by: Chris Chase
In today’s vast new vehicle marketplace, most of the automotive superheroes are easy to pick out, wearing sleek and often impractical styling around impressive powertrains and capable chassis. But as anyone who reads comic books knows, superheroes come in a variety of forms, and you’ll find all the proof you need of that in the car you’re reading about here, the 2016 Volkswagen Golf R.
This is the second generation of the quickest version of VW’s Golf hatchback, which builds on the performance legacy of the venerable GTI. To that car’s proven hot-hatch formula the Golf R adds nearly 50 percent more horsepower and all-wheel drive to create what we think is the most livable and daily driving-friendly sports car on sale today.
From a 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder engine, VW extracts 292 horsepower (that’s 72 more than in the most potent version of the GTI) and 280 lb-ft of torque. Numbers like those are not uncommon in many family sedans but they still impress here — even on paper — because you can sense that these are friskier ponies than those under the hood of, say, a Chrysler 200 or Honda Accord.
The engine’s generous torque (all of it is available at 2,000 rpm) makes this car impressively quick from a stop, but it also means that you get meaningful acceleration even at highway speeds without the need for a downshift.
With this much power under your right foot, we’d argue that all-wheel drive is practically a necessity for putting it to the pavement efficiently. A spin around Ottawa’s Calobogie Motorsports Park’s racetrack at the Golf R press launch in September 2015 proved that this car’s four driven wheels allow a skilled driver (in this case, Canadian racer Patrick Carpentier) to pulls stunts like drifting the car through corners at speeds most of the rest of the drivers at that event were too timid to attempt.
That event proved the Golf R is quite comfortable being flogged around a racetrack, but Volkswagen insists this is not a track car. Rather, it’s an all-rounder designed to be capable on the track but also comfortable as a daily driver. Fast forward to our winter test drive, during which we were indeed comfortable with the Golf R’s four-wheel traction in the aftermath of a significant January snowfall. Any AWD vehicle can be a competent companion in foul weather, but there’s something particularly intoxicating about the way an all-wheel drive sports car handles the snow.
Another of the Golf R’s more intoxicating characteristics is its availability with a six-speed manual transmission. It was the only gearbox available in the last-generation version of this car, so it’s a sign of the times that Volkswagen offers this new one with a dual-clutch six-speed automatic, which the automaker dubs DSG.
Our tester had the stickshift, and it’s a lovely piece of machinery to use. The shifter moves effortlessly through its gates, and the fluid clutch is so easy to modulate that this would be a brilliant car on which to learn to drive a manual transmission. It’s six ratios are reasonably well-spaced, with a very tall sixth gear to keep engine speed and noise down in highway cruising.
All that said, having had the chance to drive manual and automatic versions back-to-back at Calabogie, we’d strongly suggest against writing off the automatic version as unworthy of its performance car title. In fact, while we would probably choose the manual simply because we prefer driving that way, the DSG is a better performance partner with its lightning-quick gearchanges and the ability to perform flawless rev-matched downshifts every time when shifted manually, which can be done via the shift lever or steering wheel-mounted paddles.
No matter which transmission you choose, Golf R comes with four drive modes — comfort, normal, sport and race — to alter throttle response and suspension firmness and, in DSG cars, transmission behaviour. The comfort setting proved just comfortable enough on Ottawa’s winter-ravaged pavement and normal was just tolerable, but sport and race modes are best reserved for smooth roads.
Inside, the Golf R presents front sport seats with aggressive bolstering which, for some drivers, might be one of the car’s few compromises: they’re perfectly supportive for slim people who fit neatly between the bolsters, but those wider in the hips will find them uncomfortable. You also have to be willing to hump over the big bolsters every time you get in and out of the car, which may be a real demerit against this car’s daily driver potential.
On the upside, the rest of the interior is more or less the same as that in any Golf or GTI model: there’s a roomy back seat and a big trunk that make this a quick way for four adults — or two adults and a couple of kids — to get around or get out of town.
If you’ve driven a recent GTI, you’ll know that it too is a strong performer, and that fact raises the most pertinent questions about the Golf R’s value as a performance car. A GTI with the optional performance package has 220 horsepower, a locking differential and weighs more than 100 kg less than the Golf R while sharing the R’s excellent brakes and sticky tires. So, while the R is still quicker, at least some of its 72-hp advantage is lost to its heftier weight. On the upside, that weight is arguably better distributed considering the extra kilograms are owing to the AWD system and the hardware it adds to the car’s rear end.
Then it comes time to consider the Golf R’s starting price of $39,995. That’s just $1,900 more than a GTI with that aforementioned performance package, which is a reasonable fee for a bunch of extra power and four-wheel traction.
As superheroes go, the Golf R’s uniform may be less showy than most, but this hot hatch still has what it takes to save you from a boring daily drive.