Overview: The R is the chief of a sprawling Volkswagen Golf tribe, joining most of its family members on Car and Driver’s 10Best Cars list, and is the hottest Golf ever to prowl U.S. roads. The Golf R gives VW hot-hatchback parity with the Ford Focus RS and a formidable weapon against the soon-to-arrive Honda Civic Type R. The structure is exceptionally rigid, something the R shares with the rest of the family. Amplified by the standard Haldex all-wheel-drive system (dubbed 4MOTION by VW’s marketers), overall grip is exceptional and approaches the magic 1.00-g threshold. Braking is close to sports-car levels, and power from the 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder is abundant, peaking at 292 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque. The cosmetic treatment is typical Golf—i.e., understated—a word that also applies to the interior. That means the Golf R is much more of a wallflower than either the Focus RS or the Civic Type R, which might be a positive or negative attribute, depending on your personal perspective (and perhaps your age). There’s no shortage of contemporary infotainment, but the leather-wrapped flat-bottom steering wheel and the supremely supportive leather buckets reflect the true nature of the beast. Like its stablemates, the R’s hatchback body provides practicality and versatility, just as this line of cars has delivered since its 1974 debut. But performance is the key here, and this Golf raises its quickness and athletic competence to an all-time high.
What’s New: Introduced in 2015, the newest Golf R rolls into 2017 with a few changes. Top-trim cars with the Dynamic Chassis Control system (adaptive damping, firmer suspension tuning, 19-inch wheels) now come standard with automatic high-beams as well as last year’s Driver Assistance package (lane-departure warning, forward-collision warning, blind-spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, and parking sensors). A six-speed manual became the default transmission last year. We’ve tested Rs with both transmissions, and compared to a Golf R with the optional DSG automatic, the stick-shift car trims 80 pounds from the curb weight and $1100 from the sticker price—but it adds 0.7 second to the zero-to-60-mph run.
What We Don’t Like: The Golf R might benefit from a diet—albeit a mild one. Yes, all-wheel drive adds pounds. And yes, the (front-drive) GTI is less than 300 pounds lighter. But paring even 50 pounds would add more zeal to the R’s responses. Speaking of responses, one of the very few staff kvetches on the Golf R dynamic scorecard is turbo lag. If the transmission is a cog or two out of optimum and revs are low, that wonderfully flat torque plateau is preceded by a slow climb to the sweet spot. There’s also a price/value issue here, since a Golf GTI will duplicate about 90 percent of the Golf R’s performance for some $10,000 less.
Verdict: The Golf R is an all-around athlete and a formidable performer by any reckoning.