Admit it, in the garage of your dreams, stocked with row after row of gleaming but sadly, mostly imaginary machinery, you wouldn’t find many 1970s or early 1980s cars. It was a tough time for motorheads like you and me, what with looming fuel-economy and safety regulations sucking the life out of fun-to-drive cars. Style and performance had taken some serious blows to the chin back then. But as it turned out, this is exactly the kind of barren landscape that was fertile ground for Volkswagen’s “hot hatch” the Golf, nee Rabbit, GTI.
2017 Volkswagen Golf R Road Test and Review
Hall of Hot Hatches
The 2017 Volkswagen Golf R is really the latest and greatest in a long line of hot hatchbacks stretching back more than four decades starting with the Europe-only 1976 GTI. Arguably, no other car epitomizes the “hot hatch” more than Volkswagen’s GTI. Not that there haven’t been a good number of small econoboxes with boosted power and handling that offered engaging dynamics and entertaining levels of power in recent times. The Mini Cooper S, Honda Civic Type R, Subaru WRX/STi, Ford Focus ST/RS and Chevy Cobalt SS spring to mind. You could probably add a few others to that list.
“Kleiner GTI” Television Commercial
But the VW Golf GTI (and sold for a few years in the States as the Rabbit GTI) really got the hot hatch ball rolling. And jumping. If you saw it when it first aired in 1983, you’d be hard-pressed to forget the “Kleiner GTI” television commercial featuring a pair of dueling, airborne Rabbit GTIs rollicking on back roads to a soundtrack that was a German remake of the Ronny and the Daytonas 1960’s hit “Little GTO.” Google it and catch a YouTube viewing today. No subtitles needed.
By today’s standards, the 1983-84 GTI’s 90 horsepower and 9-second 0-60 mph accelerative ability would scarcely warrant a notice. The 292-horsepower 2017 Golf R can do the deed in exactly half that—4.5 seconds. Of course, with the Golf R and legions of GTIs before it, the appeal isn’t solely about straight-line performance. Isn’t now, never was.
Getting Down to Business
The Golf R is really kind of a sleeper. Unlike some competing models from other manufacturers, there’s no giant hood scoop, no beefy fender flares, no electric tangerine paint, no Klingon-inspired tail wing. Just a lowered stance, big 18 or 19-inch skins filling the wheelwells, subtle ground-effects body cladding, four chrome-tipped exhaust outlets and modest “R” badges in the grille and on the liftgate. The Golf R doesn’t shout “boy racer.” All buttoned down, the Golf R looks like it means business.
A Touch of Class on the Inside
Make that business with a touch of class. Inside, the Golf R is trimmed to near Audi standards. The handsome sport seats are leather-covered, heated and power adjustable in front, split 60/40 with a fold-down armrest and cargo-area pass-through out back. Generous lateral support to the front seatbacks and firm bottom cushions keep the front seat occupants in place, yet there are no hot spots and the seats are all-day comfortable. Arrayed in front of the driver is a thick-rimmed, leather-wrapped, flat-bottom sport steering wheel and pedals with alloy dress-up trim. The standard air conditioning is a dual-zone automatic system. Yet at its core the zoomy R is a roomy Golf that can carry five fully grown adults and their duffel. Cargo space rivals some smaller crossovers with 22.8 cubic feet behind the back seat and 52.7 with the rear seat folded down.
Tales of the Turbo
Under the hood, the Golf R’s 4-cylinder turbo is pumped to 292 horsepower, which on paper dwarfs the GTI’s 210. This is the same premium-fuel 2.0-liter engine that powers the Audi S3 and TTS. Yet in around-town driving, the R doesn’t feel that much quicker than the GTI. Despite the R’s prodigious 280 lb-ft of torque, its peak power and torque are delivered at higher revs than the GTI’s. In fact, the R can sometimes be caught a little flat-footed with some turbo lag if you punch the throttle when cruising in the higher gears at low rpm. No worries, though, as a quick downshift gets the turbo spooling up and the R shoots forward like a watermelon seed. And sounding great all the while by the way due to the R’s Soundaktor system that enhances the tasty bark of the four-pipe tuned exhaust with some piped-in rumble from the intake plenum.
6-Speed Manual or Dual-Clutch Automatic
The Golf R (and GTI) is one of a dwindling number of performance cars available with a manual gearbox. The truth of the matter is if you are looking for the quickest 0-60 times, VW’s excellent dual-clutch automatic delivers lightning-fast shifts and helps you concentrate on the R’s great handling and eager responses. But if you’re old school, you’ll appreciate that the 6-speed manual is more involving, a willing partner with smooth action, positive gates, and short throws. If only the clutch was as good, as its light effort and small engagement zone take a fair amount of practice to master.
Haldex-engineered 4Motion all-wheel drive gets the power to the ground and helps the Golf R achieve outstanding grip. 4Motion is a front-biased AWD system which uses an electronic coupler to send torque to the rear wheels when necessary for traction.
Handling is excellent with the R defying its front-heavy weight bias to deliver near neutral response with no screeching tires or drama of any kind. Precise variable-ratio electrically boosted steering and powerful, autobahn-bred 4-wheel discs instill confidence. The test car came prepared for Michigan winter weather conditions with all-season Pirelli P-Zero Nero 18-inch rubber. But the R of offered with a choice of 225/40R18 or 235/35R19 summer tires. Both the “base” $35,655 Golf R and uplevel $39,375 Golf R with DCC and Navigation simply go where they’re pointed—quickly. DCC is VW’s dynamic chassis control, which adds a slightly firmer ride, a variety of driving modes, the 19-inch rolling stock and real-time adaptive shock damping to the R’s dance card. The DCC model also gains adaptive cruise control, blind-spot, lane-departure and forward-collision warning systems and automatic high beams.
Bang-for-the-Buck German Performance
One neat thing about the Golf R is that it’s really the least expensive “made in Germany” performance car you can get—from any manufacturer. All other Golf models, from the most basic S model up to and including the current GTI, are assembled in Mexico. While we’re quite sure the south-of-the-border Golfs possess the same quality as the Wolfsburg-built Golf R, there’s just something intangible about lederhosen-clad workers merrily beavering away to oom-pah-pah music in the Mother Country.
Now if it’s bang for the buck you’re looking for, it’s hard to beat the original-formula GTI. Output drops to 210 horsepower for the base model and it’s only configurable with front-wheel drive, but it’s available as a sporty 2-door hatchback—a rarity these days—and at just $24,995 offers nearly as much fun as the Golf R while presenting a heck of a bargain.
The all-wheel-drive R, however, is the ultimate Golf, faster, more secure in all kinds of weather and the most evolved hot hatch of the VW species.