Photos Courtesy of VW USA

Conservative Camouflage

2013 VW Golf R Review

Automotive journalists tend to talk about the value proposition of expensive cars, which is auto writers' shorthand for "I think this car costs too much." To be sure, the value proposition might be important to a buyer of a bog-standard commuter car. It might be important when comparing two cars of similar specs and capabilities. But in the world of properly quick cars, that is to say, cars that can get to 60 MPH from a standing stop in less than six seconds, the value proposition often just isn't that important.

Let us take, for example, the Subaru Impreza WRX STI, the base sedan version of which costs $36,000 when you add a sat-nav system. Of course, the WRX STI sedan is, by any rational measure, the ugliest production car in the world, so you'll want the slightly less ugly 5-door hatchback, which costs $38,000.

The WRX certainly isn't perfect. Unless you're driving 100 MPH on a narrow dirt track in Finland, the suspension feels like it was carved out of granite by stone-age tribesmen. The interior is uncomfortable, and filled with ugly, hard plastic. The exterior looks like it has been not so much designed as congealed. In fact, anyone who opts to use a road-going rally car as a daily driver is, by definition, a lunatic.

Frankly, the value proposition alone indicates that this car is far too expensive for the ugliness and discomfort your money purchases. But unlike nearly every other car in the world you can drive the WRX at 100 MPH down narrow dirt tracks in Finland. And that knocks the value proposition of the WRX into a cocked hat. There is an entire culture of WRX fanatics, all of whom revel in its the rally-racing pedigree. Indeed, the very name “WRX” stands for ”World Rally Cross”. WRX lovers revel in the 4.9 second 0-60 time. They burn with hatred at the very mention of the Lancer Evolution X, and its similarly hard-core cadre of aficionados. For them, $38,000 seems like a pretty good deal.

Similarly, the Volkswagen Golf R induces a bit of sticker shock when you see the $36,500 sticker price. But you must remember that the R version of the Golf is a limited production vehicle that VW makes only every four model years. It's rare, and special.

Like the WRX and the Evo, the WV Golf has its own community of extreme Golfists. And if anything, the Golf fans are even bigger lunatics than the WRX or Evo fans, because the standard Golf and GTI are front wheel drive only. Despite this, the Golfists routinely shove Stage II or Stage III mods on the Golf GTI that increase its standard 200HP output to well above 300HP. Anyone but a complete madman has to realize that the standard model of physics indicates that the only possible result of driving a 300HP+ front-wheel drive car is a fiery death after understeering into a tree.

You see, the front wheels simply can't cope with the traction problems that come from not only trying to steer the car, but providing motive power as well. There just isn't enough traction to do both jobs.

The Golf R, however, solves the problem of putting its 254HP to the ground by directing it to all four wheels through its 4Motion Haldex AWD system. VW claims the 4Motion system can instantly tell which wheel has the most traction and send it power by making traction judgments thousands of times per second. The result is that the Golf R simply grips and goes until the electronic limiter kicks in at 130MPH.

The Golf R is powered by the same 2.0L TSI inline four-cylinder engine and K04 turbocharger found in the Audi TTS. Actually, the Golf R contains just about everything found in the Audi TTS, because the Audi is—let's face it—a Golf with a swoopy coupe body kit. The most interesting thing about this engine/turbo combination, though, is that it is far beefier than necessary to put out a weedy 254HP.

And, sure enough, a simple and widely available ECU reflash will re-map the power output to 306HP without changing any mechanical parts on the Golf R, whatsoever. Sadly, VW says this will void the warranty, and with VW's drearily average reliability ratings, you should probably wait until the warranty expires before doing this. But you probably won't mind, because the Golf R is pretty much the King of the Hot Hatches, as-is.

Yes, the Ford Focus ST is much cheaper, and has about the same power. The substantially more powerful WRX costs about the same as the Golf R, and has a better AWD system and rally pedigree. You can also point to the Golf R's 6-speed standard transmission, which could be better, as it's a bit sloppy and has an unnecessarily long throw. But the overall package of the Golf R makes it hoot to drive, comfortable and practical in daily use, and the build quality far outstrips everything in its class.

Looking at the Golf's exterior, there is very little that tells you it's a hot hatch. Knowledgeable observers will note the larger front air intakes, the LED running lights, the discrete "R" badges on the grill and rear hatch, and the dual exhausts. But the rest of the exterior is plain, old, conservative VW styling. The Golf R hides its light under a bushel. But it's a well built bushel. The doors are heavy and shut with a firm ”thunk”. The rear hatch release is incorporated into the VW logo, so there are no visible handles or keyholes.

Inside, the Golf R is more luxury car than hot hatch. There are a few more discrete R badges, but mainly the interior is a pleasing collection of soft-touch materials, high-quality buttons and controls, brushed aluminum trim, and a well thought out instrument panel. The dashboard gauges use pleasingly illuminated blue needles. The leather seats are well bolstered, with fully adjustable positioning and lumbar support, and are firm but comfortable. Driver visibility is fantastic. A good portion of its high sticker price has clearly gone into making the interior of the Golf R a nice place to be.

This is true for back seat occupants as well, who get plenty of leg and head room. Indeed, looked at from the outside, the Golf R is deceivingly small, because the interior is simply enormous. This means that you have loads of cargo space. With the back seats folded down flat, you could get a small pony in there. The cargo tie-downs are also real, actual metal instead of chromed plastic, and the cargo carpeting covers a layer of stainless steel, not plastic or particle board. However average VW's reliability may be, the build quality of the Golf R is fantastic.

So is the driving experience. This is an insanely fun car to drive. The electrically-assisted power steering is crisp, and offers marvelously progressive resistance. The suspension is on the firm side, which works very well when you push the speedometer needle towards the right, but its compliant enough to make daily use comfortable. The grip is firm and reliable, allowing you to throw the Golf R into corners with aggression.

There is, it must be said, still some tendency to understeer, because the Golf R has 60% of its weight above the front axle. This tendency becomes more pronounced as you approach the limit. Otherwise, though, the R's reliable grippiness keeps you in line, and the traction control never becomes too annoying or intrusive.

Speaking of traction control, on the newer version of the R there is a switch to turn the traction control off. When you press it, you can tell the traction control is off, because a little indicator says so. When you press it again, you can tell the traction control is on, because the little indicator says so. This indicator is vitally important, because there is absolutely nothing else in the car’s steering, handling, or grip that tells you if the traction control is on or off.

Frankly, I suspect that the traction control button is wired to nothing but the little indicator. And perhaps this is a good thing, because despite the almost luxury-car interior, and the conservative exterior styling, there is literally nothing in this car that makes you want to drive in a safe or sane fashion.

The R may have a softer edge than the WRX and none of its rally capability, but that makes it far more livable as a daily driver. It may be far more expensive than a Ford Focus ST, but it has a far higher interior and build quality, as well as the security of all-wheel instead of front-wheel drive.

So, then, we come, at the end, back to the Golf R's value proposition, and its $36,500 sticker price. To which I would say, don't think of the Golf R as an expensive hot hatch. Think of it as an extremely practical and cheap Audi TTS.

Which is what it is.

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