Driving Confidence

A Victory & Reseda review of the 2015 Volkswagen Golf R

Can a car give a driver confidence and competence behind the wheel?

A lot of cars can. Some are more equal than others towards accomplishing driver competency. Yet, having confidence on the road means you can do so many things behind the wheel. For example, you can do a lap of a great motorsports venue. Or, taking on some of the great roads this country has to offer, hitting the line of every tough curve perfectly.

What kind of car should it be? Would a sports car, such as a Porsche 911, be that car that would make a driver better? How about a luxury flagship, such as a Mercedes-Benz S-Class, with is driver's assisting technologies and built-in safety? Perhaps a roadster, such as a Mazda MX-5 Miata, where it delivers a driving experience once the measuring stick of fun along with the science of center-of-gravity equaling road holding?

No. In my case, I discovered a new appreciation for driving in a car with a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, a dual-clutch transmission, all-wheel drive and a hatchback. This is the latest edition of a car revered for 40 years to be the measuring stick of another kind – the common person's car.

The Volkswagen Golf – sometimes called the Rabbit on these shores – taught us that a neatly designed package can deliver fun every day, while maintaining its practical side. It has spawned another measuring stick – the hot hatch. The letters GTI symbolize the transformation of a common person’s car into the stuff of aspiring race car drivers and budding enthusiasts the world over.

By the fourth iteration of the Golf, the people at Volkswagen were restless. The GTI was good, but they felt that the Golf could be a laboratory for advanced technologies and higher performance. What came forth was not a Super GTI, but the Golf R32. By upping the power of the VR6 and adding 4Motion all-wheel drive, the R32 showed enthusiasts that there are higher limits to achieve on the road and on the track. There were only a small number of these made, but they certainly left an indelible impression on enthusiasts, whether they loved Volkswagen or not.

2015 Volkswagen Golf R

Now, in its seventh generation, Volkswagen is poised to make the Golf a leader in everything it touches. In America, that meant earning Motor Trend's Car of The Year and North American Car of The Year awards. Beyond a basic Golf, the TDI diesel remains as a fuel-efficient choice for many Volkswagen customers. The GTI got better, and the press recognized its place in automotive history. Volkswagen added a plug-in electric car, the e-Golf, and the SportWagen to its lineup. The public has responded with increased sales over last year.

Yet, the Golf "family" is not exactly complete with its halo model. That is where the Golf R comes in. Before I get into the details, let me say one definitive statement – this is one of the best cars I have ever driven.

To explain how I came to that conclusion is to explain what the latest Golf R is all about. First off, it looks like any Golf sold at any Volkswagen dealer around the world. The five-door hatch really looks good, combining the best of the past with modern elements. There is no mistaking the Golf from any car sold in this country.

The Golf R adds a few things to the package that distinguishes itself from not only the GTI, but the run of the mill Golf. A deeper bumper skin means better airflow management and direct brake cooling. Chrome accents up the importanmce of the R above the rest of the Golf lineup, though they are tastefully done and sometimes quite subtle from a distance. Lower side skirts are not deep, but maintain airflow in the lower part of the body. At the rear, a bigger spoiler crowns the hatchback, while a defuser and quad exhaust ports finish out the transformation of the R. The finishing touch is a set of nineteen-inch alloy wheels. As aggressive as they look, they have huge holes for better brake breathing. On a high performance car like the Golf R, brake cooling and breathing becomes essential to ensure that stopper power is optimal in any situation. Of course, there are enough badges to make sure you are driving an R…and not anything else Volkswagen sells.

2015 Volkswagen Golf R 008

To explain the interior of the Golf R, I must refer to an observation was made by a friend of mine who owns an Mk6 Golf R. We both went through both of the cars, when he remarked how luxurious the Mk7 was compared to his Mk6. "Luxurious" was not exactly what I had in mind for the latest Golf lineup. "Upmarket" was the term I was looking for. Volkswagen also did a great job in elevating the experience inside of the Golf, the GTI and the R. The materials are of higher quality, the switches are better to the touch and function. The improved flat-bottom steering offers the newest set of switches at a finger's touch. The rim is thick and the size is perfect for more spirited driving.

However, I was hoping for more improvement in two areas: The information screen in-between the speedometer and tachometer and the infotainment touch screen. Perhaps I was spoiled by the Audi A3's cleaner TFT readouts that work just brilliantly. The infotainment screens were updated and the navigation screen was OK, but it just seemed they were using an older technology to accomplish the same job. Plus, it should not have to take a few times to pair a phone that is compatible with the Bluetooth connection. Mind you, these were the only negatives on the Golf R.

All negatives go away once you sit down on the R's leather seats. The deep bolsters are perfectly balanced to give you a true sports seat feel. Through the curves, you are locked in, in attention and ready for action. Not only are they comfortable, the front seating area is very spacious! Rear seat room is not bad, either. I can sit behind me without compromising a limb. Rear headroom is superb – a hallmark of the Golf for 40 years. The finishing touch is the sound from the Fender Premium Audio system, featuring

What makes a Golf R better than the rest of the lineup is what is under the hood. The 2.0liter TSI turbocharged four-cylinder engine may look like one you will find under the hood of the GTI. However, the turbocharger is a bit larger to induce more power – now at 292 horsepower. For the 2015 model year, every Golf R will get a six-speed DSG gearbox. Yes, I know…where's the manual? That is coming in calendar year 2016. Be patient, there will be a clutch coming soon for the Golf R. If a front-drivce GTI is able to handle up to 220 horsepower, it would be logical to employ the Volkswagen 4Motion all-wheel drive system to spread the power to all corners. Every Golf R had this system in place for the very same reason. It is perhaps the smartest thing one could do, even if is direct competitors – the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and the Subaru WRX STI – do the same thing.

2015 Volkswagen Golf R

Volkswagen claims the Golf R can go 4.9 seconds on a 0-60MPH sprint and clocked 8:15 on the Nurburgring, but how many of us will track this car? I didn't. Yet, feeling the quickness off the mark certainly put a huge smile on my face. It is a feeling only a few cars could give me.

Before I get into how it drives on the road, I must introduce you to the available DCC – Dynamic Chassis Control. There are four settings available: Comfort, Normal and Race. There is no Sport mode, but that can be adjusted on the touch screen under Individual. The way Volkswagen sees it – three individual Sport settings equal the Race setting.

No matter where your finger lands on the DCC screen, expect a level of driving dynamics that is eye opening. In the corners, roll is non-existent. In Race, the suspension is very firm, but not enough to bounce you out of your seat. In Normal, it is relaxing…relaxed enough to take the next turn on point. Steering feel is excellent. There is no play in the wheel and the progressive steering set will help you nail the turn every time. Those big rotors and meaty calipers translate into the sharpest brakes I ever put my foot into.

In all, my original summation is correct. The Golf R is one of the best cars I have driven.

However, there are a couple of reality checks. Fuel economy has been a point I need to make every time I review a vehicle. In my care, the averages have been all over the map. The final figure came to 25.6MPG as my average in the Golf R. That was achieved after seeing it dip to below 16MPG. I will take 25.6MPG for a 292 horsepower turbocharged all-wheel drive sports compact hatchback.

2015 Volkswagen Golf R

Then, there's the price. The Volkswagen explanation for the base price of $36,595 was indeed valid. If you are going to produce a very small numbers of these, they better be pretty damn special. My Tornado Red tester with the DCC and Navigation came with a sticker price of $39,910 was a bit to swallow. However, considering the limited production and the performance of this special Golf, maybe that price is justified.

You could debate on the sticker price of this very special Golf. However, I must answer the question not asked here. Yes, it is special for reason. The reason why I said that this is one the best cars I ever driven was that the Golf R gave me the confidence I needed to drive any car. The way it drives equals to the effort you put into it. For me, taking the lessons I learned at Road America and a few tips from others, the Golf R opened up parts of driving skills that I been attempting to nail down. After my week in this car, I felt more confident and competent behind the wheel. No other vehicle has ever done that for me in my life.

There's nothing else to say…other than "what a car!" And, what a privilege to drive it!

DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Volkswagen of America

All photos by Randy Stern

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