Bridesmaid no more.
Since the debut of the very first R32 in 2004, the automotive press seemed to damn the R-model Golf with their faint praise. Sure, they loved luxurious features like a leather interior, heated seats, a six-speed transmission (later a true dual-clutch manual), and a sunroof, and the R’s sophistication undoubtedly helped bolster the R’s image as the refined sport-compact.
Unfortunately, despite Volkswagen of America selling out their entire allocation every year—even going so far as to requisitioning additional units in 2012 to meet the overwhelming demand for the mk6 generation Golf R—the flagship Golf ended up relegated to eternal “also-ran” status once the journalists got to the race track.
The first version featured all-wheel drive and a 3.2L 24-valve VR6 and the performance was better than the GTI on which it was based. Not quite an even match with the on-track performance figures of the perennial small AWD hot hatch and sedan rivals, the Mitsubishi Evolution and Subaru STI, the R was still very fast and sure-footed, with a distinct sound and feel that couldn’t be quantified with simple numbers on a spec sheet. It was certainly enough for the VW enthusiasts like ourselves and for those buyers looking for almost the same performance as the Evo or STI, but without a sore ass from a rough ride or tinnitus from the lack of sound deadening.
Over the years, the R model performance increased—still staying mindful to its roots, comfort-wise—with the most recent version (the mk6 Golf R) coming closest to those one-time WRC & Group A favorites by eschewing the 3.2l VR6 engine in favor of a turbocharged four-cylinder. 256 horsepower put it far above the base WRX and lower-end Lancer Ralliart, and the Haldex AWD gave it some advantage over the hot FWD models like the MazdaSpeed 3 and Focus ST.
Frustratingly, though, every time the three high-end AWD cars were compared—if the press even bothered to include the VW at all—the crown always went to one of the two Japanese competitors while the R went home with the “it’s a nicer, more refined car, but not as performance-minded as the competition” consolation prize again.
Now, Volkswagen is saying, “no more.” The new Golf R is tired of wearing the first runner-up “Miss Congeniality” sash and is ready to yank that crown off the last winner’s big rear-winged head. Based on VW’s new global ‘MQB’ platform that now underpins Audi’s A3, the Golf R looks the competition squarely in the eye with a full-on 296 horsepower, and 280 lb-ft variant of the latest EA888 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine.
In the spirit of “German efficiency,” Volkswagen wasted no time demonstrating the new R’s performance chops, and offered a few of us an exclusive first drive at Willow Springs Raceway. Our half-hour drive from the hotel to the track told us what we already knew: that the mk7 GTI-derived Golf R would be a fantastic road car—quick, quiet, and equipped with a slew of standard features like heated leather seats, navigation, LED-illuminated door sills, and automatic Xenon headlights.
But make no mistake—we weren’t in the boondocks of Southern California, just 10 miles from the proving grounds of Edwards AFB, to see how well the climate control could maintain 72-degrees in the high desert. No, this is a track evaluation: the crucible for ‘performance’ import sedans. And though we weren’t really like the USAF test pilots just minutes away at Muroc, we felt a little like Col. John Stapp in his famous rocket-sled test runs, pushing the R as hard as we dared.
Nearly 300 horsepower out of a four-cylinder may be par for the course in a performance small sedan these days, but it typically comes with an asterisk reading *caution: turbo lag. We’ve all driven modified or high-performance models that struggle to move like a fat kid doing a pull-up before the turbo kicks in. So to eliminate the annoying lag in power, the new 3rd generation EA888 from the mk7 GTI gets a reworked head with larger exhaust valves, upgraded pistons, and a larger turbo making more boost (17.4 psi) than the GTI.
The result of that German fastidiousness is that all 280 lb-ft of twist is available from 1,800 RPM up to the same 5,500 RPM at which the engine makes its 296 horses. Admittedly, the nearly-instantaneous torque at almost any RPM not only helped us save face when we were a gear too high during our sighting laps (hey, it was this writer’s first time at Big Willow), but once the layout was memorized, every gear change put us right in the meat of the torque curve every time, keeping our helmet pinned to the headrest whenever our right foot was on the loud pedal.
Speaking of gear changes, with this latest R model, Volkswagen has finally accepted that here in U-S-of-A, we’re all about freedom of choice. So instead of limiting us to just a manual transmission, like the first R32 and the most recent mk6 Golf R, or with DSG-only as with the second-generation R32—both transmissions are available on this mk7 R. We understand that the optional DSG is both faster to 60 (an estimated 4.7-second), but our test vehicle came equipped with a six-speed manual transmission and a proper three-pedal arrangement, making the R still good for an estimated 5.1-second sprint to highway speed. Maybe for our next challenge, we should try to convince ze Germans that putting 155-mph top speed limiters on the R and other performance cars is an exercise in futility?
