR6 is being put to pasture for the latest all-wheel-drive, R-tweaked Golf in favor of a hotted up four-pot. The R32 is dead; long live the Golf R.

Europeans have already had access to the new über-hatch for a year, and the issue of whether or not North America would get a version has been an on-again/off-again discussion ever since it made its motor show debut at Frankfurt in the fall of 2009. That decision was finally cemented in the affirmative earlier this year when Volkswagen of America showed the Golf R at the New York Auto Show, where it was announced that the 256-horsepower German hot rod would become available as a 2012 model. And for the first time ever, the super-Golf would be available with a choice of two or four doors, but once again with only one transmission. Fortunately for enthusiasts, VWoA listened to past R32 owners, who resoundingly insisted that if only one box is offered, it had damn well better be the manual six-speed.

Though it’s still several months from arriving in your local VW showroom, Volkswagen has given us several early opportunities to drive the Golf R. Initially, we drove the car in Europe on the winding roads of France with a contingent of North American magazine journalists. Then, following the New York auto show, we wrangled a few days in the blue car from the show stand on our native turf in the suburbs of Chicago. Finally, we got behind the wheel at Buttonwillow Raceway in California, where VW had sent the very same blue car for this year’s large West Coast R32 gathering, known as Fastivus. Now that most of the staff has been in it, we have a pretty good sense that the new Golf R will go down as one of the most desirable performance VWs in history. Here is the breakdown.

Jamie Vondruska – Switzerland to France – March 2011

On the twisting Alpine roads of France, the R version of the sixth-generation Golf feels like it’s missing something compared to the older VR6-powered Golf-4 and -5 R32 models. What’s it missing? About a hundred pounds — thanks to a 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-banger under the hood where the old 3.2-liter VR6 engine once lived — in the nose.

The Golf R seems to be specially made for these European back roads, where that weight reduction translates into a more balanced effort by all four corners of the chassis. In R32s of the past, you could literally feel that mass in front of you; the new Golf R’s improved equilibrium results in much sharper turn-in from driver inputs and allows for a bit of lift-off oversteer and rotation in corners, as opposed to simply plowing through them. Reducing this extra mass at the nose improves the Golf R’s braking as well. Yet another upshot of the lighter drivetrain is an improvement in ride quality. The rigid Golf 6 chassis allows for finer tuning of the traditional compromise of ride versus handling, and VW nailed this down very well. VW says it spent over 45 track hours fine-tuning the chassis at the Nurburgring and worked on further weight reduction in the suspension components and other areas of the car to give it a lighter, more nimble feel.

Guess what? It works.

Acceleration out of corners is very strong, with lots of low-end torque. Unlike a front-drive GTI, the all-wheel-drive Golf R can actually put it all down the road. The Haldex setup is an updated version that includes a new microprocessor set. While the last-generation system required a very small amount (50 mm) of tire slip to achieve full all-wheel-drive, this newer system can electronically lock the center clutch pack proactively, delivering torque to all four wheels before any traction is lost. The entire system is seamless; never did we detect any shifting of power from front to back.

Paired with the latest-generation Haldex all-wheel drive system, the Golf R is the kind of car you can drive every day to work and still take to your local track day on the weekend without the embarrassment of gold wheels and large wings. The all-wheel drive system and typically high attention to detail and materials make the Golf R feel more expensive than its projected $34,000 price would suggest.

Tom Cassady – Chicago – May 2011

By a stroke of dumb luck, the only Golf R in the country arrived at the doorstep of our office just in time for a little enthusiast gathering we had arranged for local Volkswagen owners. With blessings from on high, we were allowed to put some local miles on it while it was in our care.

My first instinct probably isn’t much different than yours, which is why I immediately went to the parking lot and proceeded to rev the engine. The R32’s VR6 may have been a heavy lump, but it made lusty noises that almost made it worth the penalty. Few four-cylinders can match the deeply guttural aural signature of a VR6, and adding a turbocharger only mutes whatever mechanical music is made. Under load, however, the 2.0T grunts more as it works to spool up the K04 turbocharger. Certain spots on the tach send a booming resonance through the cabin when cruising, but otherwise the Golf R produces a nice snarl that serves as an appropriate soundtrack for the nature of the car.

Exterior aesthetics are perfectly evolutionary from previous R32 models. Whenever Volkswagen makes a special edition model, rarely does it pull out massive changes to sheet metal or overall look to the car, like you’d see on a car like the new BMW 1-series M Coupe. No, Volkswagen takes a more subtle approach, as seen with the new Golf R. Other than being offered in R-exclusive colors, only a few bolt-on parts are changed. A more aggressive front bumper has been fitted, its styling falling in line with other sporty VWs like the CC R-Line. Out back, the dual tailpipes typically seen on a GTI have been repositioned to the center of the car and swelled a bit in size, while underneath sits a set of silver 18-inch alloys specific to the R division. Although black-finished 19-inch wheels are offered in Europe, we won’t get them here, at least not officially. History says someone will find a way to import them and sell them at a handsome price, however.

Inside, there’s less of a “special edition” vibe from the equipment than in previous R cars. Gone are the hugely-bolstered, specially-stitched Königs of the first R32; standard-issue GTI seats, finished in special R trim, do the job in this rendition. The only other clue that the car is anything special is an “R” badge on the steering wheel and another one embedded on the dash in front of the passenger. The steering wheel is wonderful to both grip and look at, with superb thumb indents and piano-black trim pieces.

