The 2017 Volkswagen Golf R is a GTI plus. It’s an expensive Golf. A fast Golf. A super Golf. It draws the line where VW stops and Audi begins. It’s also a hot hatch that does everything supremely well without breaking your spine in half, and therein lies its charm.
Fling it over a snow-covered back road in Canadian winter with a couple of bros sitting in the back, and you’ll instantly understand its purpose. Bring it on a track, and you’ll know where your extra ten grand went over a GTI.
(Full disclosure: Volkswagen Canada agreed that I could bring the Golf R at the Sanair speed circuit to try out its claimed performance. They also told me that if I’d break it, I’d have to buy it.)
What Is It?
Thank God, something that isn’t a crossover! It’s a humble little Volkswagen that seats five and has a big hatch out the back that will engulf 52.7 cu-ft of cargo space when its rear seats are folded flat. That’s more than in an Infiniti QX30 by the way.
It’s also very attractive.
In the Golf hierarchy, the R is the top gun, the ultimate all-wheel-drive V-dub. It was previously known as the R32, but the replacement of the 3.2-liter VR6 engine for VW’s corporate 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo (EA888) happened a generation ago and the nomenclature changed along with it. While the European market gets a three-door and a wagon version of the Golf R (!!), as well as a GTI Clubsport (more or less this with front-wheel drive), we North Americans only get our R in a five-door configuration.
Stop bitching. Consider yourselves lucky to even get a Golf R in North America.
This super pimped-up Golf also puts down more power than a GTI. Volkswagen claims 292 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque. When equipped with the DSG dual-clutch automatic, Volkswagen says the Golf R will launch to 60 mph in 4.5 seconds. That’s fast.
And yes, you can still order your German mega-hatch with a stick. Because of course you would.
Why Does It Matter?
The entire hot hatchback segment matters a lot in North America right now. This is relatively new to us. And we’re finally getting what we’ve always wanted. There’s the Ford Focus RS now kicking ass and taking names, and Honda’s about to let a front-wheel drive, 306 horsepower Civic Type R loose in the wild. So it’s more important than ever that Volkswagen, the maker of the most iconic hatchback of all time, sells a hot version for our market.
Additionally, don’t forget that there’s still the Subaru STI, a rally-bred all-wheel-drive sedan that will destroy your internal organs while on your way to the grocery store.
We’re on the brink of a fuckin’ war here guys. And it rocks.
“You’ll Love the Color We Picked For It”
Those were Thomas Tetzlaff’s last words, from Volkswagen Canada, the last time we spoke about this car. Did it mean my Golf R would be painted in Tornado Red or Lapiz Blue Metallic?!
No. As you can see It ended up being very grey.
But the more I lived with the Golf R during the week I had it, the more I understood why Tetzlaff mentioned this Limestone Grey Metallic paint job. Because the Golf R’s most outstanding feature is precisely that: the fact that it’ll trade punches with a Focus RS while flying straight under the radar. You just don’t see this thing coming. At all.
Unless you take a closer look at the added air intakes in its front bumper, upgraded (new for ‘17) 19-inch Pretoria wheels, which look absolutely stunning by the way, the massive brake calipers and quad exhaust pipes sticking out the rear, this is essentially the same Golf your aunt drives to get to her yoga class.
I like that understated look. People are giving the Golf R a bad rap for not wearing enough wing, but that’s the whole point of buying the Golf over all the others, to be more “civilized”. Because you’ve moved up in life. You’ve paid your share of speeding tickets. You’re all grown up now, and so is your Golf.
And thanks to adjustable dampers (now standard), an automatic transmission (more on that one later) and a supremely smooth Comfort mode, this is the hot hatch that actually knows how to do the “honey do you mind picking up the kids from school today?” daily duties that matter in our lives.
Aktivierung der Launch Control!
The Golf R’s performance is simply mind-blowing, and very German.
My tester had the dual-clutch, DSG automatic gearbox, with launch control. I would personally prefer mine with the stick, being a hot hatch and all, but Volkswagen’s dual-clutch system is one of the best in the industry. Set your Golf R in Race mode, remove all traction and stability systems (yes they can be completely turned off now) slam the throttle, and hang on. There aren’t many cars that will follow a Golf R automatic out of the box. No matter the weather.
At Sanair, the tarmac was freezing cold, but never did the Golf miss a beat, even on winter tires. Every launch was executed exceptionally well, with quasi-nonexistent wheel-spin. The best we could record was 4.8 seconds from the onboard chrono. The cold tarmac didn’t help.
Sanair’s straightaway is a full mile long. By the time I reached the half-mile mark, I was flying by at 114 mph. In a Golf.
But the damn thing just grabs the pavement and launches like a train out of hell, with the 2.0-liter turbo pulling hard and strong throughout most of its rev range, and all the way to its 6,800 RPM limiter. Yes, there’s massive turbo lag. But once boost is up there, at around 3,000 RPM, the rest is a flat, constant surge of torque the entire way. And a stupid Soundaktor that rattles through the windshield. BRRRRRRAAAAAAHHHH!
Grab another gear from the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifter, and a loud, authoritative exhaust fart ripples throughout the entire cabin before the car throws you back into another wave of endless pull KATHUMP!
On a track like Sanair, in its most aggressive Race setting, which firms up those dampers, stiffens the electric power steering, and speeds up the DSG’s shift patterns, the Golf R is visceral. But never so much to scare you or rip the skin off your face.
This is an impeccably precise and composed car in the bends, and thanks to the all-wheel-drive system, you can use that rear end to push it back in when cornering hard, drastically reducing the dreaded understeer effect. Also, Sanair is a rough surface. It’s long overdue for a makeover, but the Golf R simply gobbled it all up, no sweat—a testament at how stellar that adjustable suspension is.
