2016 Volkswagen Golf R: An Audi S3 In Disguise?

VW Gold R and Audi S4 Avant

When I first met Allison Feldhusen she drove a 1995 VW Jetta GLX. That car had a mean growl with a VR6 motor and an air intake. She replaced the Jetta with another “Volkswagen” – her 2001 Audi S4 Avant that I reviewed last month. After 15 years and over 200k miles, it was time for something new, and she went back to a true VW – a 2016 Golf R.

At first it seems natural to compare the two cars. They’re both sporty blue AWD turbo cars with 6-speed manual transmissions. But there are 15 years of progress between them, and though the VW badge does not have the prestige of the four ringed Audi, the Golf R is better than the old S4 in almost every way. As Allison said, “The R really is somewhere in the evolutionary progress of the S despite being a letter back.” She was crazy enough to let me take her new shiny for a drive with barely more than 400 miles on it. Will is getting his hands on a Golf R next month, but just like with the Mustang I’ve cut off my boss and gotten into one ahead of him. (Please don’t fire me.) Michael Thompson was the first of the RFD crew to get a drive in the Golf R, and his impressions were mixed. While he liked it, it didn’t measure up to the 2004 R32 he dreams of.

I’ve never driven an R32, so I went into this drive with an open mind. Forget VW’s diesel woes. I grew up in the back seat of a 1974 Volkswagen Super Beetle. Herbie the Love Bug was one of the big reasons I got into cars in the first place.  The first manual transmission car I drove for any length of time was my roommate’s Golf. I appreciated what Team O’Neil Rally School‘s old fleet of Jettas and Golfs could do when I learned left foot braking and pendulum turns. Though I’ve never owned one myself, I’ve had a relationship with VWs my whole life, and I keep an open mind about their current offerings. So I was excited to try out the latest and greatest top of the line VW.

Ice cream run in the Golf R

Our drive started with a run to the local ice cream joint. Looking at it in the parking lot, it didn’t strike me as anything special. Sure, there’s the quad exhaust pipes and a whole lot of R emblems, but to the untrained eye there was almost nothing about it to distinguish it from a run-of-the-mill Golf. The Golf R’s closest competitors, the Subaru WRX STi and the Ford Focus RS, both look a bit more boy racer, especially the gigantic rear wing of the STi (there’s an option to delete this), but they’re immediately recognizable from their lesser versions. The Golf R doesn’t even have the traditional red trim around the front grill that the GTI has, making it easily mistakable for a basic Golf worth half the price. But to me, that’s not a bad thing. I appreciate a car that’s fast without being flashy, which was part of the appeal of Allison’s S4 Avant in the first place.

Golf R front seat
Photo credit: Allison Feldhusen

The leather seats are quite supportive – perhaps a little bit too supportive for some of the larger people out there. I’m not that big, but even I felt slightly pinched by the generous side bolsters at first like I did by the optional Recaros in the Ford Fiesta ST. (The Recaros in the Focus seemed a little more roomy than the Fiesta.) But after a minute or so I didn’t notice it anymore, and just felt comfortable. People wider than me may disagree.

Golf R back seat
Photo credit: Allison Feldhusen

I was quite impressed with the room in the back seat of the Golf R. I can sit behind myself with no problem, and thanks to being a hatchback there’s no problem with the roof or back window cutting off my headroom. I fit in the back of a WRX as well (and, by extension, an STi), but the VW’s headroom was slightly better. There’s also a handy center arm rest with cup holders that folds down from the center, and also a center pass-through for skis, my recurve bow, or whatever.

Golf R hatch area
Photo credit: Allison Feldhusen

This is a one body hatch. I can curl up and fit, but that’s all that will fit back there. If I get out of the way, a reasonable amount of cargo will fit. The Subaru has a deeper cargo area, but is limited by being a sedan rather than a more practical hatchback. Fold down the VW’s back seats and you have plenty of space for your stuff without the space limitations of the sedan. The same goes for the Focus, whether in ST or RS trim. It looks like Subaru picked just the wrong time to drop the hatchback version of the WRX and STi.

VW Golf R interior

I can clearly see some DNA from the S4 in the Golf R’s interior, but once again this is several generations beyond her old car. The large speedo and tach surrounding a digital center screen look familiar, but the similarities end there. A great deal of information is available on this display, including fuel consumption, oil temperature, a real-time readout from the Driver Assistance package (if the car is so equipped – this one is), and more. The center console strikes a good compromise between buttons for common functions and menus for more options in the infotainment system. One neat feature of the screen is that the row of “buttons” at the bottom will actually get larger as your hand approaches the screen thanks to a motion sensor. It’s a small detail, but it could mean the difference between hitting or missing your mark if you’re trying to make a quick stab at the controls while driving.

Another feature that’s easy to reach is the DCC settings, or Dynamic Chassis Control. This is another one of those systems that changes the stiffness of the shock absorbers and other systems while you drive. There are four settings – Comfort, Normal, Race, and Individual – that you can cycle through by pushing a button next to the shifter. I’ve had cars with manually adjustable shocks before, but never an automatic system like this, so I was curious to see just how much of a difference the three preset modes made. Since this wasn’t my car I didn’t mess around with the Individual settings, which let you fine tune the car to your tastes. Watch for more about this feature in Will’s upcoming review.

