It is interesting in life, how experiencing one thing can make us appreciate the virtues of another, and this realization can be applied to a great many things – work, relationships or even that new restaurant you thought you’d try, only to discover that it’s not as good as your regular place.
The same can be true for cars as well, and the reason I bring this up is because I recently had such an experience involving a couple of hot hatches.
Before I get into it, however, a caveat: I like both cars I’m about to discuss very much, but experiencing them both again reinforced a preference that had already begun to take shape.
About a month ago, I drove a Ford Focus RS on public roads and at speed on a closed, snow-covered course and it was a lot of fun. It’s fast, loud and has the handling reflexes of a rally car – a street legal rally car.
This was the second time I’d driven it, the first being last September when I drove one of Ford of Canada’s press vehicle copies. I didn’t get to drive it in anger then, but came away impressed with its performance credentials. Even on public roads, the car is a blast to drive.
Fast forward to last week, and I’m behind the wheel of the Volkswagen Golf R, which also marked my second time driving it.
The first was in the fall of 2015, when I drove it on public roads and on the road course at Calabogie Motorsports Park near Ottawa as part of its Canadian press launch. It too, was a great car to drive on track and off, and I felt like it struck a nice balance between performance and comfort.
After driving it again, and with the memory of the Focus RS still fresh in my mind, the second experience only reinforces a notion that had begun to take hold earlier – between these two great cars, if I had to pick one that would serve as my daily driver and weekend track beast, I’d choose the Golf R.
Now this isn’t to say I’d turn down a Focus RS – I wouldn’t. But if I had the money to plunk down for only one, the Golf R is the choice.
Preferences are always subjective, but for me the Golf feels like less of a compromise – it’s a choice that stands up even if you’re not looking to track it every weekend.
That’s due, in part, to the fact that it looks and feels like a regular Golf. There are a few styling touches that separate it from the rest of the family, but they’re reasonably subtle. Aside from the quad exhaust outlets, bigger wheels and a handful of R badges, it is virtually indistinguishable from other Golfs, and I think it’s the right approach.
Put it this way, in a row of Golfs at your local VW dealership, you’d be hard-pressed to spot the Rs, unless you’re up close or looking at them from the rear.
To some, this might be a detractor – some want their hot hatch festooned with a spoiler, a wing and a giant hood scoop – but for me blending in is the art of hiding in plain sight. You won’t see my performance bonafides coming, but you’ll know it when I blast by on a highway on ramp.
The same restraint is also visible in the cabin, where VW designers have elected to go with a clean and elegant interior layout, with some small touches to alert occupants that they are riding in a Golf R. Things like the blue needles in the instrument cluster along with R badging in the front seatbacks and on the steering wheel communicate model differences in a subtle, yet reinforcing way.
The subtlety even extends to on-road performance, where in normal mode, the 2.0-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder TSI engine and six-speed DSG dual-clutch gearbox push the Golf R along in ways that really don’t feel worlds apart from a regular Golf, at least when the drive mode is switched to normal.
Now, things change dramatically when the drive mode selector is toggled to race. The revs bump up, the exhaust drone gets louder, throttle-mapping gets a lot more aggressive and the transmission holds the revs significantly longer before upshifting.
This mode puts the R in Golf R, and it makes for a very dynamic driving experience – on road and track – especially when one is making use of the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
Speaking of the track, how fast are we talking here?
Well, according to VW, the Golf R, which pushes 292 horsepower and 280 lb-ft. of torque (at just 1,800 rpm), can go from 0-96.6 km/h (60 mph) in 5.3 seconds with a six-speed manual transmission. It’s even faster (4.9) when equipped with the DSG.
That’s incredibly quick for what amounts to a GTI with all-wheel drive and some R-specific engine tuning. The R uses the same EA888 engine as the former, but it gets the benefit of engineering muscle VW has gained through its various motorsports efforts.
For the Golf R, this means a new cylinder head with different exhaust valves, valve seats and springs, pistons, high-pressure injection system and turbocharger. It also gets better thermal management for quicker warm up, along with variable valve timing for both the intake and exhaust, and a two-stage exhaust-valve lift, designed to boost performance and fuel economy.
Bottom line, there’s enough of a performance spread between the R and the GTI (210 hp / 258 lb-ft.) to justify the $11,200 price premium attached to the former.
With respect to the comparison I mentioned earlier with the Focus RS, there’s no doubt the Ford is a great car. It’s more powerful (350 hp / 350 lb-ft), it also comes with standard all-wheel drive (and a set of winter tires!) and is a sharply styled vehicle loaded with lots of standard features.
But so is the Golf R. There are too many to list here, but I especially like the standard Apple CarPlay / Android Auto, the console-mounted push-button starter, and comfortable and supportive leather sport seats.
And like all hot hatches, the Golf R comes with plenty of versatility thanks to folding rear seatbacks, which open up a ton of available cargo space.
I suppose in the end, for me, the Golf R fits better with my sense of value because it delivers on the performance promise of a car with an R designation, yet it costs less (roughly $8,000) that its primary competitor and it makes for a fine daily driver. As much as I like the Focus RS, I’m not sure I’d want to drive it every day, and that is an important consideration for me.
I realize the Subaru WRX STI and forthcoming Honda Civic Type R are also viable alternatives, in addition to the Focus RS, but I haven’t driven the Honda and the Subaru, while an impressive performer, isn’t a car I’d want to drive every day.
But the Golf R certainly is, and I’d welcome the opportunity to do so. Someday.
SPECIFICATIONS – 2017 Volkswagen Golf R
BASE PRICE / AS TESTED: $42,095 / $45,795 (incl. $1,625 destination)
ENGINE: 2.0L turbocharged 4-cylinder
HORSEPOWER: 292 hp @ 5,400 rpm
TORQUE: 280 lb-ft. @ 1,800 rpm
CURB WEIGHT: 1,525 kg
CONFIGURATION: front engine, all-wheel drive
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed dual-clutch automatic
FUEL ECONOMY RATINGS (L/100 KM - CITY / HWY. / COMB.): 10.4 / 7.9 / 9.3
WARRANTY (MOS. / KM): 48 / 80,000
ALTERNATIVES: Ford Focus RS, Honda Civic Type R, Subaru WRX / STI
Photography by Lee Bailie
Technology Package ($1,945)
- Adaptive Cruise Control
- Discover Pro 8-inch touchscreen radio with proximity sensor, CD player, voice control, satellite navigation and two card slots
- Front Assist- Autonomous Emergency Braking
- Lane Assist
- Light Assist (High beam control)
- Park Distance Control
Accessories and / or Stand Alone Options
Allow wheel package ($130)
Total – $2,075