Volkswagen’s Golf R

The spiritual cousin to the original GTI, the Golf R is a high-performance hatchback that is a good mix of fun and practicality

When the Volkswagen GTI came to the U.S. in 1983 I couldn’t rest until I had one. It was inexpensive, outrageously fun and I eventually parked a white one in my garage. After driving it for a couple of years, I sold it to a local owner who kept it in such pristine condition that I bought it back several years later when my son needed a car for high school.

The memory of that car kept flooding through my mind as I spent a week driving the 2017 Volkswagen Golf R. Although the Golf R is the spiritual cousin to the original GTI, it is light years ahead of it in every aspect: technology, power, speed, and comfort. And yes, today’s base price of $38,480 is roughly twice as much, even in 1984 dollars, as the GTI. But it is easily more than twice the car.

Let’s take a closer look at the Golf R. It has a turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with 292-horsepower (compared to 110 in my GTI), six-speed manual gearbox, all-wheel drive, navigation, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, autonomous emergency braking, blind-spot monitor, rear traffic alert, and lane departure warning. And surprisingly, the engine is rated at 31 miles per gallon on the highway, 22 in the city with a manual transmission. Cranking that much horsepower out of a 2.0-liter engine, while retaining decent fuel economy, is an excellent example of the progress brought by technology.

On the road, the Golf R is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Driven normally, it doesn’t feel much different than a regular Golf. The engine is perfectly happy chugging around at low rpm. Get the revs up, however, and the car bursts with acceleration. It can scamper to 60 miles per hour in 5.3 seconds. Shifting the six-speed manual transmission is a joy, and all-wheel drive means that most of the engine’s power gets to the pavement without a lot of wheelspin or drama. A six-speed dual-clutch automatic is also available.

The R model sits almost one inch lower, thanks to the sport suspension. The drive mode selector has normal, individual, and race settings. Cars equipped with the Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC) also get comfort and sport settings.

The all-wheel-drive system, called 4Motion, primarily drives the front wheels under light load or when coasting to help conserve fuel. When more traction is needed an electro-hydraulic pump engages the rear wheels. The system also has a cross differential lock at the front and rear that operates like a limited-slip differential and helps the car corner with less understeer.

The Golf R’s interior is reasonably spacious and nicely designed. The heated front bucket seats have pronounced side bolsters that not only keep occupants in place during vigorous driving but they also make long trips comfortable. Details—such as the contrasting stitching on the leather seats and the piano-black panels highlighted with satin silver trim—make the cabin feel more expensive than the price would suggest.

The thick, leather-wrapped steering wheel is flat on the bottom and has fingertip controls for audio and trip computer.

Back-seat legroom is not overly generous but then this is a car with a 103.5-inch wheelbase. The rear seat does fold down and the trunk is good-sized.

The navigation system, with touch-screen display, also has a 20-gigabyte audio hard drive, video DVD playback, and a memory slot for an SD card.

Safety features include six airbags, anti-lock brakes, traction control, and vehicle stability control. An automatic post-collision braking system applies the brakes to reduce secondary movement when the airbag sensors detect a collision.

The Golf R is a high-performance hatchback that is a good mix of fun and practicality, proving that sports cars don’t have to be two-seaters.

2017 Volkswagen Golf R

Engine: 2.0-liter, 292-hp 4-cylinder

Transmission: Six-speed manual

All-wheel drive

Wheelbase: 103.5 inches

Curb weight: 3,305 pounds

Base price: $38,480

As driven: $40,195

MPG rating: 22 in the city, 31 on the highway