Every now and then we stumble upon a car that seems to have it all: Power and performance to make us smile? Oh, yeah. Behavior and style we could live with for years? Yes, it’s easy to drive and to park — and looking at it doesn’t hurt either. Room for four? That too, with four doors and a space-sensitive footprint. Comfort and convenience? Plenty of both, across town and on long trips. Efficiency and economy? Check. The latest active and passive safety and driver-assistance features? All-weather all-wheel drive? Cloud-based technology, from App-Connect to GPS? Yes, all of that too, plus grown-up sophistication and build quality that impresses. It sounds great, too.
Maybe best of all, this automotive paragon carries a sticker price that’s barely five grand more than the average new car sold in America today: $40,010. And with some judicious paring of options, or lowering of demands, that can be shaved by as much as $4,000.
All this makes Volkswagen’s 2016 Golf R—optioned up with Dynamic Chassis Control, Navigation and Driver Assistance—possibly the perfect all-around car, or as close to it as we can get in an internal-combustion-powered vehicle that still has to be driven by hand. In fact, though, it’s the “driven by hand” that makes the R so brilliant.
Outwardly this is a Golf, the compact, water-cooled, front-wheel-drive hatchback that VW rolled out 42 years ago to replace its beloved but obsolete compact, air-cooled, rear-wheel-drive Type 1, aka the Bug. By now more than 30 million Golfs (or Rabbits, as they were called for a while here) have been sold worldwide. Plenty of them have been the amped-up GTI “hot hatch” models, but only a handful have had the letter R applied to them—for rennsport, German for “racing.” Before you quit reading, two points: First, our R-car has the optional Dynamic Chassis Control. Just as on cars that cost far more, a switch lets the driver choose between Normal, Comfort, Race and customizable Individual settings for the throttle, suspension and, if present, the automatic DSG transmission. (Our car came with the crisp 6-speed manual gearbox with hill-hold, a new option for 2016.) So there’s no need to put up with something tuned, at least in name, for competition. And second, even in Race mode the Golf R is so comfortable and civilized—much more than any race car I’ve ever been in—that I’m relying on it as our everyday setting, with no complaints from the passenger-in-chief. I have not, however, used the built-in lap timer on trips to the supermarket, nor have I disabled the traction control.
A huge contributor to the R’s exemplary behavior is VW’s full-time, electronic brake-vectoring, 4Motion all-wheel drive. Without it, the 2.0-liter turbo Four’s 292 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque could roast the front tires; with it, there is virtually no torque steer or traction loss, at least on dry pavement. The R remains extraordinarily well planted. Furthermore, it only weighs about 3,300 pounds, so 60 MPH can come up in less than five seconds—yet 30 miles per gallon is possible on the highway. (We averaged an indicated 24-plus MPG overall.) The only problem I have with this engine is that I keep bumping up against the rev limiter. May we please have another 1000 RPM?
The R-car isn’t only “go,” though; along with upgraded brakes, it has no end of safety equipment, and that Driver Assistance Package is a $1,295 option. This adds adaptive cruise control, front collision warning and emergency braking, lane-departure warning and self-correcting, blind-spot and rear cross-traffic alerts, and ultrasonic parking sensors.
Somewhere within the vast organization that is VW, a company so committed to diesel engines that a tiny part of it could come up with a clever, if dastardly emissions cheat, is another tiny group that created the near-perfect Golf R. Right now I’m looking for another reason to go out in the snow and wind and cold for just one more drive. Other hatchbacks offer space, efficiency, near-luxury, affordability and all that, but only the Golf R adds so much performance, poise and panache. If this car had Porsche badges it would cost 50 percent more, but it couldn’t be any better.
Silvio Calabi reviews the latest from Detroit, Munich, Yokohama, Gothenburg, Crewe, Seoul and wherever else interesting cars are born. Silvio is a member of the International Motor Press Association whose automotive reviews date back to the Reagan administration. He is the former publisher of Speedway Illustrated magazine and an author. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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