It was late fall 2003 and Volkswagen brought a new version of its ever-popular Golf to America, a performance model beyond the known GTI trim, a model long sold in Europe but never before on these shores.
Labeled only as the R, this Golf featured the brand’s VR6 narrow-angle V-6 engine (240 hp) plus a new Haldex AWD system tuned for rear-drive-oriented performance — a novelty for a front-drive based vehicle. There were only four paint choices: blue, red, black and silver. VW would import 5,000 copies only — unknowingly (perhaps strategically?) creating a cult-like following for Euro-starved small car fans.
Today, those first-generation R’s still sell at incredible numbers. A favorite of tuners and auto-crossers across the country, the 2004 R stands out as a fine example of VW’s prowess at building small performance cars such as the GTI, the Scirocco and other potent offerings.
For 2016, we have the fourth-generation R and it stretches the paradigm measurably. VW again has a real winner — at a good time to have a winner.
The latest R, the fourth-generation offering, now comes with a potent 2.0-liter turbocharged and direct-injected four-cylinder engine making 292 peak horsepower and 280 pound/feet of torque that arrives at only 1,800 rpms on the tachometer — essentially full torque delivery all the time that you are driving the car. It sure feels like it too; the R pulls hard in every gear, every time you depress the throttle. Get the engine zinging beyond 4,000 rpms and the horsepower is really felt — all the way to what feels like an artificially low 6,400-rpm redline. Supersonic travel is definitely possible.
Reflective of the times, and the technology, the R’s new optional dual-clutch automatic transmission actually produces quicker acceleration times than the standard six-speed manual transmission — by about .5 seconds in measured 0-60-mph tests. With far too many drivers now opting to let their cars do the shifting, it is impressive to witness the advances in these transmissions. However, purists will still revel in the R’s sweet-shifting manual gearbox with the light, smooth clutch. In addition, you will save $1,100.
That money may not be noteworthy because if you are considering a Golf R (and why not?) the price premium over the incredibly competent GTI is a staggering $10,000, with the R starting at just over $36,000.
What is different? For starters, the additional 72 horsepower and greater torque make for a swifter car all around. Add the Haldex 4Motion 4WD system and you get greatly enhanced handling and grip, improved foul-weather traction, plus an almost Porsche-like feel to the R’s handling. Optional this year is the new DCC — Dynamic Chassis Control — adaptive suspension, with three driver-selectable modes.
From your first moments behind the wheel, it is clear that the R is much more than a warmed-over GTI. Full throttle bursts are quicker, while the cornering limits are so much higher, and more sure-footed due to the 4Motion system’s grip. Complemented by winter-performance tires (thank you, VW) the R provided unending grip and sure-footed driving composure over sanded roads, wet surfaces, and snow-covered driveways.
Stoking the VW’s fire produces an engine note that borders on WRX-like warbling. While the first R’s had the sonorous sound of a high-strung V-6 engine, the current performance note seems artificial, almost contrived. It is not bad, not by any means, but not the sweet song that could potentially emanate from the quad tailpipes — double the number of previous R exhaust pipes. With Porsche-like handling, Porsche-like front fascia air scoops and Porsche-like rear styling, maybe the hopes for Porsche-like sounds were too much wishful thinking.
The interior enhancements include different sport seats, with power adjustability and standard heaters, as well as greater optional safety gear — blind-spot detection, lane departure warning, plus dynamic cruise control. The rear camera is still hidden behind the flip-open VW emblem (how smart is that?) so it is always clean, while console-mounted keyless ignition and keyless access are included. As in the GTI, there is a flat-bottom, thick-rimmed steering wheel that feels perfect in your hands while other controls and switches are easy to use affairs that don’t require driver-distracting touch-surface operation.
It is amazing that Volkswagen is wringing almost 300 hp from a tiny 2.0-liter engine — a hint of what computers and turbochargers can do with artful tuning and the proper programming. Most impressively, the R does not feel at all stressed or compromised in any fashion. It is a very civilized car to drive every day, yet one that has incredible torque output just a tickle of the throttle away. Indeed, passing moves were so quickly executed I’m sure I surprised too many drivers.
Enjoying the R’s portfolio of performance might indicate a sharp penalty at the fuel pump. Using Shell V-Power exclusively, my winter driving exploits returned a low of 26 mpg and a weeklong best of over 30 mpg. If you can discipline yourself to drive with eggs under the throttle, 32 mpg can be coaxed out of the R over a 100-mile trip along the coast.
Subtle pieces include the brilliant LED running lamps and nocturnal lights, including the clever turning lamps, the excellent seat heaters, plus the tune-able adaptive suspension. And, let’s not forget that the R is still a Golf — the rear seats fold and the cargo hold is cavernous when pressed into freight duty. Not many performance cars offer the versatility of the Golf platform; that is why the Golf, the GTI and the R are the benchmark for the whole small car segment.
Golf sales doubled last year — an impressive number given the debacle surrounding VW’s diesel dilemma and a shining example of what the brand needs to do in this market. VW sold 500 2016 Golf R’s in the first 12-hours that they were announced to be available — a nod to the rabid R fans in American.
Bring us more R’s, Volkswagen. Bring American drivers the Euro-versions of the Jetta Sportwagon, bring more of the cars that will wow American drivers not yet bored out of their minds in computer-driven cockpits.