The 2015 Volkswagen Golf R is the fastest, most powerful, and most agile variant of the Golf platform that you can buy today. It's also the most expensive. The R builds on the success of the Golf GTI, a vehicle that I loved so much that I called it "one of the best hot hatches ever." So is the Golf R better than the best? Well, that depends on what you mean by "better."
Like the Golf GTI, the 2015 Volkswagen Golf R is powered by the automaker's turbocharged 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine codenamed EA888. However, the R get a significant retune and a 72-horsepower boost over its stablemate. Total output sits now at 292 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque.
Power and torque flow through VW's six-speed DSG semi-automatic transmission. The R has no available manual transmission option, so those who love clutching will have to step down to a GTI model.
After the gearbox, torque is split and shared between all four wheels via the automaker's 4Motion all-wheel-drive system. This setup uses an electronically controlled Haldex center differential to send up to 50-percent of available torque to the rear axle on demand. The R is also able to torque vector power laterally across each axle, thanks to its XDS+ brake differential system.
On paper, the Golf R nips at the heels of the new 305-horsepower Subaru WRX STI. However, the Golf's slightly lower curb weight and launch control mean that, in practice, the R is slightly faster getting to 60 mph (4.5 seconds versus 5.1. On a twisty road or racing course, these two all-wheel-drive sport compacts would be particularly well-matched and fierce competitors.
Speaking of twisty roads, the Golf R grips the pavement with 235-width tires wrapped around 19-inch wheels. Changes direction via variable ratio electric power steering with two modes: sport and normal. The Golf R features three preset drive modes that tweak the various aspects of the vehicle's performance with Sport, Normal and Comfort. A fourth Individual preset is customizable, allowing the driver to mix and match settings for the steering, engine and front lighting. (That's right, even the headlights have a Sport setting on the Golf R.)
In addition to the three drive modes, there's also a three-mode stability control system that progressively reduces the amount of computer intervention at the handling limits from full to moderate to nearly none at all.
Adding to the settings mix is our example's optional DCC -- or Dynamic Chassis Control -- adaptive suspension which electronically adjusts the firmness of the ride with comfort, normal and sport settings. These modes are automatically chosen by the drive-mode selector. Personally, I thought that all three settings were fairly sporty, but did notice a bit more of an edge to the bumps in the road and a bit less roll in the firmer settings.
It was apparent before I even reached my favorite backroads that the Golf R is head and shoulders a much more potent performer than the GTI. The acceleration is much more immediate, but also less dramatic. With the 4Motion system splitting torque between all four corners, a launch-controlled hard start wastes no energy squealing the tires. The hatchback simply takes off like a turbocharged bullet, swinging both the speedometer and tachometer with ease.
Gear changes from the dual-clutch gearbox are ridiculously quick and almost seamlessly smooth. Upshifts happen within the span of a blink and downshifts are met with computer-precise blips of the throttle that don't upset the chassis.
However, the Golf R really starts to shine when the road starts to bend. With its 4Motion all-wheel drive system, the rear wheels aren't just along for the ride like they are in the front-wheel drive GTI. I was able to more liberally add power after a tight apex and to carry a bit more speed through broader, sweeping bends. The steering offers the same level of excellent feedback that made me fall in love with the GTI, but the R feels much more planted.
On a racetrack, it'd be no contest. The R justifies every penny of its price premium over the GTI where the performance is concerned. However, on the road, I'm not so sure that the R is significantly more fun than the 220-horsepower GTI.
There are no surprises in the Golf R's cabin. The hatchback features the same available tech and amenities as the rest of the Golf lineup, centered on a 5.8-inch touchscreen navigation system. I'm not a fan of this system which features noticeably low-resolution graphics for the maps. I'm also not a fan of Volkswagen's multimedia interface, which requires adapters for 30-pin, Lightning, or USB connectivity, rather than the simple USB port adopted by the rest of the world.
At the very least, I'm grateful that the Volkswagen's interface is easy to understand with with simple black-and-white graphics for most functions and large physical buttons flanking the screen, acting as shortcuts.
Perhaps the best bit of the Golf R's interior is the 400-watt, eight-speaker Fender audio system, which sounds as good as ever. The Golf R also features R-badging, a few unique exterior styling cues, and blue ambient and accent interior lighting.
The R boasts more power, more grip, and is significantly faster than the GTI over almost any stretch of road or track. For those looking for the fastest hot hatch possible to take to the track or autocross, it doesn't get much better than this.
The R starts at $36,595, but our example adds DCC and navigation, coming in at an as-tested price of $39,910 including an $820 destination charge. For the about $4,000 more than a fully-loaded GTI, you're getting about 70-more horsepower, all-wheel drive, and the biggest threat to the more expensive Subaru WRX STI since the departure of the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. (At least, until the Focus RS arrives next year.) Viewed through this lens, the R isn't a bad value for the money.
For those casual enthusiasts who spend most of their time away from the track, the Golf R becomes a slightly harder upsell. On back roads, where thrills, responsiveness and fun are more important than outright measurable speed, the R doesn't feel tremendously better than the $28,215 2015 Golf GTI SE tested in February; both hatches offer excellent, responsive handling and grin-inducing acceleration. The US-market Golf R's lack of a manual transmission option will rub some driving purists the wrong way.
In the UK, the Golf R starts at £30,820 and Australian buyers will find a AU$58,160 price tag affixed to the hot hatch. Interestingly, the R is offered with a six-speed manual gearbox option in both of those markets.