VW Scirocco R: The car that makes you feel dangerous

Tucked among Volkswagen's lineup sits the Scirocco, but you won't find it on a US dealer lot. CNET got behind the wheel of a European-spec Scirocco R to see what a real hot hatch was like.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
5 min read
Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Watch this: 2014 VW Scirocco R

After getting behind the wheel of the Volkswagen Scirocco R, I realized I had been using the term "hot hatch" all wrong. For years, I had applied it to the VW GTI, the Mazdaspeed3, and the Ford Focus ST. Those cars drive great, and would seem to check the right hot hatch boxes: front-wheel-drive, hatchback body, turbo-charged engines.

But they all lack an ineffable, nefarious note.

The Scirocco R not only had the technical elements of the aforementioned cars, but it also gave me a feeling that I was up to no good. The low roofline, wide rear fenders, and narrow side windows all lent to the thuggish tone. Whenever I drove by a cop car, my inner voice was saying "keep cool, man."

That is the defining characteristic of a hot hatch, well understood by Europeans but lost in translation to the US.

A matched pair
As for drivetrain, the Scirocco R differs little from the Golf R, a model that VW does sell here. Both use a 2-liter direct injection engine with a turbocharger integrated into the plumbing. VW has that engine tuned up to 261 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque in the Scirocco R, a slight power boost over the Golf R. The Scirocco R benefits from VW's Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG), a six speed dual clutch automated manual transmission.

Volkswagen Scirocco R
The Scirocco R boasts VW's a potent version of its turbocharged 2-liter. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Instead of the Golf R's all-wheel-drive system, the Scirocco R gets Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC), an adaptive suspension system giving the driver three settings: Comfort, Normal, and Sport. Not something you generally see in lower-end sports cars, DCC makes use of valves in the shock absorbers, which dynamically adjust hydraulic fluid flow depending on the chosen drive setting and sensor data coming in from the wheels and suspension.

Back to styling, however, the Scirocco R makes the Golf R look like a grocery cart.

VW Scirocco R defines the hot hatch (pictures)

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The hood slices down toward the leading edge, leaving a bare thin sliver of grille. The front of the cabin rises up for practical entry and visibility, but it diminishes towards the rear, in a kind of design doppler effect. VW fits the Scirocco R with excellent sport seats providing a good degree of bolstering without getting ridiculous.

With only two doors, the occasional rear seat passenger who you can't dissuade from coming along will have to climb over the tilted forward front seat. The rear hatch covers a narrow opening, only made practical by the deep well of the cargo area. Think of it as the place to hide all the contraband you intend to sell in some dark alley.

Volkswagen Scirocco R
Cutting the rear cabin in to accentuate the fenders may reduce interior space, but it sure looks good. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

No hesitation
Same as the sport seats, the Scirocco R's flat-bottom steering wheel signaled its intentions. Taking that cue, I found the nearest clear straightaway and stepped hard on the gas. Roaring and thrusting like a rocket, the car banshee'd ahead with just a slight front-wheel chirp. Given the engine and other VW's I've driven, I would have expected a moment or two of hesitation, but the Scirocco R took the express lane.

Chalk the responsiveness up to the DSG's Sport mode, the engine's tuned-up horsepower, and a traction control program that feels coded for performance. Many enthusiast drivers are firmly of the manual clutch persuasion, but I enjoy the snappy shifts from an automated manual almost as much as rowing a shifter. And I liked the convenience of the DSG when traffic slowed down to 15 mph on my favorite mountain road as everyone in the world decided to visit a nearby art fair.

Tapping the paddle shifters between second and third gears, taking traffic-free turns at speed, the low roofline of the Scirocco R gave a more planted feeling than the boxier Golf R. With the DCC in its Sport program, the suspension felt rigid and the car cornered flat, with little discernible body roll. Although, in truth, the ride quality didn't change much in Normal or Comfort modes, the latter not entirely earning its name.

The feel of electric power steering was obvious, and not in a good way. Other carmakers, including Ford and Chevrolet, have done a remarkable job of tuning electric power steering systems for a natural feel, but Volkswagen isn't quite there yet. The Scirocco R's wheel betrayed a rheostat-whirring common in older systems.

Volkswagen Scirocco R
Big, round exhaust tips serve as loudspeakers for the engine's snort during downshifts. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

On city streets and boring freeways, the Scirocco R settled into easy-driving transportation, the DSG's regular drive mode dialing back the touchy throttle. But even then, hard acceleration resulted in power-surging downshifts, and a resultant thwump from the exhaust, a thoroughly delightful audio announcement of the car's presence.

Thump and whump
And accentuating the car's European thuggishness, the sound system, comprised of Dynaudio speakers, delivers bass with a satisfying thump. I couldn't help but lead a portable rave as the car seemed to demand an electronic music soundtrack.

This being CNET, I would usually tell you how well the in-dash electronics work about now. However, the Scirocco R wasn't from around these parts, so its navigation screen remained blank. The speedometer needle spent a lot of time pointing above 100, but the "kph" notation on the dial proved I wasn't violating the local traffic codes.

The Bluetooth phone system worked just as it does with US VW models, even affording streaming audio to the stereo. Under the console was VW's annoying proprietary audio connection with an adapter cable for a 30-pin iOS device, making it clear that the company can be inconvenient on a global scale, not just on U.S. models. People's car, indeed.

However, the Scirocco R shows that VW can be exclusive. While the company churns out Jettas, Golfs, Passats, and Tiguans for U.S. buyers, the Scirocco model remains absent from the lineup. During my time with the car I met a number of VW enthusiasts who knew exactly what it was, and bemoaned its lack of availability here.

Volkswagen Scirocco R
You may never see a Scirocco parked under the US flag. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Talk to a VW executive, and you would likely hear a litany of numbers proving the company wouldn't make a profit with it on these shores. I've heard a similar speech about the supercompact Up model. And that executive would probably be right, as buyers looking at a VW would see the limited cargo area and cramped cabin of the three-door hatchback as being impractical. Comparing it to the Golf or Jetta would be a no-brainer for a sensible buyer.

But I think VW should think of the greater good, and bring the Scirocco R as an educational initiative to show us the true nature of a hot hatchback. Just as the government kicks in a tax incentive for electric cars to help clean our skies, every Scirocco R should come with a government-sponsored rebate. Fund it through the Department of Education, because there should be no hot hatchback left behind.