Shifting is smoother, but heavier, than the mk6 version, as the mk7 comes with a shifter that’s shorter in throw than the GTI, and an upgraded clutch to handle the extra power. With simple precise motions, this new gearbox feels like it’s from a much higher-end car—think Audi TT-RS with a slightly longer stalk. The close ratios of the R were perfect for the racetrack (we only got up to 5th) and we never found ourselves guessing which gear to be in. Granted, we only used first and second to get out on the track, and never touched the overdrive sixth cog. But gears 3, 4, and 5 were all we needed even with both the super-tight corners, and huge sweeping turns at Willow Springs.
Modern car design meant Volkswagens’ best and brightest couldn’t just hand us a fast car and a release of liability, and instead had to account for pedestrian safety, Euro-NCAP tests, and a half-dozen plus airbags in the largest Golf iteration to date. As a result, the new R isn’t a runway waif. Compared to the almost plus-size competition, however, Shaq could ride ‘shotgun’ in the 3,150-pound (est) Golf R and still tip the scales lighter than the 3,571-pound Evo MR—and unless Jenny Craig is now an engineer at Subaru, the new R will almost definitely be lighter than the just-introduced 2015 STI, based on the previous generation’s 3,417 pounds of bulk.
Turn 5 in the “Big Willow” configuration of Willow Springs Raceway is a down-hill off-camber left-hander that leads back uphill to a blind, off-camber right-hand turn 6, featuring a blind apex just over the crest. Long-winded description notwithstanding, it’s one of the best sections of a racetrack anywhere to test a car’s balance and power delivery. The R’s 4MOTION all-wheel drive system never missed a step, despite even our best (or worst?) Tanner Foust impression. By using electronic front & rear differentials to ensure that the torque is always on the outside wheels through variations in brake application, and with the newest Haldex 5 coupling shifting torque to the rear wheels, the R just couldn’t put a foot wrong, even when we deliberately threw the car into turn 5 at a good 10mph too fast, just to see how it would fare off-line coming over the crest of turn 6.
To make things more exciting, Electronic Stability Control (ESC) now has, in addition to an honest-to-God “OFF” position, a mode called “ESC Sport”. With a much higher threshold for shenanigans, “ESC Sport” allowed for just enough wheelspin to keep the car up in the revs without fear of understeering off the track, or swapping ends with too much throttle-induced oversteer. However, we found the fastest lap times were to be had with a fully disabled system—sadly, an option so few manufacturers are including these days, and one we hope carries over to the US market from our Euro-spec model. Holding down the button for three Mississippis allowed us to choose for ourselves how much traction we wanted.
Second-generation DCC—Dyanamic Chassis Control—is an option box that was ticked on our test car, and offers ‘Comfort’, ‘Normal’, and ‘Sport’ modes. Unfortunately, most manufacturers either over-accentuate the differences in modes—making ‘comfort’ feel numb and marshmallow-like, while ‘sport’ is so harsh we have to don a motocross kidney belt—or engineer changes that are so subtle, we don’t even bother pressing the button. As we spent 99% of our driving on the track, ‘sport’ mode was the default setting for us, and we never had a chance to really try ‘normal’ let alone ‘comfort.’ But ‘sport’ mode was fantastic, with just the right amount of damping to make the car handle flat, but not bounce about in the Willow Springs’ rather bumpy 100+mph Turn 9.
The R has a super-fast 2.1 turns-to-lock steering rack to allow tighter and sharper turn-in than the perennial quick-steering favorite Evo MR (and even bookoo-bucks track monsters like the Porsche GT3 RS), making this one of the fastest-steering cars we’ve ever driven. Every apex could be hit with with only the slightest of steering inputs, and our hands never had to leave 9 and 3 on the flat-bottom steering wheel, save for shifting.
Our test car featured the optional “Pretoria” lightweight 19-inch wheels with 235mm-wide rubber, and coupled with 13.4-inch front brakes (a set-up that’s even larger than the 2014 Porsche Cayman S), the R scrubbed massive amounts of speed in mere seconds without ever fading or feeling spongy. Even after a good 100-plus miles of hard track driving that would’ve easily cooked the brakes on a lesser car, we could still drive the R back to our hotel without any shimmy or squeaking from the four corners. New “Cadiz” 18-inch wheels are standard—any smaller and there’s no room for the massive brakes—and 19-inch versions of the same wheel are available.
By finally offering class-rivaling performance—while still staying true to its refined roots—the new mk7 Golf R has soared beyond being compared to the just the far East and is now venturing into the rarified air of BMW’s new M235i and the Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG. Sadly, only a handful of us will ever drive the car as hard and as fast as we can on a racetrack. But that’s OK; VW has made their point. Because while new Golf R is every bit the racetrack-ready performance car that we wanted it to be, it’s still the fantastic everyday road-car we always knew it was.