Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2016 Volkswagen Golf R

AutoTrader SCORE
This score is awarded by our team of expert reviewers after extensive testing of the car

Picture a Lamborghini Aventador: spoilers, vents, V12 engine, scissor doors. Now, picture the scene in The Last Crusade where Indiana Jones responds to a sword-swinging baddie with a laconic pistol shot. Theatrics are all well and good, but when you're packing heat, you don't need much more than a willingness to pull the trigger.

There's a lot going on here, but the R hides its light under a bushel.

Now, picture a Volkswagen Golf. It's businesslike, no? While the hatchback box shape has matured over seven generations, it remains familiar in its mildness. It is clean-cut, neatly pressed, and ready to go to work. If it sounds like I'm talking about a pair of charcoal slacks, I pretty much am. The VW Golf is the business-casual of the automotive world. Add a GTI designation, and maybe you've just paired a fancy pocket square as an accessory. Add an R, and...

Well, not much, really. From the exterior, the ultimate Golf is just a set of quad exhaust pipes, a chin spoiler, and a quartet of 19-inch alloy wheels hotter than a standard GTI. It doesn't get a big spoiler, it doesn't get wild slashes to the bodywork – if you've ever seen a pair of stylish trousers with scarlet lining, then consider this the wheeled version of that. There's a lot going on here, but the R hides its light under a bushel.

In order to uncover that light a little, I headed up the valley to HPA motorsports, an elite Volkswagen tuning house located in an industrial complex in Langley. If you're a VW enthusiast, you likely have already heard of HPA, but it may still come as something of a surprise to learn that their headquarters are sequestered away in an industrial park in the Fraser Valley.

Why'd I mention the Aventador at the outset? Because HPA builds a Golf that'll run it to ground, a 740 hp (!), all-wheel-drive monster that gets to 100 km/h in 2.8 seconds, 200 km/h in 8.9 seconds, and hits 300 km/h in 22.2 s. I've driven it, and it is utterly insane, even more so than their usual 5–600 hp fare.

Usually when you talk to tuners, there's a lot of scoffing at the factory limitations, but the crew here will tell you that VW raised the bar when they released the current iteration of the Golf R. The 2.0L turbocharged engine makes 292 hp at 5,400 rpm, and a fat 280 lb-ft of torque from 1,800 rpm. Haldex all-wheel-drive and wide sticky tires on 19-inch alloys handle the grip. It's all enough to give a Subaru STI something to sweat about.

Despite the similar performance metrics, the Golf R is nothing like an STI. For one thing, it's a hatchback (bring back the STI hatch, Subaru!), for another, this is a car for grownups. 

Now, before anybody in a Monster Energy flatbill gets too offended, I actually own an STI. It's quite good fun, it doesn't mind getting its boots dirty, and it is about as refined as a hay-baler. It's a perfect fit for me because I haven't had occasion to wear a tie since about 2011.

But there are people who have real jobs: accountants, lawyers, real estate agents, doctors, engineers, software programmers, mid-level management types. Can you show up for work every day in a screaming blue car with a wing that looks like a Cessna crashed into the back of your car? If you can, try to keep that job, it sounds like fun.

But if you've got a job that requires you to fit in with the rest of the drones, but still feel that inner need to rip the skin off a backroad now and then, the Golf R is a dress shoe with a lead sole. It's businesslike on the outside, and business time under your heavy right foot.

For a drive from North Vancouver to Langley, the Golf R feels basically like an Audi product. Everything's made to a very high standard, and there's plenty of technology on board to make a commute that much easier. This week's tester came with the six-speed dual-clutch DSG, which shifted smoothly up through the gears. The optional technology package includes automatic cruise-control. Line up in traffic and just go with the flow: nobody looks twice at your Golf, not your fellow travellers, and happily not the constabulary.

The interior of this thing is very well done, managing to balance obvious sportiness with comfort. The seats are just about perfect, with enough adjustability to fit a wide range of heights – a 6'8” friend had no issues. Bits of carbon-fibre trim have been added in here and there, but not so much as to be garish.

For the family man, the child seat anchor points are easily accessed, and the trunk is wide and deep enough to accommodate a stroller. The touchscreen infotainment is also very good, and it was simple enough to hook up my phone via Bluetooth and get a podcast going to ease the miles.

Basically, everything the GTI is good at, the Golf R is good at. And, if the latter's pricetag seems eye-widening, I just built a GTI five-door with leather and DSG for $42K after freight. Are you kidding me? You pretty much have to go R-rated at that point.

Unlike rivals like the Subaru STI and Focus RS, the Golf R provides two transmission offerings. There's either a six-speed manual, which is great, or the dual-clutch transmission, which is also great, and perhaps suits the buttoned-down character of the car. I'd go for the manual, but then me not very advance thinker, me like old fashion option.

After chatting potential upgrades with Marcel Horn, the president of HPA, I regretfully decide not to hand over the press fleet Golf R for a full turbo-swap upgrade, one that'd have it cranking out somewhere in the neighbourhood of 450 hp. Can you imagine how funny that would be – to just bring the thing back boosted into the stratosphere, and not tell anyone? Imagine the resulting reviews.

Instead, it's time to go for a bomb around a couple of looping country lanes with the Golf dialled up to maximum attack. Drive mode selection is a matter of hitting a button to the left of the shifter, then picking one of four settings on the touchscreen. The Individual option is best, as it allows you to crank everything up to the most enthusiastic settings, but keep the sport exhaust turned down.

While there's perhaps a slight lagginess in the R's power delivery as compared to a GTI, in all other respects it's simply more of what the excellent Mk 7 car has to offer. Steering feel is good, and the grip is phenomenal. The shove as the revs climb encourages you to wring the 2.0L out, and it produces a sound which is growly enough to be interesting while not loud enough to annoy the neighbourhood.

If there's a weak point here, it's the Continental tires, which eventually give up a tiny bit of grip as the driver gets more aggressive with inputs. Really though, the limits of the R are so high for the public road, you'd have to be a complete maniac to surpass them. And, if you're a maniac, you're probably back at HPA getting an extra 150 hp crammed into your car, so ask them to throw on a set of Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s as well.

For 90 percent of people considering a Golf R, that's not what I would suggest. If anything, I'd pop the shiny 19-inch curb magnets right off the car, sell them to a GTI owner, and swap in a set of reserved-looking 18s instead. I'd take it with the manual, and I'd consider adding two or three items from HPA's catalogue that improve responsiveness without voiding your warranty or increasing fuel consumption. I'd also take the R badges off the car five minutes after taking delivery.

With or without these tweaks, the Golf R earns my highest recommendation as a car that does little for the bystander, but certainly stirs up emotions for the driver. It is, like the MX-5, not a car you drive for other people, but for yourself. Leave the sword-swinging antics to the showoffs with hoodscoops and spoilers. R for reserved, R for really fast, R for our little secret.

4 years/80,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 12 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 4 years/80,000 km roadside assistance

CPO BMW 335i
Ford Focus RS
Subaru STI

Model Tested 2016 Volkswagen Golf R
Base Price $39,995
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,605
Price as Tested $45,115
Optional Equipment
$3,415 [DSG dual-clutch transmission - $1,400; technology package (adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, park assist) - $2,015]