by Jared Rosenholtz
On a recent visit to Los Angeles, we wanted a car that was fun to drive on some of the city's awesome canyon roads. We wanted to get a car with a manual transmission, but in the world of press cars this isn't always an option. When we picked the Volkswagen Golf R, we quickly learned that we had lucked out in getting what might be the best car for tooling around LA. Our car came equipped with the six-speed DSG transmission, which is actually the one that we would buy. Sorry manual lovers!
We really wanted to get the whole manual versus DSG debate out of the way quickly by explaining why the DSG is better in this instance. Despite our love of the manual box, the Golf R is simply better suited for the DSG. We immediately found out why LA traffic is so universally despised when our 40 minute trip home from the airport took over two hours. Luckily, we had the Golf R and its adaptive cruise control system to conquer the congestion. We've used systems like this in the past and the Volkswagen system is highly advanced. After setting a set distance from the car in front, the driver can basically keep their feet off the pedals. The gas pedal only needs to be tapped after a full stop.
The adaptive cruise control isn't available with the six-speed manual transmission (for obvious reasons). The DSG does add $1,100 to the car's MSRP, but is definitely worth it. In addition to the adaptive cruise control, the DSG also comes with a sport mode that makes the car more aggressive. For 2017, Volkswagen has simplified the Golf R lineup and there is now only one trim level that is basically fully loaded. Some odd exclusions from the options list include a two-door version, which is available in other markets, and a sunroof. With these options aside, the only decision on the Golf R is which one of the five colors looks best, and whether to get the DSG transmission.
On the inside, the Golf R doesn't really stand out over the GTI, but it is still a very nice place to be. Almost all of the surfaces are soft-touch materials that can put some of the entry-level German luxury cars to shame. The flat-bottom steering wheel is great for sporty driving, although it did take us some time to get fully acquainted with the hoard of buttons that control the radio, cruise control, Bluetooth and the center screen menus. Speaking of that center screen in the gauge cluster, it was filled with good information, but we look forward to the 2018 model year when Volkswagen will update the Golf R with the virtual cockpit technology from the Audi TT.
The center navigation will also be updated for 2018, although we loved the quick response from this current generation unit. Voice command is still infuriating to use, but luckily this system comes with Android Auto and Apple Car Play compatibility. This means that you can make calls and respond to texts using Siri or Google voice commands. The Golf R really reminds us that Volkswagen can punch well above its price bracket in technology. The 2017 Golf R has pretty much every piece of technology that is possible to get in a Golf, including radar cruise control, backup camera, auto-dimming mirror and dynamic chassis control (DCC).
Our tester came in Tornado Red, which doesn't really suit a car that's designed to mask its latent potential. The Golf R has always been a great sleeper car, but the Mk7 model takes this to a new level. Perhaps this car shows that Volkswagen recognizes that Golf R owners are a bit older and more mature. The only ways to tell the car apart from a normal Golf are some very subtle R badges, a slightly more aggressive front end, different wheels and quad-exhaust tips. To our eyes, the Golf GTI looks more aggressive than the R thanks to more unique wheels and the black fins on the lower front grill.
During our time with the Golf R, we really grappled with how it compared to the cheaper GTI and whether it was really worth around $15,000 more. Although the GTI does start at just under $25,000, it's unfair to compare it to the Golf R because it comes with many features that are optional on the GTI. In the fully loaded Autobahn trim, the GTI can get up to around $36,000, which makes the R's $40,000 price seem pretty reasonable. If your goal was to buy a fast Golf with just about every option, the Golf R is the better value. However, we would be happy to save some money by ordering a mid-level Golf GTI that isn't fully- equipped.
We were expecting the Golf R to make us fall in love and recognize why it sits atop the Volkswagen range as the undisputed king, but this never happened. The Golf R was unbelievably capable, but it never thrilled us. The 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder in the Golf R produces 292 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque going out to a Haldex AWD system. This is a fair bit more than the 220 hp in the GTI with the performance pack. Even with so much power on tap, the Golf R couldn't make us forget that it was only a four cylinder. When we got on the boost the car rocketed past traffic, but there are many instances where the Golf R can be buried in too high of a gear and the turbo lag can be very apparent.
The turbo lag can easily be defeated by changing the car's drive modes. The Golf R can switch between four driver modes of comfort, normal, race and a custom mode that allows the driver to play with the adaptive suspension, steering weight, engine sound and other functions. In Comfort mode, the car felt sluggish and comfortable like a diesel; in Normal, the car feel quick and balanced like a GTI; and Race turned the car into a true R. In race mode, any blip of the throttle yielded an immediate downshift from the DSG transmission and accompanying shove into the back of the seat. The engine also got louder for added thrills.
It's possible to take control of the shifting through the paddles, but we were just as happy to let the car do its thing. In race mode, the car shifted upon demand and reminded us why the R is the fastest of the Golf models. Unfortunately, unless you are the type of person that puts their car into race mode every time you start it, the Golf R doesn't really thrill on a daily basis. Enthusiasts are likely to prefer the Honda Civic Type R or Ford Focus RS. Despite these being uncomfortable on the road, anyone who is cross-shopping these cars may be looking for a more extreme driving experience than the R provides.
The Golf R is somewhat of a paradox. It's quicker than the GTI, but we think that 90 percent of those buyers would be perfectly content with its performance. The other 10 percent will be wanting something more extreme than the GTI and we don't think that the Golf R is that car. GTI owners that think their ride is too soft and slow, won't feel that much difference in the R. They'll be happier in the Focus RS or Civic Type R. But for buyers looking for a very fast car with absolutely no compromises, the Golf R is the standout choice. Volkswagen has aimed the Golf R at a more mature audience but we wish it hadn't played it so safe.
A buyer looking for something low-key should probably spend a bit more and get the Audi S3, which shares a drivetrain with the Golf R and starts at $43,000. What we are left with in the Golf R is a car that does almost everything extremely well, but doesn't do any one thing perfectly. We were happy to have the Golf R in the soul-crushing traffic of LA, but when we made it up to the canyons we think that the Golf R's rivals could have put a bigger grin on our faces. We think that Volkswagen could make the Golf R perfect by putting the 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine from the RS3 and TT RS into it. This engine would probably fit because the Golf shares a platform with the two Audi models.
This would create a monster Golf RS with around 400 hp. This would solve many of our gripes with the Golf R including turbo lag and a lackluster engine note that had us disappointed on our canyon run. We have already heard how good the TT RS sounds with this new engine and we would love to see it included as an even faster variant of the Golf R. Too bad we are very unlikely to see anything above the Golf R in the near future.