First drive: 2015 Volkswagen Golf R

VW invented the hot hatchback, and the Golf R brings it from a simmer to a boil

With 292 horsepower on tap and a wide range of driving modes, the 2015 Golf R is ready to roll with the big boys.

The 2015 Volkswagen Golf R drives like it has something to prove. Compared to the previous generation, the Mk7 iterant has 36 more horsepower, is 0.6 seconds quicker to 60 mph, and boasts a revamped four-wheel drive system. If the old car was great, the new one is certifiably sublime.

There’s good reason for this. The Subaru WRX STI may not be offered as a five-door in the U.S. anymore, but hot hatches like the Focus RS, Mazdaspeed3, and even the front-wheel drive Honda Civic Type R are coming in guns blazing.

Why? Because hot hatchbacks are awesome, that’s why.

Seven generations in, the car that essentially invented the segment is still carving corners like a sports car while boasting the practicality and refinement that makes the class special.

Hot hatch

On a twisty, switchback-laden road, the Golf R is home. The course Volkswagen provided for us during the vehicle’s first drive event in San Diego, California fit the bill perfectly. On this proving ground, the range-topping Golf is the fastest version ever to grace the United States.

2015 VW Golf R red side

Andrew Hard/Digital Trends

Like the Audi S3 with which it shares its MQB platform and 292-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged engine, the R feels flat and grounded during spirited driving. A revamped 4MOTION all-wheel drive system, an 0.8-inch lower ride height, XDS+ electronic differential control on both axles, and DCC adaptive dampers are the major players here, but the newest Golf is 75 pounds lighter than its predecessor as well.

Brake, turn in, smash the apex, throttle out, and the Mk7 proudly shows you its improvements. Like most Golfs, it’s loads of fun, but also drama free, with the front-biased 4MOTION system sending up to 50 percent of the power to the rear if needed. The brakes are the same units you’ll find in the GTI Performance Package, but this time they have ‘R’ stamped on the calipers. That means they’re better, let’s say.

The hatchback’s DSG automatic gearbox is another huge highlight. It’s quick and responsive, most of the time doing its job so well you don’t even have to use the paddles. Toggle the ‘Race’ Driving Mode on the standard touchscreen and the car holds gears like a champ, taking advantage of the 280 pound-feet of torque available from just 1,800 rpm. It also tightens up the steering and suspension noticeably.

It’s a Golf after all

Pressing the ‘Race’ button is intrinsically satisfying, but there are are ‘Normal,’ ‘Eco,’ and customizable ‘Individual’ settings as well. Throughout the drive, I found myself switching between ‘Race’ and ‘Comfort’ (which should really be spelled with a K) most often.

Hit the switch and immediately the engine quiets down. The revs drop a bit at idle, and the DCC stifles harsh bumps well before they hits the exclusive bucket seats.

The Golf R takes all the positive attributes of the hot hatch segment and distills them down to their very essence.

Yes, it may be a 292-hp athlete when needed, but at the end of the day, this is a Golf. In fact, outside of its badging, quad exhaust tips, and standard Bi-Xenon headlights, it’s hard to tell it apart from the standard one.

What that means is that it’s quiet, comfortable inside the ‘Carbon Touch’ interior, practical, and fun. Simply put, it takes all the positive attributes of the hot hatch segment and distills them down to their very essence.

It’s even decent on gas, with economy numbers of 23 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway. Compare that to the WRX STI’s numbers of 17 mpg city and 23 mpg highway, and the Golf starts to look a whole lot better. Granted, the Subaru is a much more hardcore, performance-focused, and perhaps charismatic machine, but that’s kind of the selling point of the Golf. It can do it all with little fuss.

Good things come to those who wait

For all the positives the 2015 Golf R has, the 2016 model will be even better.

The six-speed manual transmission that’s currently Europe-only will be ported over next year, and I was lucky enough to test in the winding roads surrounding the small town of Julian.

The DSG is great, easy to drive, and great on gas, but the stick shift is joyous to operate. The throws are light and sharp for this type of car, and the clutch engagement felt just right. For purists, this is the way to go, but that’s not all.

Also arriving for the 2016 model year will be connectivity with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto with MirrorLink. Those USB connections will finally show up, too, albeit a few years too late.

I’ll admit, it would be tough to set my deposit aside until late summer when 2016 model goes on sale. But after driving the manual and hearing about the vehicle’s infotainment future, that would be the way I’d go.


The new Volkswagen Golf R is unquestionably a great little car, with few practical downsides. With a starting MSRP of $36,595 (not including $820 destination), the real question is this: is the Golf R $12,200 better than the 210-hp GTI?

I’m not so sure, but it ultimately depends on your driving style and the severity of your adrenaline addiction.

All 500 units of the Lapiz Blue launch edition of the hatchback sold out in less than 12 hours. There is definitely a market for this car, and after getting behind the wheel, I can definitely see why.

The 2015 model goes on sale in late February.


  • Powerful engine with gobs of usable torque
  • Driving modes make for a tailorable experience behind the wheel
  • Responsive DSG gearbox (and forthcoming six-speed)
  • Comfortable interior


  • Expensive for a Golf

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