The original Volkswagen GTI is credited with starting the entire hot hatchback phenomenon. But somewhere along the line, the mad scientists at Volkswagen decided their hot Golf wasn't quite as hot as it could be. The result is hardcore performance brought to you by the letter "R."
While it's changed quite a bit over the years, most notably in terms of cylinder count, some things always remain the same. They're always all-wheel drive hatchbacks with a respectable boost in power over the GTI, an available bright blue paint scheme, a more luxurious interior to match its bigger price tag, and typically an allotment of 5,000 models for the U.S. during its run.
So with the American debut of the ultimate MK7 Golf looming, now seemed like a good time to explore the history of the R models and preview what we can expect from the one headed to the Motor City soon.
Come; sit down and enjoy a nice beverage as we take a walk through hot hatch history. Today, "R" stands for retrospective!
You could also call this a "Golftrospective." That one's good, too.
MK4 Volkswagen Golf R32: 2002-2005
What happens when you take an ordinary Golf, add 4Motion all-wheel drive, and stuff a big ol' 3.2-liter VR6 narrow-angle six-cylinder engine under its hood? You get the first R32, arguably one of the best hot hatches ever made.
The R32 was a nice addition to the MK4 Golf lineup, which by 2002 had been in production for six years. And it was a neat car, too. The VR6 — one of the best-sounding motors in the history of noises — put out 237 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque, a healthy boost over both the 1.8-liter turbo four and the smaller VR6 available in the GTI. It also boasted a revised exterior and interior compared to the standard GTI.
Volkswagen's Haldex 4Motion system (called "Quattro" on more expensive cars) wasn't a 50:50 all-wheel drive system like what you get in a Subaru. Instead, it sent power to the rear wheels when the fronts lost traction. The R32 was still praised for its immense grip around corners.
Truth be told, however, it wasn't all that much faster. With a zero to 60 mph time of around 6.4 seconds, the hefty, 3,400 pound R32 was about on par with the GTI 1.8T. This "Is it really worth it over a GTI?" question is something the R line has struggled with since day one.
While the R32 brought to the U.S. only had a six-speed manual gearbox, in Europe it came with an available dual-clutch transmission. It was the first production car in history to do so, and its DSG would become a staple on later Volkswagens.
It's probably accurate to say that today, the original R32 is the most respected and best-loved member of the R family, at least from the standpoint of driving dynamics. It set the bar rather high.
What they said at the time: The Truth About Cars, March 2003
And overtake you will. The R32's engine may be a revelation, but its handling is divine. The suspension is diamond hard, but it helps the wee beastie create an equation familiar to those who've driven the world's best sports cars: tremendous lateral grip + infinitely adjustable throttle + intimate steering feedback + dependable chassis dynamics = confidence. In fact, you can blast the R32 around corners with such confidence that you end up driving it far faster than you'd imagine possible. For those who enjoy such things, the temptation to pass slower cars, to fling the R32 around even one traffic-free bend, is damn near irresistible.
MK5 Volkswagen Golf R32: 2005-2009
With the advent of a fifth-generation Golf came a new R32 in 2005. Now boasting 250 horsepower, a signature center-mounted exhaust, and a distinctive silver grille, it kept the all-wheel drive system that separated it from the rest of the front-driving Golf family.
When this R32 came to the U.S. in 2007, it famously ditched the manual gearbox entirely in favor of a paddle-shift DSG. While that gearbox's performance creds are unassailable — and helped propel the R32 from zero to 60 mph in about six seconds — the lack of a stick shift option proved to be a somewhat unpopular move among critics and enthusiasts.
Personally, I think it was kind of the wrong move at the time. Paddle shift gearboxes on high-end performance cars are a lot more accepted now than they were in the last decade; back then, it might have alienated some enthusiasts and resulted in slow sales. The $35,000 price tag might have had something to do with that too. The car was also beefy at nearly 3,600 pounds.
Still, the R32 offered a level of comfort, refinement and sophistication that Japanese rivals like the Subaru WRX STI and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution couldn't offer. And it still offered the throaty, luscious VR6 engine.
What they said at the time: Motor Trend, August 2006:
Meandering through the lush hills of Malibu Canyon, the R32 feels planted and composed, its Haldex all-wheel-drive system in tune with the torquey V-6, its electric power steering nicely weighted for every speed and condition. While diving deep into turns yields mild understeer-the Haldex system routes power to the rear wheels when traction demands; thus, under braking, the R32 behaves like a front-drive car-getting back on the throttle mid-turn eradicates the push, rotating the rear, tucking in the front, and launching the car out of a turn like a spurred stallion. Although there are only 250 horses on tap, the power is tailormade for the car. The lighter GTI comes across more playful-400 fewer pounds and a turbo will do that-but the R32 feels more mature, a seasoned sense that becomes clear through the slalom (68.4 mph) and in 60-to-0 braking (111 feet), in which the R32 outperforms the GTI as well as the $70,000 Audi RS 4.
MK6 Volkswagen Golf R: 2010-2013
And now, for something completely different. When the sixth generation Golf debuted in 2009, it was soon followed by a new top-end R version. While some speculated it would use a 3.6-liter VR6 engine and carry the name R36, it instead packed a more potent version of the GTI's FSI 2.0-liter turbo four. Here, it was called the Golf R. I suppose they thought R20 sounded too downmarket compared to the old car.
The R's engine boasted a huge host of improvements over the GTI's engine, including a reinforced block, stronger pistons and rods, and a larger turbocharger and intercooler combo. The result was 256 horsepower and 243 pound-feet of torque in U.S. trim.
Sadly the one we got was down on power compared to its European counterpart, which had 270 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Also, after having possibly learned from their error with the previous generation, the American car came only with a six-speed manual option — no DSG was to be found, unlike the lesser GTI. I feel like the paddle shifters would have been better received with this generation.
Despite some odd choices, the Golf R was a nimbler car than the one it replaced, even if it lost some of that throaty R32 character. It must not have impressed American audiences that much, however, having been one of the worst-selling cars of 2013. Does that make the Golf R a bad car? Absolutely not. Again, it offered an Audi-like level of luxury that the Evos and STIs of the world couldn't match.
What they said at the time: Jalopnik, August 2012:
The R starts at $33,990 and goes up to just less than $37,000. That sounds like a lot for a Golf. But then you realize it's a performance car that, under normal conditions, can keep up with pretty much anything on the roads, and it becomes a better deal. Add in the fact that it has hatchback utility, and it's a great way for a young father to have a car that can take kids anywhere while still having something that can get you around quickly.
MK7 Volkswagen Golf R: 2014-Present
With the latest addition to the R family, Volkswagen sounds like they're done screwing around. The latest one packs a whopping 296 horsepower and is said to go from zero to 60 mph in just 4.9 seconds. In addition to all that power, it sports better fuel economy at 31 mpg on the highway and superior handling compared to the outgoing Golf R.
They're doing right by us Americans this time, too. For the first time ever we'll get a choice of either the stick shift or the DSG, which should keep everyone happy. Our car is down a smidge on power at 290 horsepower, but no one's going to argue with that.
We Americans will get it in early 2015. Could it be the best R ever? I still miss that VR6, but this one has a lot of good things going for it.
What they're saying right now: Digital Trends, January 2014
That brings me back to where I started. The Golf R, especially in its four-door guise, promises to be all things to all people. Want a safe, efficient run-around? The Golf R can do that. Want something with space in the back and enough traction to take you into the mountains for a day of skiing? The Golf R can do that. Want something that can beat the pants off of most Porsches, BMWs, and Mercs while still saving you enough money for a Caribbean vacation? The Golf R can do that too.