The 2015 Volkswagen Golf R might very well be the most accessible, livable car to offer both all-weather traction from all-wheel drive, plus 0-60 mph acceleration in less than five seconds—especially if you limit the contenders to those with an under-$40,000 price tag.
What it starts with is essentially the same sensible, sporty package as the Golf GTI. But the Golf R gets a significantly modified, 292-horsepower version of the GTI’s 2.0-liter in-line turbocharged, direct-injected four-cylinder engine. Perhaps most importantly, it steps up to all-wheel drive and a more aggressive suspension tune.
Through our enthusiast site, Motor Authority, we’ve given you both a slip-sliding preview drive on ice from the proving grounds of northern Scandinavia, and then a tire-challenging on-track workout at Southern California’s Buttonwillow Raceway Park.
What remains? Well, the real world, of course.
Polar opposites...attract different kinds of enthusiasts
And it demands a comparison, we think, with the Subaru WRX STI, which is a higher-output, 305-hp companion to Subaru’s more affordable (268-hp) WRX. It's been some months since we drove the STI, but really, any differences between the Golf R and STI aren't down to nuance. They're polar opposites, it seems.
The spec panels and performance capabilities are remarkably close. Yet it wouldn’t take very long, even just puttering along in traffic, to recognize that these are very different cars, however. Unlike the Golf R, the STI takes a more overtly track-oriented route with respect to the way it’s tuned; and in short, it wears that track flavor on its sleeves a little too much for most daily driving.
The Golf R is absolutely a darling for daily driving, and it’s a point that was again underscored when we recently had the chance to drive it on Southern California highways, as well as city streets around San Diego.
Like most other contemporary higher-output turbocharged fours, the engine in the Golf R maintains its drivability when you’re just moving with traffic; and it doesn’t feel any peakier than its GTI counterpart. There’s a slight bit more turbo lag when you ask for a quick burst of power; but in general this is an engine that’s happy in the middle of the rev range.
Another counterpoint to the STI’s rear-biased power split and rally-style driver-selectable diffs is the 4Motion all-wheel-drive system in the Golf R. It allows the VW to function mostly as a front-wheel-drive car; but when needed it can send up to 50 percent of torque to the rear wheels.
An all-weather lack of fluster from the R, plus a 'secret menu' for handling
The Golf R’s system, and its Haldex 5 center differential, is definitely a setup that permits a lot of nuance, and it brings an Audi quattro-like lack of fluster to the all-weather driving experience. It’s all extremely smooth, with judicious brake application essentially acting as front and rear limited-slip diffs (VW terms it XDS+).
2015 Volkswagen Golf R - Driven, January 2015
You can dial in a certain amount of rear bias to the STI’s system; meanwhile in the Golf R getting any measure of neautralizing or oversteer-inducing power to the rear wheels requires a full disabling of the R’s stability control system and a right foot solidly pegged. It almost feels like accessing a 'secret menu'...and really, you’ll want to keep that for the track. But what you do get are selectable driving modes that make meaningful changes to the powertrain, steering, and damping.
For the time being, all Golf R models have VW’s DSG twin-clutch automated manual gearbox setup; although it does include a nifty launch control feature, which we tried out a couple of times [you’ll need to consult your owner’s manual for that, ehem].
All Golf R models include a so-called progressive variable ratio steering system that serves to make the area around center feel nice and relaxed when you need it to be while allowing tight hairpins and parking maneuvers without crossing arms. And available adaptive damping makes all that extra capability more enjoyable without a jittery ride or extra road noise.
The Golf R comes in just two trim levels—a base package adding up to $37,415, and one costing $39,910, with the DCC & Navigation Package, including adaptive damping, touch-screen navigation, front and rear park distance control, and a Fender Premium Audio system. All Golf R models include bi-xenon headlamps, LED running lamps, push-button start, keyless entry, touch-screen infotainment, Bluetooth connectivity, ambient and footwell lighting, leather seats, a power driver’s seat, rain-sensing wipers, heated front seats, and dual-zone climate control.
Golf R costs more than STI, but less in loaded form
That’s a higher price at the base level for the Golf R, compared to the STI, but a loaded Golf R for less money than the top 2015 Subaru WRX STI Limited.
We do indeed think that Subaru missed the mark with its STI this time around, and that the WRX lineup is still missing a top-tech model that takes advantage of all the upgrades given to that model this year yet makes fewer concessions in drivability and livability.
To that point, we’d recommend the Golf R if you want to step up to something with a little more performance (and maturity) than the WRX. Likewise, the Golf R isn’t as outrageous as the STI, but it’s just as likely to make you grin. It’s not a car that you’ll need to make excuses about—to enthusiasts or to loved ones.
Click on to see some of the point-by-point reasons why we’d favor the Golf R over the STI.