Expert Reviews

First Drive: 2016 Volkswagen Golf R Variant

Sorry, you can’t have one. Yet.

But you know you want one anyway. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll be able to get one a couple years down the road.

Get out your chequebook and start underwriting the business case for Volkswagen Canada to have yours delivered posthaste.

We drove three Volkswagen models on this little junket to Europe, and of those three, one is guaranteed, one is a big maybe, and the third even more of a longshot. We chose to start in the middle, with this Golf R Variant, the big maybe, because the more interest we show, the more we clamour for this hot AWD wagon across North America, the more likely we are to get it. Granted, it will also depend on the number of Golf Rs and Golf Wagons, er, sorry, Golf Sportwagons we buy, so get out your chequebook and start underwriting the business case for Volkswagen Canada to have yours delivered posthaste.

What were the other two? The Golf Alltrack, due to land here in North America next fall (2016) as a 2017 model and the Golf GTD Variant, a hotted up diesel wagon, a model even more unlikely to reach our shores than the R Variant.

Now, it is well established that we will be getting the Golf R, tuned for our roads at 292 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque, launching simultaneously with availability of the DSG twin-clutch auto and manual stick, and equipped with standard all-wheel drive to make the most use of all those horses running amok.

This Variant basically bumps cargo volume from 645 L to 860 and from 1,492 to 1,883 with those rear seats folded and gives you that long, sleek roofline. Now that my kids are out of strollers, that large cargo bay would be largely wasted except on longer road trips, but for those that like to spread out or pack heavy, this would be a big benefit.

Being based on the same MQB architecture as all other Golfs, the seating space is just as we’ve come to expect, generous in front and reasonable in the back seat, the flat roofline offering sufficient headroom. The seats in this unit are superb, stitched cloth, with alcantara-trimmed bolsters that redouble their hold on you when cornering forces are pulling you sideways. North American hatchback models come standard with leather, as would any R Variant (with prices starting at $39,995 for the hatch, the wagon would likely add a couple grand), but they are also two-tone with R badged sport seats that, if previous experience is anything to go by, will hug you tight and keep you comfortable even on long drives.

The drive. It’s fabulous, of course. The Golf R Variant’s version of VW’s 2.0T is rated at 300 PS and 380 Nm in Euro-units, whish is really only a few hp off the North American 292 hp and converts to exactly the same 280 lb-ft of torque. Most pleasing was the grip on launch, one of the key attributes limiting the performance of the front-wheel drive GTI. Peak horsepower is at 5,400 rpm, but all that torque is on tap from 1,800 rpm until you say uncle. Unfortunately, our time in the Golf R did not coincide with any of the derestricted sections of Germany’s autobahn system.

However, my time in the Golf R did see us through some lovely secondary roads that descended far beneath the overpasses of the Austrian highway system, with one road that snaked alongside a winding river through some gorgeous valley topography. On these slices of driving heaven, with turns that were tight but not swithcbacks, and two clearly marked lanes each way, we pressed on and explored the limits as much as was reasonable. There is still a whiff of understeer as you bomb into the curvy bits, but turn-in is sharp and better control of brakes and throttle easily neutralizes it with plenty of torque support from the rear axle to give it a neutral set and you feel a bit of the push from the rear to add greater cornering exit speed and attitude.

Based on the same platform and drivetrain as the Audi S3, the Golf R doesn’t feel quite as substantial or poised as its cousin thanks to some suspension magic at play in the S3. The Golf R is set up with a strut-type front suspension with lower control arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers and anti-roll bar and multilink rear with coil springs, telescopic dampers and anti-roll bar.

More than the power and torque, the R’s 4Motion all-wheel drive opens up new performance potential for the Golf brand, ready to challenge AWD performance titan WRX STI. However, judging from memory in a very different environments, the STI will continue to dominate in the rawness and explosiveness, though independent testing from Car & Driver, the Golf R pips the STI by 0.3 seconds to 60 mph (96 km/h), and 0.1 seconds in the quarter mile, so don’t mistake its refinement for lack of speed. Volkswagen states its 0-60 mph time for the Golf R at 4.9, but Car & Driver managed to clock it at 4.5, so this Golf R Variant would also realistically be under 5 seconds to 100 km/h, likely adding about 50 kilos to the Golf R’s weight of 1,515 kg with the DSG.

Of course, the DSG is the key to those performance heroics, any human operator unlikely to match its crisp, quick shifts. In stop-and-go traffic and daily driving it will require nothing of you and deliver a mellow and efficient shift program, but a lower gear ratio is a flick of the fingers away, though its sporty S mode will likely anticipate your cornering needs.

Braking is smooth and strong, plenty large 340-mm discs in front and 310-mm in back, both vented with three-channel ABS and brake force distribution making it easy to modulate. Chassis feel is also correspondingly good so you can sense the front tires loading up under heavy braking allowing for better cornering grip and confidence, and the 235/35R19 Bridgestone Potenza RE050As offered good traction in the dry conditions we faced on our drive down to Worthersee. Nineteen inches seemed like a good size for the Golf R’s intended capabilities, without delivering too harsh a ride in return for the grip and lateral stability.

Although slightly hokey, the Drive Mode selector offers Eco, Normal, then jumps right to Race! That will put all of your other systems on alert, like throttle, steering ratio and weight and the adaptive suspension. While it never feels quite hard-core enough to earn the Race moniker, it is superbly aggressive for winding roads and the lack of traffic with which we were blessed. An Individual mode allows some tweaking of the various systems in case you want a little more of one thing and less of another.

On more sedate sections, cruising down the highway, the Golf R is typical German car, the steering tightly wound but not skittish and the car planted and stable. While quiet for the most part, the noise dampened to appropriate levels, VW tuned in just a touch of turbocharged whistle on throttle, the slight whoosh of a blowoff valve coming off boost, and a hilariously taunting bark on hard downshifts to punctuate the subtle performance that this sleeper wagon delivers.

Beyond its performance, the Golf R Variant is a nice place to be. As mentioned, the seats were seemingly form-fitted, the dead pedal solid for planting your butt firmly in the seat, the steering wheel carved from divine inspiration and covered in pleasant, smooth leather. This spoiled writer would not have objected to some perforated hides or soft, textured alcantara. Practicality wise, the wheel still has all the multi-function controls this Mk7 Golf has brought us, and it extends to a large central screen set in a piano black centre console, this full-size 8-inch screen the only available upgrade option on the Golf R in Canada (a 6.5-inch screen will be standard on our Canadian Golf Rs), which will come exclusively in “high-zoot” trim with lots of doo-dads and thingamajiggery.

As we have come to appreciate in any Golf, the R is a refined interior and driving experience, but magnified to maximum attack insofar as a Volkswagen will go with greater performance and refinement reserved for its Audi brand.

There is no question that an AWD, manual-transmission rocket wagon is high on every shopper’s list of dream vehicles, there are surprisingly few of them on the market. Oh wait, no it’s not; it is only a small niche of enthusiasts whose voices are lost in the stampede of customers sweeping up small crossovers. The small audience for a Golf R wagon will likely mean another premium on top of the already pricey Golf R, even if the flexible MQB architecture means it is more affordable than ever to produce these, um, variants. But given the limited benefit of the cargo space of a wagon over the hatchback, it’s hard to see the justification for such a niche model, as awesome as it would be for us wagon enthusiasts. The Golf R is a lot of car, even climbing above $40K, and preserving the option of a manual transmission would be a far higher priority in my books than a hot version of this most practical of body styles. Sometimes you just have to pick your battles.