The 2017 Volkswagen Golf R, it does everything like a pro with utmost authority. If it were to urinate, it would always do so in a perfectly straight line. Like a Gestapo officer, this hot Golf relentlessly obeys to the go-fast rules and never blinks an eye while doing so.
Does It Have A Soul?
Yes. Yes it does. Ironically, it wasn’t on the track that the Golf R showed me its colors, but on a country road. That really is where hot hatchbacks shine the most due to their suspension travel and short wheelbases.
I brought the Golf on Chemin des pères, in Québec’s Eastern Townships region, between Magog and Brome Lake, and onto route 243 at South Bolton, along the Canada / U.S. border on a snowy weekend. For those who know where that is, you’re all aware that it’s a sinuous country road through the Appalachians, with very little traffic, several road imperfections (of course this is Québec), lots of straights, esses, and elevation changes. It’s perfect for a car like this.
The Golf R simply ate up that road as if it were a T-bone steak dangling in front of a Rottweiler’s snout. BRAAAAAHHH KATHUMP!
This thing feels so solid, like nothing can destabilize it. But it’s also insanely fun, and playful at the limit. I was also impressed by how Volkswagen’s 4MOTION system behaved over the varying snow /tarmac surfaces. It’s just so incredibly stable and dialed out.
Here’s a little crash course on that system. Unlike a Subaru STI which uses a center differential to distribute its available power to the rear wheels, the Golf uses a Haldex-type system. It’s a front-wheel drive car with a power takeoff shaft that comes off of its transmission, allowing some of the power to go to the rear. Up to 50 percent exactly. So, unlike a Focus RS, which can virtually become one-wheel drive when pushed really hard, the Golf R always has power going to its front wheels.
In geek terms, that means understeer. But when you’re actually driving the R, that means poppycock. I never felt understeer in this car. Because MQB - possibly the best front-wheel-drive platform in the world right now. Haldex gets blasted on the VW forums but it’s better than it used to be.
And in the snow, when giving it enough throttle, that rear end will actually slide out. Quite a lot too. Isn’t that what you really want? Maybe a pro-racing driver will go around a track faster in a Focus RS. But for average humans like you and me who just want to have some fun on a back road in winter without, ahem, dying, this is perfect!
This Or An Audi S3?
Ah, the dreaded question. I drove the Audi S3 last year, the last generation, and I do admit that as far as driving dynamics and price go, the Golf R is very close to it. I’ll also tell you this: the Audi S3's interior felt too much like a Volkswagen for my taste. Actually, it felt a bit low rent compared to the rest of the Audi lineup.
The Golf R feels incredibly premium - on par with much more expensive Audi products. Ironic right? Actually, I preferred the material quality, fit and finish and overall presentation of the Golf R’s interior over a Porsche Macan’s. No kidding. This is one of the most beautiful car cabins I’ve ever sat in.
And those seats. THOSE SEATS!
Also, the Golf R is a hatchback, so it makes it easier to justify the purchase of a 292 HP, fire-breathing, all-wheel-drive compact to your significant other. Especially if you’ve got kids.
Finally, there’s the way the Golf is priced compared to the Audi. While an S3 kicks off at $42 900 and still doesn’t come with adjustable dampers, a Golf R will sell for $39,375. Remember; you can’t get an S3 with a stick.
Soundaktor. Please, make it stop. Not only is it a fake engine sound, something I totally despise, but in the Golf it sounds like a digital VR6. Why not at least make it sound like a four cylinder? Also, it’s extremely loud and vibrates through the entire car, like you’re permanently sitting on a big ass subwoofer. I hate it.
The paddle shifters are small, and mounted on the steering wheel instead of the column itself, so when you’re pushing this car hard on a track, which is presumably why you’ll buy one, you often end up looking for that shift paddle. VW, get rid of the GTI paddle shifters in the R and replace them with something larger and on the column please.
Finally, although I appreciate the fact that the Golf still looks small and cute, unlike the Civic which looks like it has a water retention problem, rear leg room is rather limited in the Golf R, especially with four oversized men sitting in the car. Oh, and one more thing: there’s no sunroof option on North American Golf R’s. Apparently it has something to do with crash testing.
It may seem crazy to dish out $40K on a Golf, but when you factor in everything this car will allow you to do, it suddenly starts making a whole lot of sense. As a daily driver, it’s quiet, smooth, rock solid, practical, and supremely comfortable. On a track, it’ll keep up with several high-end sports cars. In the snow, it’ll out handle all crossovers.
That all-wheel-drive system adds a whole new dimension of handling you simply can’t reproduce with a GTI. And if you live in areas where it snows often, like in Canada, you’ll want that Haldex system added to your GTI plus.
If you can afford it, do go out and buy a Golf R. Because this may very well be the best hot hatch out there as it wasn’t just engineered for lapping the Nürburgring, but also for the realities of our everyday lives.
Also, the cops will never even notice you in this thing. They’ll be too busy spotting that baby-blue Ford with a huge wing sticking out its hatch.
- Engine: 2.0-liter, 16-valve turbo inline four
- Power: 292 HP at 5,400 RPM / 280 lb-ft at 1,800 RPM
- Transmissions: 6-speed manual / 6-speed dual-clutch automatic
- Drivetrain: All-wheel drive
- Seating: Five
- 0-60 mph: 4.5 seconds with automatic and launch control / 5.2 seconds with manual
- Curb weight: 3,329 pounds
- MPG: 23 city, 31 highway (from EPA)
- MSRP: $39,375
William Clavey is an automotive journalist from Montréal, Québec, Canada. He runs claveyscorner.com.