Mountain Wheels: Thrilling times in the affordable and speedy VW Golf R |

Mountain Wheels: Thrilling times in the affordable and speedy VW Golf R

A limited number of 20th Anniversary Edition Volkswagen Golf R race machines will be available this fall with a six-speed manual.
Courtesy photo

There’s some new news to go along with the impressive, all-wheel-drive 2022 Volkswagen Golf R I got to drive a few weeks back, not that the car itself is not the epitome of every budget-minded would-be weekend rally driver already.

On top of the regular “Mk8” model I drove — though it is not very regular at all — Volkswagen is celebrating two decades of the high-performance, AWD-versions of its Golf cars with a special 20th Anniversary Edition.

North American drivers will be able to grab up just 1,800 of the special $44,940 Golf R, with the six-speed manual transmission I enjoyed during my drive, as well as black 19-inch wheels, a real carbon fiber interior, special badging and, well, no sunroof, I guess to enhance the intensity of the driving experience. A seven-speed dual-clutch automatic is the other option, for $45,740.

Your standard, 168.9-inch-long VW Golf R (provided you can track one down) still gets the same, rather astounding 315-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo engine, plus the performance-oriented 4Motion all-wheel drive system and rear axle torque vectoring included. It’ll also get 28 mpg on the highway, if you can ever drive it in a civil fashion.

My test vehicle came to $44,640 and managed to dazzle me on every outing and not just for its duct tape-like grip and its impressive speed. The new Golf R is glossier and more angular, with a stylish interior that borrows heavily from the futurism seen in the ID.4 electric vehicle.

Overall, Golf R feels a lot more like the late Ford Focus RS, my all-time favorite imported hot hatch racer boy dream machine, firmly embracing the notion of economy-minded performance, without the whooshing turbos and ubiquity of every WRX STI hooning around out there.

To a non-enthusiast observer, it’s a pretty basic little automobile, heavy on the plastics, not particularly flashy or even family-friendly on the inside. But to enthusiasts, it’s the real deal, with intensity and focus built into its every fiber. Even the drive mode selector found on every vehicle these days includes drift and race modes, for those whose tires are provided by a sponsor.

The car produces driving results roughly commensurate to a scaled-down BMW M model, and despite increasingly brittle, race-tuned suspension and its unforgiving summer performance tires, it was also civilized enough for some two-digit drives.

Every second I went out, however, it quickly turned into a fast-moving, curve-sucking, fly-away-from-traffic fun fest. That stitched shift knob feels solid and the clutch weight on the manual transmission is quite forgiving.

There’s so much four-wheel pull here (which can be illustrated on the very detailed new all-digital instrument screen) that it seems like a waste not to cavort. I did a lot of that in the Denver foothills, with a backroad drive from Tiny Town to Conifer that illustrated just how much power could be applied on corners. That third gear was awfully accommodating, with that turbo spooling up quickly even when squeezing around 10 mph curves.

Grip never stops, even on wet roads; I’m sure some performance snow tires would allow it to do much the same in winter months, minus deep snow.

The design, especially inside, is 100% New Volkswagen, which again may be off-putting to purists, but makes the Golf R a natural extension of the EVs in the family. There’s a wall of black gloss everywhere, and the digital instrument panel is straight out of the ID.4 and will certainly require some adjusting to over your first weeks of driving. There’s also an ultra-aggressive, flat-bottomed and almost squarish steering wheel, covered in disappearing black controls.

You may also have mixed feelings about all those haptic soft-touch control points, including the slightly hidden volume and temperature sliders. It’s not overloaded with cabin features at all: A starter button, dual USB-C plugs and the parking brake button are literally the only items of note, plus a pop-out, wrap-around cupholder and a 12-volt outlet for your radar detector.

Seats are well-bolstered but not awful, even with the tall shoulder bolsters, and the totally flat dash and A-pillar cutouts also seem designed with performance driving in mind. Outside, it’s got lots of flashy visual touches, including the black gloss rear wing, gloss around the elliptical-shaped quad exhausts and the front fascia. A gently dimpled hood and silver side mirror caps also add to the looks.

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