Golf R

All right, enough gabbing – it’s time to drive. Driving like a rational human being to get a feel for the car worked well. It is a Golf, after all, and not a dedicated sports car. Those roots show in this kind of driving, and it’s a good thing, not like the dedicated sports car that can’t handle this type of putting around town. The clutch was light. Shifts were short and certain, but easy at the same time. Steering felt good, quite good for an electric power steering system. Though it still didn’t feel quite as connected to the front wheels as an old school hydraulic steering system, I have no complaints. In fact, though I’ve said that my Subaru BRZ has the best electric steering feel I’ve experienced, the Golf R takes that honor now. But I still prefer the feel of hydraulic.

Getting on the highway was my first real clue that this was no ordinary Golf. The spec sheet says the R does 0-60 in just over 5 seconds and the 1/4 mile in just under 14. As the car pushed me back into those supportive leather seats with 292hp going to all four wheels, I believed it. Best of all, there was no torque steer, wheelspin, or any of the other negative characteristics that a front wheel drive Golf with this much power would have. The Haldex all wheel drive system may not be as sophisticated or adjustable as the WRX STi or the Focus RS, but it still gets the job done quite effectively. The beauty of the system is that you simply don’t notice it. You may not be able to select a Drift Mode like in the Focus RS, but you also don’t need to worry about which wheels the power is going to, because the car takes care of that for you. In the real world, where we actually drive on roads every day, that’s actually better than the bells and whistles of the other cars.

Golf R brakes

Exiting the highway, Allison told me to brake late for the off-ramp. I thought I did, but the brakes worked so well that I killed my off-ramp fun by slowing down too much by accident. Those are some effective brakes. As we entered the center of Fitchburg, MA I started noticing the bumps. The suspension was still in Normal mode, and though it didn’t beat me up, the hardest bumps were a bit harsh. I switched to Comfort mode, and even though I wasn’t going over any bumps at that particular moment I could feel the whole car soften up on me. The edge it had in Normal mode was gone, and the bumps were much smoother. The car was easy and comfortable to drive through the city, like the Golf it is. I switched back to Normal mode once I left town.

Golf R DCC screen

Soon we got to one of my favorite twisty sections of road. I put DCC into Race mode. The engine got louder – not through a fancy valve in the exhaust, but through artificial sound pumped through the speakers. It’s not as good as a genuine sporty exhaust note, but it’s not bad. In fact it has a rather nice throaty growl to it – not quite a VR6 with an intake, but close enough to invoke the family resemblance if you know what that sounds like.

Any complaints about the artificial sound evaporated as soon as I took the first turn. The car cornered flat, with seemingly less body roll than my BRZ despite more weight and a higher center of gravity. It just did whatever I asked it, took the corners with ease, and at a much higher rate of speed than I expected. There was no drama, no tire squeals or slides – just speed. After our run through the twisties I told Allison, “This car could send me to jail.” (At least I wasn’t in Virginia.) I reduced my pace and put the car back into Normal mode for the rest of the drive.

Golf R

The Golf R starts at around $37,000, and goes for almost exactly $40,000 once you add DCC and navigation. That’s a pretty expensive Golf, and comparable to the best equipped WRX STi and Focus RS. Is it worth it? It depends on what you’re looking for. If you want a sunroof, forget the Golf R – you can’t get one, even as an option. This, alone, could be reason enough for some people to skip the Golf R. I’m curious what VW’s logic behind not offering one is, especially since one is available on the ordinary Golf S for almost half the price at $22,625. The Focus RS has a good bit more power and a more sophisticated drivetrain (including Drift Mode). The STi lags far behind the RS on power but still beats the Golf R, though not by much. The STi has a trick drivetrain like the RS, but despite the recently updated platform the drivetrain, especially the engine, hasn’t been updated in quite some time, and seems a bit rough and unrefined compared to the other choices.

There’s another elephant in the room, too – the VW GTI. Is the Golf R worth the nearly $10,000 premium over a fully loaded GTI? You can ask the same question about the Focus RS vs. the ST, or the WRX STi vs. the WRX. It’s worth it to some, but not to others. Some people are turned off by the Focus RS having almost exactly the same interior as the Focus ST. Similar criticisms have been made about the STi. In those cars, the extra $10,000 pays for a much better drivetrain instead. The Golf R’s transformation isn’t quite as extensive in that way. Like the Focus it does gain two more drive wheels, but none of the fancy center differential modes or adjustments the other two cars have.

Golf R

I think the answer to both of these questions – whether it’s better than its competitors from other brands or from its less expensive brother – is the refinement. Allison’s Golf R feels more like an Audi to me than the 15 year old actual Audi it replaced. It’s that good. It may not have the Ford’s Drift Mode or be jumping down rally stages like a Subaru, but I think it’s better at everyday driving than the other choices, even if it may be a little more serious and less fun. The Golf R is the grown-up GTI, a premium Golf with a premium price tag. And I actually get a premium feeling from the car, which is something I can’t say for the STi and RS no matter how much better their drivetrains may be. Since more than 99% of my driving is commuting and ordinary street driving, I’d probably choose the VW for myself. That’s saying a lot for someone who already has a Subaru and a Ford in his driveway. It may not be the fastest or most fun of these cars, but it’s the car I could live with most comfortably every day.

I have to admit, I’m a bit envious of Will for getting to spend an entire week with a Golf R next month. I’ll bet Michael is, too.

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