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First drive: 2016 Volkswagen Golf R

High performance, low key, now smarter than ever, VW's Golf R is nearly perfect

When I got my first stint in the new Golf R last year, I remember looking at the specifications sheet with some skepticism before setting off on my maiden voyage. “Who is going to spend thirty eight grand on a Golf?” I thought to myself. After half a day’s driving through urban sprawl and along the twisting tarmac in the Angeles National Forest outside Los Angeles, I returned home wondering if this was, in fact, the best enthusiast-focused car you buy for under $40k in America.

Golf R does basically everything well, and does so while flying below the radar of both the fashion police and the local constable.

I discovered that the Golf R simply excelled at just about everything it did – its 2.0-liter, 290 horsepower turbocharged four cylinder motor made ample power while keeping turbo lag to a minimum, its DSG gearbox that delivered the grunt to all four corners provided fast shifts without the around-town clunkiness that still beguiles some dual clutch transmissions, and its interior offered a level of refinement that was simply on another level in comparison to rivals like the Subaru WRX STI.

But there were a few important caveats. The first, and perhaps most important to many VW enthusiasts, is that the Golf R was only available with the paddle-shifted DSG automatic for 2015 in the U.S. The other issue I encountered was the first iteration of the MIB infotainment system which, although serviceable, suffered from a lackluster feature set, slow internals, and mediocre display quality.

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So as much as I liked the Golf R, I knew that the 2016 model had the potential to impress me even more, as it promised not only an available six-speed manual gearbox, but VW’s latest infotainment system, MIB II. Of course, potential doesn’t always equate to the desired results, so I took it upon myself to find out if the latest Golf R could exceed the already high standards set by last year’s car.

Drivers wanted

“I just can’t believe how good this thing is,” I thought to myself as I careened down Angeles Crest Highway with sports car-like urgency. For the uninitiated, the Golf R can really take you by surprise. While most performance cars in the price range do maybe two or things really well, the Golf R does basically everything well, and does so while flying below the radar of both the fashion police and the local constable.

The phrase “confidence inspiring” has been beaten to death in the context of high performance driving, but with the Golf R it’s really an apt descriptor – I got in this car and felt acclimated to it almost immediately, in tune with the car’s behavior both around town and during spirited back road jaunts.

2016-Volkswagen-Golf-R_4544

As good as the DSG gearbox is, if you’re a fan of manual transmissions, you’re in for a treat with the Golf R’s new three-pedal setup. Rowing through the cogs with the Golf R’s shifter is a gratifying task, and its feel in hand is something that companies like BMW could learn a thing or two from. Where the latter feels rubbery both in terms of materials and its internal construction, the VW shifter reminds me of something more like a well-sorted bolt action rifle – satisfying to engage and precise in operation, with clearly defined gates and short (but not too short) throws.

The story was much the same at my feet as well. The Golf R’s clutch is light enough to not be a burden in heavy traffic, but it also communicates its engagement point clearly and with progression. And the Golf R’s pedal placement was clearly designed with rev matching footwork in mind too, making heel-toe downshifts a fairly effortless proposition for those who opt to partake.

Unlike my previous tester, this 2016 model was also equipped with Dynamic Chassis Control, VW’s fancy term for its optional adaptive dampers. While I remember being perfectly content with the firm ride of the static dampers on the ’15 model, the DCC provides even more versatility to the driving experience. Comfort, Normal and Race driving modes each have their own clearly defined damper settings, with the softest setting exhibiting a ride so floaty that I’d only really recommend it for the harshest of road surfaces, while Race mode tightened things up to its highest degree without resorting to abuse. Despite being the firmest setting available, I found myself leaving the car in this mode almost the entire time I had it, and only occasionally switched to the softer settings for the sake of lighter steering weight and less urgent throttle response when caught in the rush hour crawl.

But wait, there’s more

As mentioned previously, the other major revision on hand for 2016 is the inclusion of VW’s latest Modularen Infotainmentbaukasten system, MIB II. VW’s infotainment game has come a long way in just a few short years, and MIB II addresses a number of issues found in the original iteration of the system used in last year’s car.

Like the first generation platform, MIB II utilizes VW’s now-familiar layout of a touchscreen surrounded by hard buttons. The Discover Media system found in the Golf R sports a 6.5-inch display and a new menu design that makes hunting for specific functions a less common annoyance, while additions like Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Mirrorlink connectivity, as well Car-Net’s suite of On Star-like assistance options, yields a comprehensive feature set that likely won’t leave you yearning for additional functionality from day one – at least from VW’s side of the fence.

Ease of use is further bolstered by the MIB II’s updated internal hardware, which serves to make the system much quicker to respond to inputs and more pleasing to use in general. While VW’s latest infotainment system still leaves a bit to be desired from an aesthetic standpoint, the MIB II’s feature set, coupled with the clear and balanced output of Fender’s audio set up, puts this system among the stronger offerings on the market today.

Still a keeper

In the automotive realm the battle for one’s hard-earned dollar is more heated than ever. These days you’d be hard pressed to find a “bad” car, particularly in the upper end of the segment where a model like the Golf R resides. Because of this high level of competition, it would be easy to overlook the Golf R amongst a myriad of other worthy performance cars, many of which wear their intentions on their sleeve while the Golf R takes a more subtle approach.

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“High performance” and “low key” don’t often go together, but the Golf R is proof that not only can they co-exist, it makes for one hell of a package when executed with the aplomb shown here. If you’ve been searching for a pragmatic performance car that consistently hits above its weight class without the need to shout it from the hilltops whenever possible, look no further.

Highs

  • Linear, hearty power delivery
  • Refined, comfortable interior
  • Updated MIB II infotainment system
  • Excellent shifter and clutch feel / operation

Lows

  • No three-door option in the U.S.
  • Pricey for a Golf