Days in advance of the arrival of Volkswagen's black beast, I was picking out a gut-stiffening mix of mountain roads on which to unleash its savagery. And after a weekend of thrashing, I liked the racy 2013 Volkswagen Golf R. The problem? I desperately wanted to love it.
Anyone who's ever thumbed through a car buff-book knows that VW introduced the "hot hatch" segment in 1983 with the arrival on U.S. shores of the GTI version of its Golf, an otherwise pedestrian people's car that for a good number of years Americans were sheepishly forced to call the Rabbit. The GTI ruled the fun/practical/affordable roost and nabbed countless Top 10 accolades before succumbing to the sincerest form of flattery. Imitators have since sprung up like mushrooms and today include powerful segment competitors such as Subaru's rally-proven WRX, Mini Cooper S, and even an in-house threat from the VW group's own Audi TTS.
Not that Volkswagen brass ever abandoned the GTI. The name still stirs drivers and delivers sales, which is why back in 2004 VW goosed the model by adding 4Motion all-wheel-drive, replacing its traditional in-line four cylinder engine with a 240-hp 3.2-liter V-6, and changing its name to R32. You see where this is going. The R32 was tweaked again in 2008, with the addition of an auto-clutch transmission once reserved only for the European market. Though this wasn't necessarily a good thing.
Enter the 2012 Golf R, whose "32" has been dropped along with that V-6 in favor of a turbocharged four-cylinder powerplant good for 256 hp and a grabby 243 ft-lbs of torque. Also dumped is the auto-shifting transmission; in its place stands a right proper six-speed shifter. Could this spell a return to the GTI's roots, which back in the days of hair-metal bands boiled down to as pure a seat-of-the-pants driving experience one could have in a German driving machine that didn't take three jobs to afford?
That's certainly what I was hoping for when a deep black metallic example pulled up at the curb, with its subtle and rather small R peeking out from the grille and dual exhausts poking out from the rear. The car seemed to scream driver's machine, with its black on black color scheme, sunroof-less roof and no-nonsense interior. But the price tag immediately gave pause. Just under $35,000 brings you a 2-door base model with no options, though 4Motion, Xenon headlights and a fairly modern entertainment system come standard. That's some $11,000 more than the entry-level regular GTI (whose 2-liter four offers 31/21 mpg hwy/city, versus the R's 27/19 mpg) and $5,000 more than the fully-loaded Autobahn GTI.
Clearly the R had some explaining to do, and it tried its valiant best through a range of sporting and mundane driving activities. On the plus side, it's nothing less than a visceral thrill to be controlling a GTI with a stick. On the down side, the gearbox had far too much play for a machine that claims serious sporting cred. For every point, there seemed to be an irrefutable counterpoint.
Pro: The alphabet soup of driver aids are very reassuring in aggressive driving, which is promoted by a stiff suspension that minimizes body roll.
Con: That same suspension may inspire praise on new tarmac, but it's hip-cracking on bad roads which only adds to the high level of road noise.
Pro: Love the racer-oriented flat-bottomed steering wheel that's part of an interior vibe that telegraphs "Don't talk to me while I'm driving."
Con: Even racing types like a little fun; $35,000 and no sunroof?
What's great about the venerable GTI remains great, namely a crazy-practical automotive package that packs five people and stuff in an upright box while guaranteeing grins on the way to your destination. When VW unveils the 2014 model GTI, it will be based on the lighter Audi A3 platform, and word is will have its engine massaged to provide nearly 230 hp. The Golf R will return as well, offering nearly 300 hp from its turbo four.
That's two pieces of great news for fans of the original hot-hatch. But VW would do well to further distinguish its GTI from the R given the large price gap, and it could do so with a just quick powwow with the folks over at upmarket Audi. In fact, if a significantly upgraded interior (with splashes of carbon fiber and Alcantara), a much more notchy stick (think R8-inspired) and a sunroof (why not go full panorama) were on the menu, Volkswagen's potentially delicious Golf R dish would be more than worth its asking price.