Mountain Wheels: Life with souped-up Volkswagen Golf R poses thrilling challenges
2016 VW Golf R
MSRP: $35,650; as tested, $36,470
Powertrain: 292-HP 2.0-liter four-cylinder; six-speed manual transmission
EPA figures (combined/city/highway): 25/22/31
For the most part, I am no longer scared by most vehicles. I’d be happy to take a shot at driving a Peterbilt tractor-trailer rig across Hoosier Pass. Even one of those super-gigantic earth-moving trucks at an open-pit mine sounds like a blast.
But the new Volkswagen Golf R, a small and unassuming-looking automobile that sits as the top of the stack in that popular model’s range of vehicles, absolutely frightened the hell out of me. I think I can also officially say it was the most angrily-tailgated automobile I’ve ever driven, like some giant anti-Broncos epithet had been written on the back in day-glo paint.
What gives? Well, in the tradition of those “hot hatches” the popular British automobile television programs are always slathering on about, this newest rendition of the beefed-up Golf is imbued with an absolutely relentless 292 horsepower, a 36-horse boost from the older version of the hot-shoe hellion. The closely related GTI, brilliant though it may be, has just 210 HP.
That means a very small car, just over 3,300 pounds and sharing the standard Golf’s dimensions (168 inches long, 56 inches tall) with the kind of power we not so long ago associated with very expensive sports cars.
Granted, nowadays even a base Mustang has more juice than that, but this is not a base Mustang. It’s a rigidly sprung, and possibly demonic, automobile that delivers that disproportionately large amount of gotta-go through a 4Motion permanent all-wheel-drive system, 19-inch tires. There are 13.4-inch brakes up front, 12.2-inchers on the back, and the stopping power is much appreciated.
And that’s because the turbocharged and direct-injection engine makes 280 lb.-ft. of torque, available at relatively low revs, allowing the Golf R to be flung into orbit at the drop of a hat. Giant air intakes at the front corners speak to the amount of engine and brake cooling expected during typical outings.
There’s also a tremendous, abuse-readied six-speed manual transmission, just to allow even more personal control over the combination.
Do not take the Golf R’s AWD designation to mean it’s a particularly robust winter machine, however; to maximize the malice, they dropped the suspension 0.8 inches, meaning it’s even closer to the road than the already pushy GTI.
The result of that combination — plus some distinctive U-shaped four-lens LED headlamp outlines, a bit of extra aero flash and some very subtle badging — is one very fearsome automobile.
The hugely boosted engine, one of the most powerful 2.0-liters out there, gurgles and burbles in a fashion you may associate with one of those over-tuned Subaru WRXs.
Flooring it produces no wheel spin (the 4Motion really keeps things stuck to the ground) and by the time you hit the rev limiter, the R will do something like 40 mph in first gear. Sixty mph comes up in a brutal five or so seconds and as it does, time really does stand still. Especially as the diminutive automobile invariably flies away from other traffic, every trip, every day.
It is astoundingly fast, an effect that’s accentuated by the car’s scale and your close connection with the earth. That also means chassis rigidity that is indeed brutality embodied, perfect for race tracks, perhaps, but a little tough when you’re working your way around real-world pavement or railroad crossings. On curvy roads, it’s quite magical, linear to a fault and terrifyingly capable.
But — and here’s the big but — if you’re a speed demon with an inexplicably clean driving record and an interest in a never-ending spree of traffic-light drag races, this might be your lowest-cost option to do so. My 2016 model of the Golf R, decked out in a blazing Tornado Red paint job that enraged the driver of every truck, Eclipse, Evo and Corvette I passed, cost just $35,650; the 2017 model is a whole $5 more.
That’s a pretty serious bounty of boost and very capable, canyon-friendly driving for low bucks, if that is indeed what you’re interested in.
Practicality is not entirely a compatible attribute in the Golf R experience, though the car’s reasonably comfortable rear seating and its 52.7 cubic feet of storage when those seats are dropped does add to its capability.
Front-row seating, however, will simply be too intense for most drivers. Happily, the gigantic side bolsters are pretty squishy, so you can sort of hoist yourself into position without bruising yourself on every entry and exit — and you’ll certainly be nailed in place when you hit the road.
Golf R also gets a tasteful but typically VW-understated interior treatment, with some carbon fiber-style highlights, blue-lit door sills and ambient lighting.
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