We put the 2016 Volkswagen Golf R through its paces at The Florida International Rally & Motorsport Park.
As a kid, I loved rally racing. Group B was the gnarliest of the regulations, but Group A’s modified production cars hit closest to home. Much like the early days of stock car racing, Group A rallying consisted of cars almost anyone could own. It involved all-wheel-drive performance versions of cars like the Ford Escort, Toyota Celica and Nissan Pulsar, and though these cars rarely garner a second look at the shopping mall, they proved to be irresistible when raced on rugged off-road terrain at unsafe speeds.
What Group A cars lacked in horsepower and flashy designs, they made up for in superior handling and exemplary road-gripping traction. Engines were often turbocharged, supercharged, or both, to expel maximum horsepower from tiny displacements. The relatively pedestrian-looking cars came alive under the direction of legendary drivers who drove them in ways that often seemed impossible.
Over the past few years, there’s been a renaissance involving compact cars that are both family friendly and factory-built to be ready for rally duty. While turbocharged all-wheel-drive cars like the Subaru WRX STI and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution have remained constants throughout the last two or three decades, companies like Ford, Mini, Fiat and Volkswagen have brought new top-shelf sport compacts to the market with performance characteristics that harken back to the over-the-top rally cars of my childhood.
One of those childhood favorites was the Volkswagen Golf, especially in the performance-geared GTI flavor. Ironically, VW first launched the Golf in 1974, which is just a year after I was born. In many ways the two of us have grown up together. The performance-themed Golf GTI first appeared June of 1976, right around the time I turned 3 years old. The second-generation GTI would arrive when I was in junior high, and the third-generation Golf would reach the market when I graduated from high school in 1991.
Just about the time I married, Volkswagen set the fourth-generation Golf upon the world (1998). I had both my children by the time the fifth-generation Golf landed in 2006 (a model that was called the Rabbit in the U.S.) By the time the sixth and current seventh generation models rolled around, I was on a career path that made it possible for me to be able to afford both of these cars.
And that brings us to today.
In many ways, the current top-of-the-heap 2016 Volkswagen Golf R is the pinnacle of factory-built Volkswagen Golf performance. While arguments can be made for the earlier models – and frankly I won’t fight anyone on the sheer rawness and beauty of any of those segment-starting hot hatchbacks – the all-wheel-drive Golf R is the most powerful, with 292 horsepower coming from the turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. This power is governed by a six-speed manual transmission or an optional six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission.
What makes the Golf R thrilling is the incredibly wide power band. Torque is rated at 280 pound-feet at a surprisingly low 1,800 rpm. That’s not that far off of idle, which results in excellent acceleration that is almost instantly available and stays the course all the way to 5,500 rpm, which is also where the Golf R hits peak horsepower. Thanks to VW’s nifty launch-control feature, the Golf R equipped with the dual-clutch transmission can jump from 0 to 60 mph in about 4.5 seconds.
However, bragging about the straight-line acceleration of a hot hatchback is almost missing the point. Yes, the Golf R is quick off the line, but that isn’t really what driving it is all about. The Golf R is an all-wheel-drive track toy that almost feels like it defies the laws of physics. Using a sophisticated 4Motion all-wheel drive system, the Golf R automatically responds to driving conditions to provide the best traction at all times. Enter into a hard corner, and the system adjusts power to each of the wheels to reduce or eliminate wheel spin. When coasting along or driving with a light load, the Golf R decouples the rear wheels to increase fuel economy.
The sport-tuned suspension also enhances the Golf R’s handling prowess. It’s almost a full inch lower than the standard Golf, providing balanced driving dynamics and reducing body lean around sharp corners. Steering is precise and improved even over the previous R model, which was pretty amazing to begin with. I was able to spend some time wringing out the new chassis at The Florida International Rally & Motorsport Park (The FIRM), a race track facility about an hour from my office, and I found the handling prowess of the Golf R to be even better than I’d expected. While there is the slightest understeer when pushed really hard on the track, for the most part, the Golf R hugs the pavement like old friends at their 25-year high school reunion. During my test session on the challenging road course, I found the Golf R was ready and willing to handle far more than I was willing to throw at it.
The Golf R stops with the same authority as it goes. Oversized calipers, 13.4-inch front brake rotors and 12.2-inch rear rotors do an excellent job of scrubbing off speed. Ventilated front discs make the Golf R’s brakes resistant to fading, even after a series of punishing laps.
Of course, the Golf R is far more than a purpose-built track vehicle. Much of the beauty of a hot hatchback is the high level of practicality that comes along with the fun-loving nature of the chassis and drivetrain. The cabin is spacious, well-appointed and tasteful. The leather-wrapped seats are embroidered with the “R” logo. Decorative inlays evoke race-favorite materials like carbon fiber and stainless steel. The Golf R also features Volkswagen’s new MIB II 6.5-inch touch-screen infotainment system as standard equipment. A navigation system is available as an option.
Cargo space is excellent at 22.8 cubic feet, and the cargo area is expandable to 52.7 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down.
If you aren’t already convinced that the Golf R allows you to have your performance cake and eat it too, the fuel economy numbers just might be the deciding factor. When equipped with the six-speed manual transmission, the Golf R earns 22 mpg city and 31 mpg highway. Opting for the six-speed dual-clutch automatic gives you an extra mile per gallon in the city, but steals one on the highway at 23/30.
While there are definitely more efficient compact hatchbacks, it is hard, if not impossible, to beat the Golf R’s thrills per mpg factor.