Wait. Was it ever threatened? Probably not, but with the 2016 Volkswagen Golf R, it shows the genre is in a better state than ever before. The Golf R is the pinnacle of the VW Golf lineup, and a more radically-tuned version of the powerful-in-its-own-right VW Golf GTI. We had a chance to see if it was truly all that.
The 2016 Volkswagen Golf R is the halo version in the VW Golf range. Built on the VW Group’s MQB platform, it was introduced to North America in 2015. It shares the platform with its Audi A3, SEAT León and Škoda Octavia corporate cousins.
Like the other Volkswagen Golf vehicles, the Golf R features its engine in the front. Unlike the Golf, the Golf R features a 2.0-liter, 292-horsepower four-cylinder engine making 280 lb-ft of torque, which is mated to VW’s 4Motion permanent all-wheel-drive system with Haldex center differential. That’s 72 more ponies than the GTI. The five-door hatchback accommodates up to five adult passengers. The EPA says this 3,340-pounder can achieve 23 city / 30 highway with a combined 25 mpg.
Being at the top of the Golf food chain meant there were virtually no option boxes to tick, save for a buyer’s choice of six-speed manual or available six-speed DSG automatic transmission ($1,100). The Golf R’s Driving Mode Selection system allows a driver to select between Normal, Individual and Race modes, which vary ride quality, engine and transmission shift points for more spirited driving. Other features included 18-inch summer tires, Bluetooth connectivity, rearview camera, keyless access with pushbutton starter, automatic headlamps, rain-sensing wipers, MIB II touchscreen infotainment system with 6.5-inch display equipped for Sirius XM satellite radio, a leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel, Climatronic automatic climate control, Car-Net connected services, leather seating, LED reading lights and Driving Mode Selection button.
Those wishing for more, not to mention an active suspension, can opt for the Golf R with Dynamic Chassis Control, which includes 19-inch wheels with performance summer tires, navigation and a Fender Premium audio system, for an additional $2,245. Finally, a Driver Assistance Package with adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, autonomous emergency braking, Lane Departure and Blind Spot warning systems is just $1,295 away. A destination fee of $820 is charged regardless of model.
The 2016 Volkswagen Golf R competes against the likes of the Ford Focus RS, BMW’s M235i, Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG, Subaru WRX STi and the Mini Cooper JC Works model. If these prospects appear too rich for the faint of heart (or wallet), buyers can take advantage of the VW Golf GTI.
Checking the wayback machine, it seems that the Volkswagen Golf, nee Rabbit, was the originator of the hot hatch segment. Now into its seventh generation, the Golf R appears like a stone turned by 25 years of waters from a babbling brook. The result is a smooth and polished vehicle with character and refinement at the same time. Looking like a standard Golf, the only thing that betrays the power under hood are the extra wide underbumper intakes to help with engine and intercooling functions.
The Golf R’s interior is strictly business in the sense that you immediately get the feeling this hatch is not messing around. Clue number one is the flat-bottomed multifunction steering wheel. Number two is the DSG logo discreetly imprinted on the top of the shifter knob. Blue performance-oriented accent lighting is everywhere, from the gauge pointers to the kick plates and underdash ambient lighting. It’s the perfect accent to bring the Lapiz Blue color effect inside.
Seating is covered in black leather throughout, with adequate accommodations and legroom for at least two full-sized or three medium-sized adults. Behind the backseat lies 22.8-cubic feet of cargo space. Fold the rear seats forward, and that area jumps to a segment leading 52.7-cubic feet.
The Volkswagen Golf R is an AWD vehicle that is one of those rare cars that’s a blast to drive, from the moment you start it up to the first high-speed excursion down the highway, to the moment you shut it down after arriving home at the end of the day. Power from the 2.0-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine is one of those things that between neck snaps, will have you grinning at the exhaust charge felt with every gear change of the VW DSG automated manual transmission. Partly due to in-cabin sound enhancements that cause an audible pop between each shift of the cogs, it will have you looking for isolated backroads just so you can make this R really stretch its legs.
Steering and control from the same drivetrain found in the Audi S3 offered revelatory handling while tearing around varying-radius turns in North Florida. The Haldex AWD system utilizes sensors that send up to 50-percent of the R’s grip to the rear wheels, as needed, and then reverts back to full front drive while cruising. The car was well planted and wanted to tear around while offering tenacious grip while at speed. It seemed to not want to even slow down during midday sun showers.
We saw a 29.5-mpg average on an 850-mile roundtrip between West Palm Beach and Tallahassee, FL. The power driver’s seat was highly bolstered but not so much that we felt confined during our six-hour drive stints. It actually had us feeling rather refreshed upon arrival. That’s not something we can say about every vehicle we’ve ever tested.
Using Apple Car Play was the equivalent of a poor man’s navigation system. Plugging into a late-model iPhone (iPhone 5 or 6) caused the app to recognize the connected phone, without any pairing procedure and made use of Apple Maps a breeze. Strangely though, we encountered a glitch that we last saw when testing the 2016 Camaro, where Car Play would not recognize that it was connected via a cable to the Golf R’s head unit. We are still in the dark as to the cause but as we found in the Camaro, we disconnected the iPhone 6 from the USB plug for about an hour and then replugged it again, where it operated as expected for the rest of the time with the car. It apparently is not an isolated instance, as there are numerous comments about this occurrence on the Internet.
The 2016 Volkswagen Golf R is an outright hoot to drive hard, soft or in between. Priced at the upper end of the hot hatch segment, it offers riding enjoyment and utility in an exclusive package that doesn’t quite look like many others on the road.
2016 Volkswagen Golf R DSG. MSRP: $36,750. As tested: $37,570.
Lauren Fix is a nationally recognized automotive expert, media guest, journalist, author, keynote speaker and television host. A trusted automotive expert, Lauren provides an insider’s perspective on a wide range of automotive topics, energy and safety issues for both the auto industry and consumers. Her analysis is honest and straightforward.
Follow Lauren on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram