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2013 volkswagen golf r road test
Make no mistake: What we have here is a very good car, a sub-six-second, all-wheel-drive hot hatch that's brilliant in bad weather. It's extra horsepower ladled over the innate brilliance of Volkswagen's ordinary GTI. The staff battled each other for the keys right up to the last minute. And yet, when that minute came, most of us were—well, not happy to see it go, but relieved. The Golf R was a bit of a puzzle.
For people who think about cars all the time, having a car around that you can't quite figure out is maddening. And we were never really sure what the Golf R was supposed to be. Fast, yes, but speed is increasingly easy to find. Special, sure, in that all-wheel-drive Golfs are uncommon and remarkable. But in the Golf lineup, the R is supposed to sit above the GTI, and the everyday GTI is so good that taking one to the next level doesn't make sense for the money. It might, if the R were extra-super-mega-zilla special, but it's merely very good; the standard all-wheel-drive system puts the extra power down well, but in the process, it dulls the GTI's precise, live-wire buzz. And once you get past the nifty center-mounted tailpipes, the rest of the car just looks like a Golf. Unremarkable.
There's nothing wrong with that word, but if you pay $35,000 for a hatchback, it shouldn't come up. The tactile, agile spirit of the GTI isn't here. Nor is the crazy, knife-fighter quality of the first R32, the more legendary all-wheel-drive Golf special. What you get is a feeling of solidity, of composure, a grand-touring vibe. It's not bad, just not that inspiring. More important, we're not sure anyone—except the VW die-hards—was asking for it. With a limited-production car like this, that's a worry.
So while the R has more power, bigger brakes, and four-wheel drive, it seems to have traded away the GTI's strengths to get them. Every time we climbed out after a long highway slog or a twisty back-road romp, we found ourselves wishing for less smolder and a little more open flame.
And then our minds would return to the price. Like most Golfs, the R is fast and entertaining. Just not that distinctive. That's less important with a $15,000 or $25,000 car. Here, it's just unfortunate. —JOHN KREWSON
- Never met us at the garage door wearing nothing but a smile.
If you want a relatively sober, all-wheel-drive, $35,000 über-GTI, this is your bogey. For us, the ordinary GTI rings more bells.