Volkswagen turns up the wick on its hottest hatch

The Golf R is Volkswagen's embodiment of ultimate hatchback performance, and 2015 marks some significant improvements. More power, more torque and less weight -- what's not to like? Join us on our first drive to find out.

Tim Stevens
Tim Stevens Former editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
5 min read

The Volkswagen Golf has seen an amazing evolution over the past 41 years since its introduction in 1974. The first generation of the little, affordable, practical hatchback may have lacked the visual charm of its Beetle sibling, but it was not short on personality. Especially behind the wheel. The performance-oriented GTI model, introduced in 1976, became an icon. The Golf R burns brightest yet.

In the grand scheme of things the Golf R nameplate is young, introduced just a few years ago and picking up where the R32 left off. Think of it as a super-GTI, with more power from the four-cylinder motor and power directed to all four wheels rather than just the front two. The seventh generation hits dealerships in February, and we got a chance to take it for an early drive.

The revised 2.0-liter TSI engine manages 292 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque. Tim Stevens/CNET

For 2015, the Golf R has gained a lot of just about everything, but vitally it hasn't gained any weight. Horsepower is up 36 to 292, torque up 37 to 280 pound-feet and mass is down more than 50 pounds compared to the sixth generation. Mind you, a curb weight of 3,283 pounds with a manual transmission means it's far from svelte. Fuel efficiency also increases, with the highway rating gaining 3 MPG up to 30. (It'll do 23 in the city, with a 27 MPG combined rating.)

The increase in power and decrease in weight makes this the fastest production Golf ever, with a 0 - 60 time of less than five seconds. That's properly quick, a few tenths quicker than the car's most direct competition, the Subaru WRX STI, despite having less power. How? It mostly comes down to the transmission.

For 2015, VW's six-speed, double-clutch DSG gearbox is standard fare, offering you the comfort of an automatic when you want it and the speed of a paddle-shift race box when you need it. If you'd rather row your own, you'll need to wait until next year, when a six-speed manual will be added as an option, likely cutting about $1,000 off the MSRP.

Massive 19-inch wheels are an option. R-branded calipers are standard. Tim Stevens/CNET

And what is the MSRP? The standard Golf R with the DSG is $36,595. This is quite well equipped, including leather interior with a power drivers' seat, 18-inch wheels wrapped with sport tires and LED running lights. $39,090 will get you the Premium model, the biggest addition being VW's DCC adaptive suspension, which enables you to go from comfy and soft to sporty and taught at the touch of a button. Premium also steps up to 19-inch wheels and adds navigation to the infotainment system's touchscreen.

Is it worth it? I was able to spend time with both trim levels, and if you have the extra cash, the DCC is a very nice upgrade. In comfort mode, the car is extremely...comfortable. Separation joints on old concrete won't threaten your bad back and even potholes will be dispensed with minimum fuss. But, dial it up to race and things change immediately. The car is still far from punishing, but feels far more taut and responsive. The standard suspension, meanwhile, splits the difference and does a fair job at it, so if you don't drop the extra change, you'll still have a great ride.

In Race mode, the DCC Golf with its adjustable suspension is still a fair bit more plush than Subaru's STI. More comfortable, but not as sharp. By comparison the STI (itself no featherweight) feels edgy and poised, always ready for action. VW's car takes a bit more time to change direction, but offers massive amounts of grip and is still very engaging at the limit. And yes, you can truly find those limits now, thanks to a traction control system that can be fully disabled.

The new 4MOTION system here includes electronic differentials front and rear called XDS+, the same sort found in the front of the GTI. It can brake the inside wheel to help pull the car around tight corners, and it's quite effective. While the front is first to wash away when you start to ask too much of the car, under acceleration out of a corner the nose pulls itself around quite ably. While not quite as alive as the STI, it's a brilliantly fun car to drive, and rather more comfortable to live with.

Interior is clean and sophisticated, light years beyond this car's closest competition, the Subaru STI. Tim Stevens/CNET

That's doubly true for the interior, which is typical VW quality and light-years beyond the STI. The leather sport seats are comfy and supportive, and if you don't like leather...too bad. VW sadly won't be giving cloth as an option in the US.

The US will also not have a choice of body types. Only the five-door hatchback Golf R will come here, where a three-door hatch is available abroad, as well as the Variant wagon version. If you prefer the two-door, well, how do you feel about moving to Germany? This thing would certainly be a treat on the Autobahn...

Unfortunately, the five-door model is the only flavor coming to the US. Tim Stevens/CNET

We will, thankfully, get our choice of transmission, but in our driving impressions picking one over the other won't be easy. The DSG is able and quick to shift, in its sportiest mode it holds on to gears, it'll let you run right up to the limiter with wild abandon and its rev matching on downshifts is better than yours. Switch over to comfort mode and it's as good as the best automatics.

The six-speed manual, meanwhile, is also quite good. The clutch is effortlessly light -- in fact I'd say it's a little too light for my taste. Shifts are short and each gear engages very positively, but there's a problem with the pedal placement. The manual car gets a skinny brake pedal that sits quite a bit higher than the accelerator. This makes toe-heel rev-matching rather more difficult than it need be, a strike against on a performance car. Brake feel from the 13.4-inch front and 12.2-inch rear disks, however, is very good.

The Golf R is sophisticated performance, reasonably priced. Tim Stevens/CNET

These are the same brakes available as part of the GTI Performance Package, which will raise the question in the minds of many of whether the Golf R is worth the extra cash over VW's other notable hot hatch. The answer, of course, depends on how well-padded your bank accounts are, but there's no doubt that the Golf R offers substantially more performance, better handling and is overall a far more comprehensive package than a chipped GTI could hope to be.

The 2015 Golf R hits American dealerships in February. We'll be back with a full review once we get a little more time behind the wheel.

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