Volkswagen’s hot-rod hot-hatch version of its mainstream Golf compact has come a long way since the first GTI-badged model arrived here in the early 1980s propelled by a mere 90 horsepower with a purchase price a little more than $10,000.
The current GTI’s turbocharged, 2.0 litre engine makes 200 hp, which is more than twice as much and turns the three- or four-door hatch into a sporty proposition. But wait, there’s more – a lot more.
Upping the Golf’s game to even headier – one might almost say R-diculous performance – heights is the Golf R.
The screw on its turbocharged two-litre has been wound in a bit more tightly, boosting output to 256 hp and 243 lb-ft of torque, getting on for three times the original GTI’s output. And a few other items of useful kit have been added, such as VW’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive, a Euro-sport-tuned suspension, bigger brakes and P225/40R18 all-season tires (suitably effective winter tires during the test period).
All of which makes the R into one of the fastest devices you can buy and legally put on the road in Canada to get you from point A to point jail-time. In any weather – from dry pavement to 10 cm or so of fresh fallen, wet and sloppy snow – in more than acceptable levels of safety and comfort.
The R is the hyper-version of the current range of Golfs, which arrived about three years ago as, well, pretty much what they’ve always been since the first one arrived in early 1970s.
Which is to say, distinctly (not prettily) styled, competent, convenient and, depending on how you equip them, comfortable and livable conveyances. And with something not all the rest offer, a driving experience with that hard-to-define, but tangible to those who understand it, Euro-feel. They can be had with gas or diesel engines, three doors or five, or in wagon form, and prices start at less than $20,000.
Inside, they are aren’t exactly plush, a bit techno-edgy-plain as a matter of fact, but have decent front seats, room in the back for three and up to 1,299 litres of cargo room. And, depending on what you spend, all the amenities you’d expect in the class.
For those who want to elevate the luxury and sporty sides of their character, there’s the front-drive GTI, with 200-hp turbo, for $29,375. And for the limited few who take their Golf-ing too seriously, there’s the $39,675 R, available in Canada only in five-door form and only with a six-speed manual gearbox.
For your 40 grand, you get the above-mentioned go-fast equipment and, on the outside, 18-inch Talladega (a NASCAR oval is the only track VW marketers could think of?) alloy wheels, a blacked-out grille, bi-xenon headlights, LED running lights, black brake calipers with R logos, and cool twin tailpipes centred under the rear valance.
On the inside, there’s a hand-filling, leather-wrapped, flat-bottomed wheel, firmly bolstered sports seats with power recline and heating, a sunroof, trip computer, navigation, start/stop button, keyless entry, Bluetooth connectivity, dual-zone climate control and a Dynaudio 300-watt sound system.
My first experience behind the Golf’s wheel, was on the handling circuit – basically a big, fast autocross track laid out on the Niagara airport’s runways – during the AJAC TestFest last fall, while judging the Sports/Performance under $50,000 class in the Canadian Car of The Year competition.
The R didn’t win, but AJAC performance testing showed it had the quickest-in-the-category 0-100 km times, averaging 6.6 seconds (VW claims 5.9 seconds) and 80 km/h to 120km/h acceleration in 4.1 seconds.
A few exterior visual cues aside, the R doesn’t look particularly impressive. Or maybe that should read looks impressively stealthy. But, wow, point it at some corners with your right foot well into the throttle, and it reveals its true nature.
Its 256 hp and 243 lb-ft of turbo-inspired torque all get to the pavement at once – no squirrely front-wheel-drive antics. Gearshifts are quick and precise and power continues to flow as you point the wheels through the nicely weighted steering. The turbo-four is lighter than the 250-hp, 3.2 V-6 that powered the previous R32 of the early 2000s, with better balance, and understeer isn’t really an issue. It changes direction with a flick of the wheel through a slalom course, remaining impressively stable in transition.
The AJAC course is all arms and elbows stuff, no really high speeds, but I’m sure it would impress on a road course as well.
My recent mid-winter week with the car included a snowy, busy, 150-km four-lane highway drive and the back-road run home. On the highway, its stability was reassuring, and on snow-packed country roads it revealed an impressive amount of power down through the all-wheel-drive system – big-grin time.
Like the rally-racer inspired Subaru WRX and the Mitsubishi Lancer, the Golf R is only for the fanatical few – the $10,000-less expensive GTI is a more sensible choice. But if you put sensation ahead of sensibleness, the R delivers.
2013 Volkswagen Golf R
Type: Four-door hot hatch
Base Price: $39,675; as tested, $41,170
Engine: 2.0-litre, DOHC, horizontally opposed four
Horsepower/torque: 256 hp/243 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.9 city/7.5 highway; premium gas recommended
Alternatives: VW Golf GTI, Subaru WRX, Ford Focus ST, MazdaSpeed3, Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart, Mini Cooper JCW
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Clarification: Although Volkswagen first sold a model in Canada in 1979 that was labelled a GTI, it was a standard five-speed with a stripes and decal package; the first model with GTI engine and suspension modifications was sold in 1983, a Volkswagen Canada spokesman says.