On the rough streets of Chicago, the steering is quick and firm. The suspension is soft enough to make my daily drive bearable, but also taut enough to communicate the details of the road back to me. In essence, the new Golf R is a boosted GTI without the annoying traction limitations of a front-drive chassis. The car is extremely convincing as a special edition and a seriously quick hatchback, if not as raucous as its predecessors.

Bryan Joslin – Chicago Suburbs – May 2011

It’s been years since I’ve owned a hot Golf, but it’s safe to say that among my colleagues I have the most history with them, having owned seven different models over the years. I even owned a Golf R at one point, though admittedly I created the moniker myself by trimming off the “V” and “6” characters from the front and rear badges of a Corrado VR6 and applying them to my 1994 Golf. Before you laugh, the car was heavily modified by the time I did this (round about 1995); with half of the Neuspeed catalog bolted on and a full GTI interior fitted, it really was no longer the Golf GL I originally purchased. In its day — the pre-turbo era, if you will — it was a quick, balanced, responsive and exceptionally fun little car to drive, and it was loaded with personality.

As I slipped into the driver’s seat of the new (geunine) Golf R, the one former Golf it reminded me most of was my tricked out ’94. Maybe it was because the new one had four doors, and the ’94 was the only four-door Golf in my past. But I think it was deeper than that, as the two cars seemed to be spiritual kin. Admittedly, none of my past cars were endowed with the VR6, and that was completely intentional. While the additional power would have been welcome, the added weight was what really spoiled the deal. Mine may have only made 140-or-so horsepower, but it was far more graceful in turns.

The new Golf R possesses the same kind of balance that I remember from my ’94, as well as numerous earlier GTIs. But it also benefits from significantly more power, plus the ability to get that power to the road, a problem that I was never able to overcome with my own Golf. While it lacks the kind of edgy, overboost attitude that typifies cars like the Mistubishi Evo and the Subaru WRX STi, it delivers its 256 horses in a more linear, refined fashion that suits the overall character of the car quite well, while at the same time recalling the eager underdog spirit of the earliest GTIs.

Old-schoolers like myself could jump in the Golf R and be completely satisfied with its balanced performance, just-right ride/handing compromise, and subtle visual punctuations right out the box. Others, no doubt, will see the factory-issued Golf R as the perfect platform on which to build a balls-out bahn-burner, trading off refinement for outright brutality. Either way, it’s hard to deny the appeal of the Golf R, and it’s the only way I could see myself jumping back into the Golf fray.


Myles Leevy – Buttonwillow Raceway – June 2011

VW boldly chose to reveal the Golf R to a very critical audience — a weekend event held by the SoCal R32 group, a cleverly-named happening called Fastivus. This annual two-day event was held in early June, with a Saturday show at the VW dealer in Pasadena and a glorious day-long track event the following day at Buttonwillow Raceway, a couple hours north of Los Angeles. Last year, for the first time since 2004, the event was actually sidelined as interest in the R32 had waned. Interestingly, the mere suggestion of a new Golf R coming along created such a substantial groundswell of new interest in the R brand that the event’s organizer resurrected it from the ashes.

The weather for the track event was perfect — sunny, clear, and a temperature hovering in the mid 70s all day, significantly more accommodating than what inland Southern California normally sees in June. Roughly forty cars entered the track event, and my first run in the Golf R was revealing; as faster modified cars came barreling down the straight growing larger in my mirrors, the new R showed its advantage in braking zones and through the corners. Most impressive was the body control — compared to a GTI, there’s a distinct lack of excess movement after the initial set through bumpy turns. As a result, I was able to focus on accuracy, and as I was among the newbies to the track, the R was very forgiving when I needed to correct mistakes mid-turn.

The engine, the EA113 version of the 2.0T, never showed signs of strain in this environment. Its ability to lay down torque from as low as 2000 rpm made it formidable coming out of tight corners. This was a noticeable difference from the VR6-powered R32s sharing the track, which simply needed more time and real estate to hit their stride. While the car was quick, the sound of the engine was completely drowned out by the barbaric yawp of all the VR6s powering the R32s around me. Compared to other turbo four-cylinder cars, the new R sounds great, but in the move forward to this smaller, more efficient motor, the R loses its angry Chewbacca voice.

As I got used to the car and pushed it harder, it became apparent that even with the traction control “off” light glowing, you can’t really fully defeat the stability control. It comes in, of course, when things start getting sideways — which is a shame, because the R is really, really good at sliding. The Phil Hill corner at Buttonwillow crests with a blind rise followed by a great drop off as it turns right, and the Golf R’s unloaded rear comes around nicely here. The electronic aids always want to bring the tail back in very cleanly, but I can’t help but wish I were allowed to get on the gas and let the all-wheel drive system pull me through the slide.

Through every turn on the track, the R was as predictable as could be — mild understeer, easily switched to a gentle four-wheel drift with a little late braking and then back full on the gas. The brakes did an admirable job all day long, even with a few very unforgiving attempts to see what might wilt under fire. The six-speed manual transmission was typical VW, accurate and reliable under heavy use, and heel and toe downshifts were easy to execute.

After running all day at the track — from 9:00 am right up to the last available minute at 6:00 pm — the Golf R was dead reliable. Three of us, along with one extra set of tires and all our gear, packed into the R and headed back to Los Angeles at the end of the day, exploiting every bit of the car’s versatility. On the rough, sand-blasted highways leading back, the little super-Golf was so quiet and relaxed that one of the crew even managed to get a nap in. Loping along at an easy 75-80 mph or so, we also saw fuel economy nudging that magic 30 mpg mark, even loaded down and running up and down through the mountains. Really, what more can you ask of a performance car? Long live the Golf R, indeed.