FIRST DRIVE: Volkswagen's Golf R Is A Boy Racer For Grown Ups

VW Golf R

Photo: Travis Okulski / Business Insider

Disclosure: Volkswagen flew me to sunny San Francisco and covered all expenses so I could drive the hot rod Golf R and 2013 CC. I also drank some outstanding Grappa (not while I was driving).As the first “hot hatch,” the Volkswagen Golf GTI is an icon of the car world. It could go fast in the corners and bring home the groceries. It practically destroyed the market for the weekend sports car.

But over the last two generations, VW has added an R-branded model with all-wheel drive for one model year. If the GTI is a hot hatch, the R is a full fledged sports car and road warrior.

And on a personal level, the Golf has been a large part of my life.

When I was born, my folks got rid of a Honda CRX (sorry mum) and moved to a Golf to have a bit more space. Over the last few years, the Golf came back into my world as my Dad made his daily driver a Golf R32.

VW Golf R

Photo: Travis Okulski / Business Insider

So when VW asked if I’d like to drive (read: thrash) a new Golf R on the backroads and hills outside San Francisco, I couldn’t say no.Like many other car companies, VW is using one letter (R) to denote its highest performance offerings. Think of the R as VW’s version of BMW’s M, Lexus’ F, and Cadillac’s V cars.

For 2012, the R loses the 3.2 liter VR6 and switches to a more powerful version of the 2.0 liter inline-four found in the GTI. With 256 horses and 243 pound feet of torque under the hood, it is more powerful and economical than the VR6 it replaces.


On paper, the Golf R has all the right stuff:

  • Gobs of power
  • All-wheel drive
  • Big wheels shod with Pirelli P-Zeroes
  • 6-speed manual gearbox

And in many situations, it really, really delivers. On the highway, acceleration is silky smooth and it can cruise all day with ease. For a performance car, the suspension is surprisingly pliable; you don't feel like you were taken to the gulag after a long drive.

The brakes are phenomenal. Let me say that again. Phenomenal. Bite is immediate and strong, so the late-brakers out there should love it.

When pushed to the limit, the R exhibits a tendency to understeer on entry as well as in the middle of the corner. This is accompanied by the lovely (sarcasm) sounds of tortured Pirellis screaming at you to slow down.

A front bias in weight as well as the all-wheel drive system is what makes the car plow. When the car senses the loss of grip, power is actually transferred to the rear wheels to alleviate the understeer and get the rear end rotating.

It's an odd feeling, especially in the middle of the corner. It makes what should be a very predictable car a bit of a wild card.


The R is one of the stealthiest ways to go fast on the road today.

Those that don't know what this car is will just think that it's a dinky little hatchback. But the discerning few that notice the twin tailpipes, rear diffuser, LED accent lights, deep front spoiler, and 18-inch wheels will realise they aren't dealing with any average hatchback.

I've always been a fan of a sleeper, so the Golf R ticks all the right boxes in this department.


I love the understated exterior, but everybody should love the car on the inside. If VW knows how to do one thing, it's make a quality interior.

The R abounds with leather and soft touch plastics. The chunky, flat-bottomed steering wheel is especially delightful.

Everything just feels high quality. The black gloss trim pieces are also a nice touch.

I spent quite a bit of time behind the wheel of the R, and nothing inside the car disappointed me.


The R has a fantastic stance. The 18-inch wheels fill out the arches perfectly and the mods to the body strike a great balance between being aggressive and sedate.

It also has a great gearbox. Throws felt short and precise while the clutch had a defined engagement point. It was a pleasure to use.

Now, I know that double clutch transmissions are faster, but I still prefer to row my own gears. Volkswagen is only bringing the manual version over here. This is a move to satiate the enthusiast community, and I think it was a smart one.


Unfortunately, my dislikes focus on two fairly important parts of the driving experience: the powertrain and handling.

OK, they might be more than fairly important.

I do have to note that the noise the turbo 2.0 makes is addicting and very nice. But there is lag. If you are under 3,200 RPM, the turbo isn't spooled up and the car just falls flat on its face when you put your right foot down.

Also, I must say that I grew rather attached to the VR6 in the last two Golf R32s. I felt the VR6 made them special, not to mention they had a very distinct sound and unbelievably smooth power delivery.

That leads me to the handling. The car is nose heavy -- 60 per cent of the weight is closer to the front axle -- making it a bit sluggish on corner entry. Couple that with the bias of the all-wheel drive system, and the car has a tendency to understeer for a good part of the corner.

Is it impossible to drive it quickly? It's actually quite the opposite. But this comes down to personal preference, and I like a car with more forward bite and a bit more rotation out of the rear.


For the first time, the Golf R is coming to America with two doors or four doors. Starting price for the R is $33,090 and a fully-loaded 4-door model will set you back around $37,000.

The problem for the R is the two cars that it will be compared against: the Mitsubishi Evolution X and the Subaru Impreza WRX STI.

Both of those cars have four doors and they have turbocharged four cylinder engines that are more powerful than the one in the R. All three cars are priced about the same and if you put them on a scale, you would see that the weight difference is negligible.

But the R is not festooned with boy racer 'look at me' type pieces that are everywhere on the Subaru and the Mitsubishi. It appeals to a mature customer looking for performance and utility in one package.

Is the R a perfect car? No. Does it do exactly what it's intended to do? Definitely.

If you have outgrown your rebellious phase but still want to have fun behind the wheel, the Golf R is a great choice.

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