When it comes to always being a bridesmaid, yet never quite a bride, few have as much experience as the Golf R32 and Golf R. Over the past three generations, the car has been regulated to 'honorable mention' status by journalists and enthusiasts commenting on the best performance cars available for roughly $30,000. However, Volkswagen looks to make their best case yet against the usual contenders and Ford's upcoming Focus RS with this latest generation Volkswagen Golf R.
No, historically it hasn't been able to match Subaru's WRX STI or Mitsu's Lancer Evolution in terms of outright speed or agility, but the R32 was never about that. It's always been the grown up choice for those who see the value in a few extra pounds worth of sound deadening, and aren't too afraid to give up a some horsepower to get it.
Over the past decade, the R has worked hard to shed its journalist-assigned "what about me?" status in the land of $30k-something AWD performance, returning a bit quicker, a bit more upscale and keeping it's waistline in check. In fact, the latest car is actually 60lbs lighter than the first R32, while carrying eleven years of new technology and two additional doors. It may not be something that'd impress Colin Chapman, but in today's world of heightened safety and emissions requirements, it is something worth taking note of.
The best way to describe this latest Volkswagen Golf R is surprising. Surprisingly quick. Surprisingly comfortable. Surprisingly quiet. It's the closest thing to an Audi in terms of outright quality that's come out of Wolfsburg in quite some time. Truth be told, you'd be hard pressed to find an objective reason to shell out the extra coin for Audi's S3, aside from a lust for Audi's MMI system, or an irrational hatred of the hatchback. Considering that the Golf has eclipsed the 40 year mark, you could easily say that the R is a reaction to the hatchback's mid-life crisis.
Step inside the Golf R's cabin, and it's not difficult to mistake your surroundings for something much more upscale. Interior surfaces easily pass the dash-stroker test, and the R-embroidered seat are all soft, yet incredibly supportive. As with all Rs before it, a thicker steering wheel has been fitted, though sadly it never quite measures up to the original R32's wheel. As a final touch to let passengers know they're in something special, the Mk7's illuminating belt line trim has been altered to glow blue, eliciting a positive response out of all who take notice. To be honest, we much prefer it to the GTI's red or the standard Golf's white.
Now this isn't our first time with the Mk7 Golf R (we sent John Acton to the desert for a quick drive last year), but it is our first time spending seven entire days actually living with the car. And while we may have held the keys for a full 168 hours, it only took a couple for the Golf R to make sense as the do-everything workhorse we'd been dreaming about.
Fire it up for the daily commute, and the R roars to life with the aid of the Soundaktor- a sort-of noise pipe which synthesizes engine sounds through the use of an in-cabin speaker. Once the revs settle a bit, this speaker will become much more passive, depending on which of the four driving modes you've selected. Choose Comfort or Normal, and the speaker won't make it's presence known unless you floor it. Scroll over to Race, and the speaker announces each right foot input throughout the cabin, to a point where it's likely louder inside than it is outside the car.
As part of the car's Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC) system, these settings are about much more than being varying levels of loud. Each has an effect on steering weight, suspension stiffness and throttle response. Quite obviously, each mode does exactly as you might expect- Comfort is soft with a lazy throttle and light steering, Normal is a bit stiffer all-round but in-no-way harsh, Race makes the steering heavy, throttle sharp and Soundaktor loud. Those interested in playing by their own rules will welcome Individual with open arms, choosing their own settings on all three adjustables. We preferred to keep it in Race for those times without passengers, and Individual set to retain all Race settings except exhaust volume for carpooling.
On the open road, the Golf R is an extremely competent performer. Peak torque comes on at just 1800 rpm, meaning that turbo lag is nonexistent. Because of this, you'll need to keep a watchful eye on the speedo, but it's a side effect that we didn't mind one bit. Fuel economy is quite good as well, as we recorded an indicated 27mpg, which ain't too shabby for a car that can sprint to sixty in less than five seconds, and blitz the quarter mile in the low 13 second range.
But like those before it, the Golf R is hindered by its Haldex all-wheel drive system. That's not to say that it doesn't handle well- it does- but it's how you need to drive through a corner that's the issue. As with anything that has a front-biased all wheel drive system, the Golf R is quick to understeer at the slightest hint of progressive mid-corner throttle application. Get on the throttle before your change in direction is complete, and it'll begin to push, ushering in electronic intervention expecting the worst. Deactivate ESP, TCS and everything else, and doesn't get any better. In order to drive the Golf R quickly around a bend, you must completely neglect the throttle until you're already most of the way through it. And that can be a problem.
Throw everything you've ever been told (or found out the hard way) about negotiating a turn out the window, and try again. Sure, you can lift, flick it into the corner hard and get back on power late to make the Golf R slide a bit, but should it really require that much muscle? I really don't think so. What makes this even more frustrating, is that the latest Audi TT S comes with Haldex programming that is much more prone to oversteer, meaning that technically the programming would simply need to be installed on the R's Haldex unit. I'm not sure if Volkswagen is holding off on this for the hotly anticipated R400, or if something simply got in the way, but knowing that Volkswagen Group engineers have managed to get what would seemingly be a fix to market makes us think about what might have been. It would make for a much more dynamic experience.
Am I being a bit harsh? Probably. In ninety-nine percent of situations, the Golf R is a true standout. It drives like the performance car we always hoped it would be, but somehow never really was. It looks and feels like something decidedly more upscale. And most importantly, it's priced right at just under $40k. For those who simply want it all and can afford the asking price, look no further. For those after more of a track star that can be tossed about and rotated on throttle, you might want to hold off until the aftermarket has cracked the Haldex unit. Trust me, it'll be worth the wait.
To see more of the Golf R, check out our full gallery right here.