Volkswagen Hits New High with Golf R

John Gilbert

 

Understated sportiness makes the high-potency Golf R stand out from any crowd. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Understated sportiness makes the high-potency Golf R stand out from any crowd. Photo credit: John Gilbert
The little silver “R” on the grille is one of the few tips that the Golf R is  something special. Photo credit: John GilbertThe little silver “R” on the grille is one of the few tips that the Golf R is something special. Photo credit: John Gilbert

 

Volkswagen is proving a difficult target to follow these days, coming out with new vehicles and new engines that give the German automaker a definite step up from most competitors. One of the more puzzling moves is the announcement that Volkswagen will keep selling the Jetta compact, and the Passat, as well as the new Arteon luxury midsize sedan, and its wagons and SUVs, but it will stop sending its iconic Golf hatchback to the United States.

To Volkswagen, it’s not a puzzle. The Golf outsells the Jetta in every country of the world where both are sold, except the U.S. Our buyers became convinced they didn’t want small hatchbacks anymore, and we buy many more Jettas than Golfs, so the Golf is simply eliminated from our future.

Well, not really. Volkswagen has allowed it will bring in two specialty Golf models, the GTI and the Golf R. That, too, makes economic sense because the high-performance GTI and the even higher-performance Golf R account for about half of all Golf sales in the U.S.

Despite the opportunity to be blown away by a week-long road test of a new 2019 Golf R in a new slate-grey color, I am disappointed to hear of the demise of the other Golfs.

The GTI is, of course, the icon of all “hot hatches” and outruns the standard Golf with ease, but the basic Golf now comes with VW’s all-new 1.4-liter turbo engine that powers the Jetta, and I wrote about testing that vehicle in minus-30-degree January weather this past winter. It has plenty of power with the turbo and can push out amazing amounts of torque as the newest engine from VW, and despite what the big-time magazines such as Motor Trend or Car & Driver say about needing more power and faster acceleration from everything they test, the 1.4 is a fun way to achieve 40-plus miles per gallon.

But I digress.

The GTI set the standard for fun and high-performance handling and power back a couple of decades or so, and Volkswagen kept making subtle refinements without ever losing the flat handling and solid performance in the front-wheel-drive hatchback. It was distinctive in autocross competition for hoisting its outside rear wheel in a tight turn, which was evidence of how stiff the platform was.

Suggesting improvements for the GTI seems like heresy, but VW has done it. A few years ago they brought out the heightened model, and it now has been refined itself as the Golf R. It shares the 2.0-liter dual-overhead cam four with the GTI, but it gets a power tweak up to 292 horsepower and 280 foot-pounds of torque.

That power is distributed to all four wheels in VW’s 4-Motion concept, and a 6-speed stick helps make it stick. There will be no rear-wheel lifting in this one. It is too well planted. Because the power goes to all four wheels, it is not likely you will ever screech the tires taking off, even if you try to. And why would you?

The test vehicle comes in at a bit over $43,000, and if that seems like a lot for a Golf, consider that it will go through anything, and handle with the same agile stability as the GTI, only better.

The test vehicle was a 4-door, and it does nothing to lessen the sportiness of the R. First impression was stunning, because the color is that unique slate gray, which is flat compared to the usual high-metallic colors everybody seems to favor. But various other companies have recently tried to make a few flat colors, including grey.

This one stands out because it’s distinctive color was set off by a set of black, 19-inch alloy wheels, making the high-performance Continental ContiSport Contact tires look like part of the wheels, while contrasting sharply with the car color. A tiny silver “R” adorns the grille, and any other special package indications are scarce, except for the four exhaust tailpipes that at least let you know that it was something special that just blew by you.

I was able to get up and over 30-miles per gallon, but it is a chore to resist running the revs up in second and third gears, which put you right up there in risk territory for any speed limit. Those revs rise steadily and smoothly, much the way the Golf R handles the tightest turn, making you wish for a chicane or two on the interstate system.

The sporty theme continues inside, where a flat-bottom steering wheel guides the  precise handling, aided by g-vectoring, of the 292-horsepower AWD Golf R.  Photo credit: John Gilbert
The sporty theme continues inside, where a flat-bottom steering wheel guides the precise handling, aided by g-vectoring, of the 292-horsepower AWD Golf R. Photo credit: John Gilbert
The “R” emblem points out that the encapsulating bucket seats are special in this  model. Photo credit: John Gilbert
The “R” emblem points out that the encapsulating bucket seats are special in this model. Photo credit: John Gilbert

More than that, my wife, Joan, was not impressed with the flat, slate-gray color at first. But after a couple of trips downtown Duluth, she had to relay her surprise at how many people commented on the subtle sportiness of the Golf R, which was something I also noticed every time I parked anywhere.   

The rage of the auto industry ad business these days is the compelling new prime-time Volkswagen commercial, set to the “Sound of Silence” classic by Simon and Garfunkel. Great song, and a fantastic ad, because it shows an engineer getting up in the dark of night to walk through the darkened house to his design bench, where he’s drawing up a stunning new version of the Microbus — VW’s stodgy but lovable van from the 1960s.

Only there’s nothing stodgy about the new van, with its dramatic snub-nosed features, only hinted at in the commercial. Reviewers have claimed that the ad shows that Volkswagen is still trying to apologize for the diesel scandal of the past decade, whereby software in Volkswagen diesels ingeniously restricted emissions when being tested, but violated standards when running free.

We must always add the footnote that virtually every other company on the face of the earth that builds a diesel engine also has had similar problems, although they have been kept much quieter, with General Motors, Ford, FCA, Mercedes and others falling far beneath the “scandal” level attained by Volkswagen. Most of those are larger trucks, and the high-mileage Golf TDIs were so plentiful that the company has pretty much stopped building diesels — at least for the U.S.

A long, flat surface under the panel-covered hatchback allows lots of stowage,  and the rear seats fold down, too. Photo credit: John Gilbert
A long, flat surface under the panel-covered hatchback allows lots of stowage, and the rear seats fold down, too. Photo credit: John Gilbert

I think there have been enough apologies, and VW has proven capable of building a whole new fleet of exceptional cars with gas engines, and using that ad to apologize on VW’s behalf might be a bit over the top, if not totally misplaced. For example, the opening line, “Hello darkness, my old friend,” fits the nighttime theme, as does the closing line, which reprises the line about “…the sound, of silence,” as we are shown an outline of the new VW “bus” head-on.

Hmmm…let’s see now. What is silent while running, but shines brightly in the night? How about an all-electric vehicle? Car folks might know far better than ad critics that the new version of the Microbus, which has been shown at all the major car shows for two years now, will be all-electric.

Meantime, Volkswagen is putting the finishing touches on an all-electric Golf, called the e-Golf, which will definitely prove that VW is headed down the cleanest of clean-air paths. It will be silent, it won’t require any gasoline, and it may lead the way, along with the Microbus, for an entire new direction for VW.

But pardon me if I engage in a little pre-nostalgia: Give us your best electric-motor technology, give us that Microbus, but please, don’t take away our Golf R!

Black 19-inch alloy wheels and high-performance Continental tires contrast beautifully with the slate gray color of the test car. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Black 19-inch alloy wheels and high-performance Continental tires contrast beautifully with the slate gray color of the test car. Photo credit: John Gilbert