What do you do when you’ve nabbed some of the industry’s top honors? How do you one-up yourself after being named both North American Car of the Year, as well as Motor Trend Car of the Year. If you’re Volkswagen, you take things to the next level with the launch of the new Golf R.
With its turbocharged, 292-horsepower inline-four, a pavement grabbing all-wheel-drive system and an electronic differential lock designed to keep you always pointed in the right direction, the 2015 Volkswagen Golf R is more than just the sportiest member of the fast-growing Golf “family.” It’s also the sort of product the German maker needs to kick-start a brand that has been unable to take advantage of the overall recovery of the U.S. car market.
If you think this is just a slightly upgraded version of the GTI, well, you need to spend a little time behind the wheel of the new Golf R. Preferably on some fast roads with plenty of aggressive corners. We were lucky enough to be handed a set of keys and a route map that took us into the winding mountain passes east of San Diego – with, of course, a stop for some pie in Julian, a pleasant little mountain town that time has virtually passed by.
The 2015 model is the fourth-generation Golf R. At least, the fourth model to official wear the badge. The latest Golf itself is in its seventh iteration and Volkswagen has been tinkering with hot-hatch version since way back in the 1970s.
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Sadly, it took some time for VW to figure out that American drivers might appreciate seeing the R badge show up in local dealerships. On the positive side, that built something of a cult, partially unleashed with the arrival of the previous model, then known as the R32. The new model should take things to a new level.
As with the GTI, you’ll immediately recognize its origins. The Volkswagen compact carries over the basic shape of the stock Golf, though a sharp eye will notice it rides a slight bit lower – 0.2 inches compared to the GTI, and 0.8 inches lower than the stock Golf — with some minor visual tweaks. The headlights are now bi-xenon, with LED turn signals and running lamps. Twin dual-tip exhaust tips will make it easier to spot a Golf R as it blows by.
Compared to the old model, the new 2015 Golf R gets a little more rake to its back pillar. The grille is narrower, those headlights more squared off, and the overall look is a bit more sculpted.
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Inside, the new model piano black and “Carbon Touch” detailing give it a more sporty look.
But, what really makes the difference is hidden out of sight – but not out of mind once you fire up 2.0-liter EA888 engine. Getting 292-hp and 280 pound-feet of torque took a little effort, starting with a larger turbo, and modifications to the pistons, cylinder head and direct-injection system compared to the latest Volkswagen Golf.
The Golf R will quickly thrust you back into your seat if you hammer the throttle, launching from 0 to 60 in just 4.9 seconds – on its way to a 155 mph top speed. One odd little note: VW has decided to cover the traditional turbo whine with the use of a “soundaktor,” creating what its engineers apparently thought was a more muscular exhaust note. The maker isn’t alone. Even BMW has been injecting artificial engine noises into the passenger compartment lately.
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For 2015, U.S. buyers will have to settle, if that’s the word, for a six-speed DSG twin-clutch gearbox. It is smooth and quick and you can override the computer controller using a pair of paddle-shifters. For those who just have to stick with a stick, VW plans to bring over the optional, rev-matching six-speed manual now offered in Europe for 2016.
Like a more mundane Golf, the R starts out as a front-driver, and under light loads and with good road surfaces, a rear clutch disconnects the back axle, sending all that torque to the front wheels. Under more aggressive driving, and when pavement gets slick, the Haldex-based clutch pack can re-route up to 50% of the torque to the rear. What was pleasantly surprising to discover was just how quick the system responded. Torque shifting occurs all but invisibly.
Another real plus with the 2015 Golf R is the introduction of dynamic chassis control, or DCC, on top-line models. A driver can dial in the precise amount of adaptive suspension damping, from Comfort to Normal to Race modes. Other vehicle functions are controlled – on all Golf R models – using the Drive Mode selector. That includes steering boost and transmission shift points on the DSG models.
This is not a rear-drive muscle car. If that’s the sort of tail-happy model you’re looking for, you might need to be looking at a Mustang or Camaro. But with the ability to back off the nanny controls, like electronic stability control, the 2015 Volkswagen Golf R will let itself be flogged around quite aggressively.
At the same time, the ride is generally smooth enough – even in the harshest suspension mode – to allow it to serve as a daily family driver, just one that’s going to be a lot more fun when you want.
If you’re looking for direct comparisons, the Golf R is likely to be sized up against the likes of the outgoing Mitsubishi Lancer Evo or Subaru WRX STi. (We’ll wait to see what Ford has in store when finally brings the Focus ST over to the States.)
You will pay a bit of a premium for the Volkswagen offering. The base car comes in at $36,520 plus $820 in destination fees. To add the DCC system, add at least another $2,495.
Is it worth it? The new Volkswagen Golf R is a blast to drive. It is quick. It is nimble. And while it’s no Audi S3, it is certainly more luxuriously equipped than past versions – as are all members of the Golf family. VW has clearly delivered another winning addition to the Golf family. It would be a huge surprise if potential buyers somehow didn’t notice.