“What does Race Mode do?”
My passenger had a legitimate question, but I’ve always been a “show, don’t tell” type of person. I toggled the Volkswagen Golf R’s Driving Mode selector and chose the icon with the checkered flags inside it, because, well, that’s my kind of button.
I could immediately feel the suspension hunker down, the steering increase in weight, and the six-speed dual-clutch gearbox downshift. S-foils locked in attack position, I responded by putting my foot to the floor.
The Golf’s 280 pound-feet of torque rocketed the car forward, pushing my torso into the leather-trimmed sport seats as I slammed the gas. A throaty rumble emanated from the turbocharged 2.0-liter in front of me, and as I entered the first turn, I kept my paw down and let the 4Motion all-wheel drive system do the work. An electro-hydraulically operated clutch engaged the rear axle, distributing power evenly across all four wheels for optimum grip and cornering speed. In what seemed like an instant, we were through.
“That’s what Race Mode does,” I answered.
I got my first glimpse at the Golf R back in January at the vehicle’s first drive event in San Diego, California. Under the brilliant Pacific sun, I fell in love with its 292-horsepower engine, adaptably sharp suspension, and comfortable cabin. When I heard we were getting a long-term Golf R for testing at DT, I pushed to the front of the line and put my name on the list.
My few short weeks with the car flew by. I toured the Pacific Northwest extensively in the Reflex Silver four-door, and over that time, I got to know the vehicle’s quirks, charms, and varying attitudes. For under $40,000, this is simply one of the most well-rounded cars you can buy, as it blends sports car speed with hatchback practicality, accented by blue ambient lighting and a smooth ride.
It’s the performance though — the surge of power and sharp handling — that are really worth the price of admission.
My passengers and I were driving along Route 242, a scenic highway that runs from beautiful Sisters, Oregon across the Cascades Mountain range. It turned out to be the perfect showcase for the car, as the 37-mile highway features more twists and turns than a basket of curly fries, but it wasn’t just that. The occasionally harsh surfaces let us highlight the different driving modes clearly, as switching to the Comfort setting softened everything back up, enlisting adaptive dampers to mitigate bumps and back the chassis out of combat mode. Using a combination of German engineering and electronic witchcraft, the Golf R is quick when you want it, comfy when you need it, and it can change its attitude on a whim. If only we could say the same about ourselves.
The 2016 R model is the fastest and most powerful Golf to ever land on American shores, and it’s capable of 0 to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds (although various outlets have clocked it as low as 4.5) and tackles the quarter-mile in just over 13. At the famed Nurburgring, VW set a time of 8:15, which is over a second quicker than the original Honda NSX.
With that much power coming from a 2.0-liter engine, there’s bound to be some turbo lag, and there is a smidge of it here, especially from a stop. If you don’t have time for that, the R boasts a nifty Launch Control function that holds the revs at about 4,000 rpm while you stand on the brake. Needless to say, it’s an exciting way to get to the speed limit.
The car’s 4Motion and Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC) systems work together to nearly eliminate understeer as well, pushing the rear end out and stiffening the shocks nicely when coerced. It’s worth noting that DCC is not standard on the $36,595 base model, but it comes along with the $39,090 DCC and Nav version.
Day to day
Arriving back home, I settled the R into its Individual Mode, which allows the driver to customize steering weight, engine noise (thanks to VW’s synthetic “Soundaktor”), transmission aggressiveness, and suspension rigidity separately. I already appreciated the car for its quickness and agility, but its daily driving practicality is the cherry on top.
This is simply one of the most well-rounded cars you can buy.
With the seats folded down, there’s 52.7 cubic feet of cargo volume in the back, which was enough to hold two side tables, camping chairs, a cooler, a few suitcases, board games, and a myriad of other things during a recent moving day. It’s also smooth and quiet over most roads, has a spacious back seat, and it even gets 30 mpg on the highway. In the city, the number drops to 23 mpg, averaging out to 26 mpg combined.
I do have a couple gripes though: There are no USB ports (seriously?), the center console doesn’t open (seriously??), and the front cup holders are too small for larger water bottles and such — first world problems, I know. The capable Fender audio system helps make up for these quibbles, however.
Unfortunately, the Golf’s drawbacks extend past the tiny drink holder, because the infotainment offerings are average at best.
Let’s start with the touchscreen. The 5.8-inch display is a tad small by today’s standards, but that’s not really the issue. The processor behind the unit is simply too slow, which results in a lag between driver input and navigation response. The resolution is also noticeably pixelated, though the basic functions seem solid.
The navigation is another low point, especially compared with the Google Maps application on any smartphone. While Google will say things like, “In 500 feet, use the right two lanes to turn right onto Jefferson Street,” the Golf’s nav will simply state, “Turn right in 500 feet,” or something similar. It’s a small difference, but it’s noticeable, and the robotic voice didn’t always choose the best route. More often than not, I found myself Bluetooth pairing my iPhone to the car and using that instead.
There is good news though, because for the 2017 model year, the Golf R will get a new “MIB II” infotainment platform with gesture control, Apple CarPlay, and a high-definition screen. Oh, and a manual transmission.
The Golf R first landed in the United States in 2003 as the R32, a V6-powered dynamo that has maintained its legend to this day. Over the past 13 years, the R nameplate has grown in every conceivable way, culminating with the silver bomber I’ve had the pleasure of driving over the last few weeks.
I now know exactly how many clicks it takes to switch from fuel range to current speed on the digital Multi-Function Display — it’s five, by the way. I know exactly how many gallons the fuel tank holds and how many turns there are lock to lock, and I know the right rear tire pressure monitor can be finicky. I have a few complaints — the infotainment being the major one — but overall this is an easy car to fall for.
If you have a lot of spare cash lying around, an easy recommendation would be to buy a high-performance sports car for the weekends and practical people-carrier for weekday commuting. With the Golf R, you get both.
- Gobs of mid-range torque
- Sharp suspension and tons of grip from 4Motion AWD system
- Four driving modes make for a tailorable experience behind the wheel
- Responsive DSG gearbox
- Comfortable cabin
- Infotainment is average at best
- Some turbo lag
- No manual until 2016