VW's Sleeper: The $40,000 Golf R Looks Mild, but Really Roars

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Feb 06, 2018

“But it has pretty good pick-up.” This was my wife delivering a left-handed compliment to the Volkswagen Golf R, just after she railed against its lack of usable storage space. She couldn’t get the bin between the seats open. So I put my vast automotive experience to work—and couldn’t get it open, either.

Yes, it's red, but except for those snazzy wheels you may not know the Golf R has a tiger in its tank. (Jim Motavalli photo)

She wants to be able to drink her coffee, while also having her phone and Ipod plugged in and ready, and the Golf R didn’t make all that a snap. One of the biggest hassles for me was plugging into the (only one) USB connector. It’s recessed in the console, and my big fingers didn’t fit.

Hatchbacks are disappearing in the big crossover crush, but VW is still making them. (Jim Motavalli photo)

My ever-helpful wife also pointed out to me that the way to get the rear hatch open was to push on the VW logo. But, of course, I would have figured that out…eventually.

The inside of the Golf R is a little tight, and brighter minds than mine are going to have to figure out that console bin. (VW photo)

I’ve been living with this bright red all-wheel-drive VW for a week, through snow and lots of rain, and in the meantime the bad news for the company hasn’t let up. Volkswagen is busy rebuilding its reputation after the appalling diesel scandal, but it’s difficult when the evening news carries headlines that German automakers (including VW, Daimler and BMW) were gassing monkeys with diesel exhaust. They had to fire the media chief. You think?

Since the initial scandal broke, VW has doubled down on new product, and its commitment to building green cars. Late last year, the company said it would spend $40 billion (with a “B!) on electric cars, autonomy and related services by 2022. CEO Matthias Mueller says he wants to make VW “the world’s number one player in electric mobility by 2025.”

The electronic dashboard can be configured to the driver's liking. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Right now, the e-Golf is carrying the electric banner for VW, and my friend Scott, who drives one, loves it, praising its acceleration, range and general fit and finish. Our test car is one of two sporty gas-powered Golf alternatives, with the R complemented in the lineup by the cheaper GTI. 

The Golf R is a sleeper. Despite the red paint, it’s not all that extroverted. You could easily mistake it for a lesser Golf—the R badging is discreet. And it potters around town as a grocery getter just fine. But flick the shifter down into sport mode, apply the right foot, and it squats down and dives forward aggressively, and feels well-controlled doing it.

The 134-horsepower e-Golf, meanwhile, was facelifted last year, now has 125-mile range, and can sprint to 60 mph in 8.5 seconds. The Golf R I’m driving now is powered by a two-liter turbo four and has more than double the horsepower, at 292. It hits 60 in 4.9 seconds—explaining my wife’s comment above. It’s funny that the R doesn’t feel hugely faster than the E, though it is. That has something to do with how silently quick electric cars are off the line—thanks to 100 percent torque at zero RPMs.

Our tester, priced around $40,000 (a lot for a Golf), has the DSG dual-clutch automatic, which is now a seven-speed unit (with manual shifting, if you want). Demonstrating just how good automatics have gotten, the car’s actually slower with the manual. Ordering the DSG ($1,100 in 2017; not sure for 2018) also gets you start-stop, which works well and saves you money.

The top of the line Rs also come with advanced Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC), which offers Normal, Sport and Comfort modes. I think I've reached the stage in life where "Comfort" is the automatic choice.

The 2018 Golf R with DSG is rated at 22 mpg city, 29 highway, which is slightly down from 23/30 last year.

The Golf GTI, seen here in 2017 guise, is a credible internal competitor to the R. (VW photo)

As I mentioned, VW also offers the GTI as a performance variant, and it’s cheaper, starting at $26,415. Could you live with 220 horsepower and no AWD? The fuel economy is slightly better on the GTI. My friend Ben Hunting argues you can effectively build a GTI into an R this year:

For 2018, the GTI has gained access to almost all of the R’s most compelling equipment with the sole exception of AWD. That means there’s a lot of room to grow its capabilities, even before you hit up the aftermarket for tuner parts that can easily see the GTI erasing the R’s power advantage.

Yes, but then Ben admits that after paying for all the upgrades and add-ons to the GTI you're soon "uncomfortably close to the R’s ask." Your move. Transforming a GTI sounds like a lot of work, and you still wouldn't get AWD.

I’m hoping VW gets it together and atones for its environmental stumbles by actually becoming the electric/green car leader. We need a player like that. And the company also deserves kudos for building fuel-efficient and affordable performance cars like the GTI and Golf R. Most carmakers are too focused on SUVs and crossovers to introduce new hot hatches. And here's another category where VW excels--it still builds station wagons.

The 2018 Golf Sportwagen: manual transmission is available. Yes, in a wagon! (VW photo)

I had the pleasure of some seat time in a Golf Sportwagen, which is available with a manual transmission for 2018. How rare are manual wagons on the market today? The turbocharged four can deliver 170 horsepower, and adding 4Motion AWD is possible. Opt for that and you'll get 26 mpg overall; forego it, and 28 mpg is delivered. All the safety stuff you'll want comes on the upmarket SE and SEL models. I expect all that equipment to be standard--and mandated--soon.

The hidden keyhole! Where is it at? (Jim Motavalli photo)

Postscript: INear the end of my time with the Golf R, it developed a curious malady. The key fob stopped working, and so did the buttons on the doors that usually give instant access. I was locked out, and it was freezing. Of course, I had an actual key as part of the fob, but no keyholes are visible anywhere on the car. What to do? Well, it turns out there is a keyhole, but it's hidden away from view. And once you find that, you have to know this secret process to start the car. The key actually has to be pressed against a pad, also hidden. Very neat, very German.

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