In this incredible era of near-perfect, record-shattering, computer-aided performance, one traditional quality is increasingly in short supply: personality. Character, some might call it. Technical prowess has a way of ironing out the things that make cars truly memorable beyond just their speed and handling. This is not a problem with the 292 horsepower 2015 Volkswagen Golf R.
(Full disclosure: Volkswagen needed me to drive a Golf R so badly they left one at my house for a week. I had to give it back a few days early because of a work trip to New York, but it was fun while it lasted.)
I think that is especially interesting given the Golf R’s country of origin, and that country’s propensity as of late to turn out cars with incredible performance but feel just a little too synthetic. I’ve started calling them German Cyborg Cars.They’re these high tech, immensely powerful machines that check every major box — power, handling, acceleration, style — and yet come out the end lacking in the aforementioned personality department.
Think of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 in the Terminator movies. Lethal, but not much of a conversationalist.
People buy these cars thinking they’re getting an obscenely fast Teutonic tank that will let them live their wildest Ronin fantasies, but they end up with something with fun-neutering all-wheel drive, fake engine noise and a turbo engine built mainly to cut down on emissions. The Golf R is an example of how to get those things right.
The 2015 BMW M4 Convertible I took down the Pacific Coast Highway, which you’ll read about later this week, was a bit of a German Cyborg Car. Extremely competent at everything I asked it to do, and quite fast, but also a bit boring, and only fun when I forced it to be. (My wife, who rode shotgun the entire 1,500-mile trip, called it “vanilla.”) The Audi R8 V10 Plus was the same way. It was a fantastic athlete, just not the kind who gives a great interview after the game is over.
It’s a German thing. They’re so good at being technically competent that their cars can come off as dispassionate even when they shatter Nürburgring lap records. It’s a stereotype, but there’s truth to it.
You may think the new Golf R — with its turbo four-cylinder engine downsized from the VR6 years, dual clutch gearbox and all-wheel drive — is another German Cyborg Car. It isn’t. It’s a car that does everything well, but most importantly, it has fun doing everything well. And all of this makes it probably the best hot hatch around right now.
I first drove the Golf R when it launched in January and was immediately a fan. After getting to spend a few days with it, I like it even more, and it ended up being one of the rare press vehicles I was genuinely sad to give back.
The stats, in case you need them: a worked-over EA888 2.0-liter turbo four, essentially a GTI engine with better go-fast parts, hammers out 292 HP and 280 pound-feet of torque. That power goes to all four wheels via a next-gen Haldex 4Motion system. Zero to 60 mph comes in a very brisk Car and Driver-certified 4.5 seconds, making it as quick as the new Mustang GT.
That number doesn’t begin to tell you how brisk the Golf R accelerates, how eagerly and immediately it delivers the power you ask for. Every time I mashed my foot on the gas pedal, I was genuinely surprised at how fast it felt, how hard it would charge up to redline. That feeling never got old.
It’s a hell of a performance car, and there’s drama in how it practices its craft. At least some of that is thanks to the crackling exhaust note and deep, bellowing engine growl — the latter is fed in by a soundaktor, but curiously, I didn’t mind it here, which is rare because augmented engine noise is about my least-favorite thing in the universe.
I think the power delivery is a big part of the character I mentioned before. While its speed isn’t manic or overbearing like a Mitsubishi Evo, the Golf R knows it’s basically an upscale family hatchback that’s faster and more powerful than some supercars were in decades past. But the car knows how silly it is! And it owns it, too.
I’ve driven several examples of the new MK7 Golf now and each time I’ve been amazed at how it punches way above its weight in terms of comfort, quality and refinement. Let’s face it, a Golf is cheap, basic, entry-grade transportation in a lot of markets, but the latest one outclasses many cars from ostensible luxury brands in terms of interior plushness and driving dynamics.
This leads into what I meant when I said the Golf R does everything well. Even in its most performance-oriented setting, the ride is ridiculously smooth. It’s chilled out enough if you go easy on the gas. It will fit two adults in the back comfortably. The hatch area has tons of room. The seats are the perfect mix of comfortable and bolstered. The infotainment system’s graphics look a bit dated, but it works well enough. (A new one of those is coming soon anyway.) Fit and finish is immaculate.
In R trim, you will pay for all those things, though — my silver tester stickered in at about $39,000. Let’s face it, if you buy a Golf R, you’re doing alright for yourself, but you’re also getting a nice car that’s way more of a stealth fighter than most performance cars are. I can see the appeal in that. With the Golf R, you can be a psychopath and hide in plain sight.
“Look at Johnson over there!” your boss, Mr. Bossman, will say as you (Johnson) pull into your company’s parking lot. “With what I pay him, he could easily afford a much fancier luxury car! But he bought a Volkswagen Golf because he’s smart and responsible and fiscally conservative! Well done, my boy!”
“Oh, yes sir!” you (Johnson) will say in response. “That’s me, sir! Mr. Fiscally Conservative!” Little does Mr. Bossman know that you took your favorite winding backroad to work and blitzed the shit out of a Porsche Boxster along the way, sending him home crying to his wife and/or mistress.
Back roads, and your local track, is what the Golf R lives for anyway. Taking it on some Central Texas’ finest winding rural roads, I once again was impressed at how agile the car felt thanks to its optional Dynamic Chassis Control adaptive dampers.
It’s an adept handler, very neutral and easy to drive quickly. The electric steering rack once again earned its stripes in my book, proving to be light, direct and fun to play with.
My tester was equipped with the six-speed dual clutch DSG. It’s nigh-impossible to talk about that gearbox at this point without resorting to clichés like “Shifts are lightning quick” and “it’s really great”, so screw it, here goes: Shifts are lightning quick! It’s really great!
When I drove the Golf R at launch I preferred the manual version, and I still do, simply because I think a good hot hatch should have a good stick shift. If there’s one downside to the car, one thing that makes it too Cyborg-like, is that it’s so easy to drive fast in the Golf R with the DSG. Almost too easy. I think that’s why I like the increased involvement of the manual better. But the DSG is too excellent to argue with in any substantive way. You can’t go wrong with either.
You can’t go wrong with the Golf R in general, really. I like it better than the Audi S3 because it’s basically the same car, just cheaper, nicer inside, more practical and with a manual option. I like it better than the BMW 228i because it’s a superior bang for your buck, though it lacks that car’s delightful tail-out antics. And I’d probably be more inclined to buy one over a Subaru WRX STI.
For most people, the substantially cheaper and also excellent GTI will be enough. More than enough, even. But if folks splurge on the Golf R, I doubt they’ll feel like they wasted their money. Why drive a cyborg when you can have one of these instead?
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