I’ve recently come to the conclusion that the Volkswagen Golf R is the best hot hatchback on the market. I wasn’t expecting to reach this conclusion, as I’ve long extolled the virtues of the Ford Focus RS, which has way too much power for its own good and is just raucously fun to operate.
But the Golf R is better. I reached this decision a few weeks ago after driving a Golf R, when I realized something crucial: No, the Golf R is not as fast as the Focus RS, and it certainly isn’t as powerful. But the Golf R offers a lot of things the Focus RS simply doesn’t.
Before I explain what I mean, a brief overview. The Golf R — effectively the "high performance" version of the already high-performance Volkswagen GTI — essentially debuted back in 2004, though it was then known as the R32. Over time, it’s been refined, the name has been changed, it’s grown to offer a 4-door body style and you can now get it with a dual-clutch automatic. The original R32 had 237 horsepower; today’s Golf R now has 292.
That figure isn’t especially impressive when you compare it with the major rivals: The aforementioned Focus RS (350 hp), the Subaru WRX STI (300 hp) and the Honda Civic Type R (300 hp). And it’s especially not impressive when you consider pricing: The Golf R starts around $41,000 with shipping, to the Focus RS’s $42,000, the STI’s $37,500 and the Civic Type R’s $36,000. That makes the Golf R the worst value when you look at it purely from a horsepower standpoint. I figured I’d drive the Golf R and come to the conclusion that it’s just another overpriced German car that can’t beat out the Japanese and American rivals.
As it turns out, the Golf R offers very nearly the same performance as the Civic Type R and the WRX STI, touting a 0-to-60 time of something like 4.9 seconds, which is actually faster than those rivals — largely due to its quick-shifting dual-clutch transmission. Moreover, the Golf R feels tremendously less skittish on the road: While the WRX STI, Civic Type R and Focus RS feel like the angry, aggressive hot hatchbacks they are, the Golf R almost seems as though it’s part luxury car and part hot hatchback, with an upscale interior and a smooth driving experience until you start pushing it.
And when you start pushing it, you discover the Golf R doesn’t actually give up much to its rivals. Handling is fantastic, with direct, responsive steering and surprisingly minimal body roll. Acceleration is strong — yes, not as strong as the Focus RS, but still strong — and coming out of corners in a Golf R really feels one step behind actual, purpose-built sports cars. All-wheel drive grips, the transmission does what it needs to — very quickly — and power is plentiful, even at lower RPMs where the 200-hp GTI might miss a beat.
In other words, the Golf R is really fun to drive. But as I alluded to earlier, that isn’t all it is. The Golf R is also a nice car, with a nice interior that features top-quality materials on practically every surface. While the Focus RS might be a better car for all-out, high-performance, back-road driving or for track use, the Golf R is the one you’ll actually want to get in after work and cruise along in as you drive down the highway. Ride comfort is better than rivals, cabin noise is quieter than rivals and the Golf R just simply feels nicer overall than its rivals.
Which leads me to this conclusion: In the Golf R’s biggest rivals, you’re paying for performance above all else. In the Golf R, you give up a little performance — really, just a little; basically an undetectable amount versus the Civic Type R and WRX STI — but you add the ability to have a respectable daily driver, a vehicle free of massive wings and cheap interiors, a car that can be both subtle and luxurious when you want it to be and fun and exciting when you want it to be.
It’s a great combination — and unless you’re actually carving up canyons every weekend or using your hot hatchback on the race track (in which case you should get a Focus RS), the Golf R is the best hot hatchback simply because it’s best at doing it all: Being a hatchback, and being hot. I came away pleasantly surprised from my day with the Golf R, and I highly suspect you’ll feel the same way if you test drive one.
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