For the 2015 model year, Volkswagen's Golf R returns with all the merits of the recently redesigned Golf. There's more power, additional features and a bit more refinement than before, even though styling changes are subtle. We drove a Euro-spec model to a racetrack north of Los Angeles to see how it stacks up against the competition.
What Is It?
The 2015 Volkswagen Golf R is a four-door hatchback that further improves upon the Golf GTI's performance. Output from the turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder is increased from the GTI's 210 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque to 292 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque. These numbers represent about a 15 percent power increase over the previous Golf R as well.
For the 2015 model year, a paddle-shifted six-speed DSG automated manual is the only available transmission. The 2016 model will be available with a six-speed manual and should be at dealerships in the late summer of 2015. All wheel-drive is standard on both.
Prices will start at $37,415 when the Golf R goes on sale near the end of February. For the money, you're essentially getting all of the features from the range-topping GTI Autobahn trim, which includes a sunroof, leather upholstery and dual-zone automatic climate control. The Golf R further benefits from selectable drive modes and sportier suspension tuning. Options include 19-inch wheels, an adaptive suspension, a navigation system, a premium Fender audio system and parking sensors for an additional $2,495.
How Does It Drive on the Street?
The Golf R awakens with a pleasant low burble. Clutch engagement is light enough to not be a burden in stop-and-go traffic, and the shifter easily rows through the gears. As we departed L.A. bound for Buttonwillow Raceway, 150 miles north, the heavily rutted and pockmarked roads did little to upset the Golf R or its occupants. And that's really its most significant attribute: sporty handling without sacrificing ride quality.
The standard Golf R features three drive modes (Normal, Sport and Individual) that alter throttle response and DSG shift behavior. The optional DCC adaptive suspension adds Comfort and Race modes as well. Comfort mode is softer than Normal mode, and Race mode (the stiffest setting) reduces traction and stability control intervention. There's a noticeable difference in ride compliance between Comfort and Race modes, but not to the point where it significantly changes the car's character. The base trim non-adjustable dampers split the difference between the DCC suspension's Normal and Sport modes.
Rolling into the throttle from a stop demonstrates the Golf R's ample power, which is produced without turbo lag. As speed gathers and revs climb, the exhaust note grows from a low burble to a soaring baritone. Fortunately, at cruising speed on the highway, there's no drone. Road irregularities are well damped and the cabin remains isolated from road and wind noise, making longer road trips less of a chore than in some of its rivals.
We drove only manual transmission versions despite their late availability. All of our test cars were Euro-spec models, which differ from the U.S. model in some minor cosmetic touches and also feature automatic stop-start ignition.
How Does It Do on a Track?
At Buttonwillow Raceway, where we could freely explore the Golf's limits, VW's hottest hatch easily proved its mettle. Acceleration is strong enough to make VW's claimed 0-60 time of 4.9 seconds seem plausible. Wheelspin and torque steer are almost nonexistent thanks to the all-wheel-drive system. The tachometer suggests that the engine will wind out to 7,500 rpm, but there's no advantage revving past about 6,200 rpm, as power tapers off significantly after that.
Steering effort is high, but appropriate for a car with clear sporting intentions. There's enough information available through the wheel to be confident in front grip. Turn-in is crisp and very trustworthy, instilling enough confidence to truly explore the limits. With most of its 3,283 pounds on the front tires, we expected considerable understeer but it never materialized. The weight is obvious, but the Golf R goes where it's pointed — even in tighter turns.
Applying power coming out of the curves, we felt an occasional hesitation that was courtesy of the XDS+ cross differential system, which brakes the inside wheel in order to maintain more even traction across all four wheels. It felt a little overprotective on a closed track, but didn't detract too much from the overall experience. Stability control is well tuned for performance driving and intervenes minimally. Unlike with its predecessor, the new Golf R's electronic driver aids can be completely disabled.
On the whole, performance was praiseworthy for the average driver, though not particularly challenging for drivers with track experience. We left with the impression that the Golf R is a street car that drivers can have fun with on track, rather than a track car that had been adapted for street use. More power and even stiffer suspension settings in Race mode would give the Golf R the potential to push from mildly to wildly entertaining, giving it a broader appeal for more seasoned drivers.
How Is the Interior?
Aside from some subtle cues like seat stitching, trim elements and a few additional performance-related buttons, the 2015 Volkswagen Golf R's interior is exactly what you'd get from a well-appointed Golf GTI. The design foregoes flashy exuberance in favor of understated austerity, and that gives the cabin a slight premium look and feel. The quality of materials is better than average for the class, as is its solid construction.
Front seats provide excellent all-around support and the firm padding doesn't create any uncomfortable pressure points, even after several hours. There's plenty of space for taller drivers, and rear passengers won't feel cramped either. Rear seat cushions are mounted a little low, which means that only smaller passengers will be comfortable over longer periods.
There are 22.8 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats, which is plenty for daily duties. Fold the seats flat and cargo capacity jumps to a class-leading 52.7 cubic feet.
What Safety Features Are Offered?
In addition to the typical safety features and airbags found in most hatchbacks, the 2015 Golf R also includes VW's CarNet emergency telematics system, which provides safety, diagnostic and remote-access features. There's also a standard post-crash braking system that applies the brakes in the event of a collision to prevent secondary impacts. Optional items include front and rear parking sensors and a frontal collision warning (late availability).
What Kind of Fuel Economy Can You Expect?
Official fuel economy figures from the EPA are not yet available, but Volkswagen claims that the Golf R with the DSG transmission should achieve 30 mpg on the highway.
What Are Its Closest Competitors?
Volkswagen clearly has the Subaru WRX STI in the Golf R's crosshairs. The Subaru sedan's base price undercuts the VW's by about $2,000, and there's no doubt that it's a more exciting car to drive. Unfortunately, that all comes at the expense of comfort and refinement. Unless a good portion of its life will be spent on a racetrack or glassy-smooth roads, we prefer the Golf R for its broader appeal.
Similarly, if most of your driving will be on public roads, VW's own GTI will likely prove sufficient for most drivers. If you take into account the $13,000 or so difference you'd be pocketing, the case for the GTI looks much stronger. The Audi S3 shares the underlying Golf platform and adds a healthy dose of premium and luxury features. Understandably, that refinement costs about $4,500 more than the Golf R as a result.
Perhaps not a direct competitor, the slightly more affordable BMW 2 Series could also be considered as an alternative. In the other direction, the new Ford Mustang GT offers thrills with a little less refinement. And it comes with a 435-hp V8.
Why Should You Consider This Car?
The 2015 Volkswagen Golf R's greatest strengths are its overall comfort, hatchback versatility and sure-footed all-wheel drive. All these attributes combine to make it unique among fun-to-drive vehicles. It may not be the fastest car at a track day or autocross event, but it is the top dog among the GTI crowd.
Why Should You Think Twice About This Car?
There are faster and more engaging cars for less money. Consider the $13,000 premium you'll pay to get a Golf R versus the already entertaining Golf GTI and it's hard to make a case for value.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report