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Fanboy types are always clamoring for somebody to build a Subaru that Subaru doesn’t build. And we get it. Fuji Heavy Industries is not known for its styling prowess or for its finely crafted interiors. And while Mercedes-Benz—of all companies—makes a credible WRX STI hatchback substitute in the form of the loopy-loon GLA45 AMG. you’ll pay all the money and then some. Closer to the Subie in price is the Audi S3, but like the STI, it’s available here only as a sedan. Which leaves the Volkswagen Golf R.
Starting at $37,415. the VW is priced a slight notch above the $35,290 STI, offers hatchback convenience, the new Golf’s excellent interior, and handsome, adult styling. Might Goldilocks find Volkswagen’s hottest performance hatch the just-right solution she’s been looking for?
The Golf R adds a shade of motorsport-y purposefulness over the GTI by dropping the suspension by 0.2 inch over unique 18-inch wheels, doubling the number of exhaust outlets at the bumper, and applying more aggressive front and rear fascia treatments with unique LED DRLs. Add 19-inch wheels, VW’s adaptive Dynamic Chassis Control suspension, and a nav system with the DSG and you’re at $39,910, which puts you within view of the Audi’s $41,995 base sticker.
The R, of course, shares its bony basics with the 10Best-winning seventh-generation Golf. Its powertrain, however, is plucked directly from the S3, a 292-hp 2.0-liter turbo four paired with the latest-generation Haldex AWD system. Audi calls it Quattro. Volkswagen calls it 4Motion. The Native American lady in the 1970s commercial called it maize. You call it corn. Grab that cob on the console and stick it in gear, because unlike the S3 (at least for now ), the 2016 Golf R will be available with a manual six-speed transmission in the summer. And it’ll come at an $1100 discount over the dual-clutch version. The 2015 cars, available this spring, will be DSG only.
It pains us to say this, but we might just have to recommend the DSG model over the manual—at least if maximum dynamism is a concern. We were significantly more impressed with the power delivery of the nigh-identical S3. We estimate that the DSG Golf R will make the sprint to 60 in about 4.7 seconds with launch control enabled. Manual cars will likely be about a half-second slower. Out where it gets twisty, the twin-clutch trans keeps the turbo engine on the boil, and the widely spaced throttle and brake pedals take the joy out of heel-toeing the manual car when it comes time to slow for a bend.
On a more relaxed back road, the pedal gap might not be such an issue, but VW had invited us out to dusty Buttonwillow, California, to take Euro-spec, manual-trans versions of the R for a spin on the track. There, getting the car down into the proper gear prior to corner entry turned into a bit of a stab-and-pray exercise. A track of many configurations, the version of the course we ran was primarily a third-and-fourth-gear affair. Shifting issues aside, the R hoofed itself around the circuit best if we manhandled it some, eliciting plenty of yelping and yowling from the rubber. In comparison with the previous R. which landed here for the 2012 model year, the new R tamps down the tail-happiness and amps up the power. It’s more satisfying to steer quickly than the old car but doesn’t feel quite as flat-out alive as the less powerful, front-drive GTI. which has the same quick steering (2.1 turns lock-to-lock).
Our afternoon of abuse suggests that you’ll run out of tire before the brakes get notably spongy. Credit the large brakes cribbed from the GTI Performance Package, which cope well with the extra heat generated by serving double duty; besides hauling the car down with confidence, the binders also work as part of VW’s XDS+ system, braking the inside wheels to aid turn-in during fast corners. We’ve found that the pedal in fast VWs with lesser brakes will get spongy when XDS+ is working overtime, even if we’re not tramping on the center pedal. Because the Golf R is constructed at VW’s home plant in Wolfsburg, rather than its facility in Puebla, Mexico, the R features an electronic parking brake.
As it was before, the new Golf R is its own thing. The question is whether it’s a thing you necessarily want. Its Audi sibling comes off as a shade sharper, Subaru’s competitor is magnitudes more violent, and the R’s more-fun GTI baby brother costs significantly less. Those three cars all tickle a primal gearhead sweet spot. In contrast, the R fills a need but doesn’t leave you quite as thrilled as you’d like to be.