By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist Photo courtesy of CARICOS
Subaru’s WRX STI is the fastest n’ most furious turbo all-wheel-drive thing going… right?
At least, not anymore.
The new king is VW’s Golf R — the “R” for returned after a two-year hibernation. Well, not really. The R is just VW-speak for really, really, really quick. Those two years in the garage? Time well spent.
How’s zero to 60 in the high fours grab you?
This leaves the Soobie (which is solidly in the fives) sucking the VW’s jetwash.
The handling is phenomenal, too. This is a car that will test your limits — and nerves — as a driver far more than most drivers will have the nerve or the skills to test its limits.
Even better, you’ll be able to make the attempt — and probably get away with it. Because unlike a WRX STi — which has that fast n’ furious rep as well as the bodywork to go with it (both guaranteed to draw cops like drunks to dive bars… and incline them toward mercilessness for the slightest speed infraction) the Golf R looks more or less like, well… a Golf.
And Golfs are responsible citizens, yes?
The one downside is the price — which is steep. But then, a WRX STi isn’t cheap, either. And if you look at it from another angle, the new Golf R is actually a bargain compared with, say, a Mercedes GLA AMG45 — which is a similar package and a similar performer (virtual dead heat) but orders of magnitude more expensive.
WHAT IT IS
The Golf R is kind of like Bane — the super villain who broke Batman’s back (in the comics). Only the R breaks the back of four-wheeled (and all-wheel-drive) rivals like the WRX STi.
It is without peer — performance-wise — among cars of this type and in this class.
Base price is $36,595 — $39,090 for a top-of-the-line model with Dynamic Chassis Control (driver-adjustable suspension) and navigation.
A Subaru WRX STi starts at $35,290 — with a top-of-the-line Limited listing for $39,290.
Given the R’s pushing $40k price, potential buyers might also want to cross-shop it against the Mercedes-Benz GLA 45 AMG, which starts at $48,300. While the Benz is also a berserker of the first order — and has the prestige-brand cachet — it’s also about $14k more to start.
Which makes the R look like a deal.
Because it is.
After two years off the market, Golf R returns — with a vengeance. The ’15 R is two full seconds quicker to 60 than the previous (2013) Golf R.
And — wait for it — more fuel efficient, too.
In addition to the up-rated engine and hair-whitening acceleration, the R also gets a cornucopia of complementary suspension, brake and steering enhancements as well as R-specific options — such as the available driver-adjustable Dynamic Chassis Control, which includes a very fast n’ furious Race setting.
Nearly 300 hp out of a little 2.0 four … you do the power-per-liter math.
30 on the highway, too.
As quick as a Benz GLA45 AMG; costs almost one base-trim Golf less to buy.
DSG automated manual — or six-speed manual manual.
Tall-roofed Golf goodness provides class-best interior/cargo-carrying room.
More on the down-low than the WRX STi.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Just the one (five-door hatchback) body for now. Lesser GTI is available in both three-door hatch and five-door hatchback versions.
VWs — all of them — have a weird, VW-specific cable for hooking up iPods and other devices that can be slightly awkward to deal with.
UNDER THE HOOD
A lot, apparently, can be done with very little.
VW (like Mercedes and the GLA) begins with a 2.0 liter four. It’s not a whole lot of engine, is it?
Or — in engineering terms — there’s not a lot of cylinder volume to work with. An engine makes power by burning a mix of air and gas, the resultant power determined to a great extent by how much of that mix can be gotten into the cylinders. Hence the old saying, there’s no replacement for displacement.
Except, there is.
Or rather, there is an alternative to it.
By pressurizing the incoming air-fuel charge, one can cram more of it into each of the engine’s cylinders — — effectively increasing the engine’s displacement by increasing the volume of air/fuel being consumed. The beauty of this is power… on demand. When not being force-fed, the engine goes back to being little. A big engine is always big — — always gulping down large volumes of air/fuel. That’s why they’re gas pigs. The turbo VW isn’t — — if you can resist the temptation to call up the turbo by pushing hard on the acceleration… which is kind of like expecting Cheap Trick at the Budokan in ’78 to not avail itself of screaming groupies.
I mean, c’mon.
But, you could — and that’s the thing.
Turbocharging makes it possible — — politically possible — — for car companies like VW to build cars this powerful because they can also be this efficient (in this case 23 city, 30 highway — — superb for a car capable of making a 4.8-4.9 second 0-60 dash). This is close enough to the pending (2016) 35.5 MPG fuel-efficiency fatwa issued by the federal government such that VW won’t get hammered too badly. Won’t have to sweat “gas guzzler” taxed added to the R’s sticker price… at least, not too much.
Something, by the way, is afoot at the Circle K. Note that the R’s rated output (292 hp) is not as high as the Subaru WRX STi’s claimed 305 hp. Yet the VW is quicker.
The STI is in the low fives — the R in the high fours.
Oh, and the Subaru’s also a rummy drunk at the pump: 17 city, 23 highway. That will not stand for long given the 35.5 MPG CAFE rigmarole that goes into effect next year. This car is as much on the endangered species list as traditional V8 muscle cars because of if its appetite. Not so much because of how much it drinks per se, but because of how high the “gas guzzler” fines will soon be.
Hell, traditional V8 muscle cars like the current Mustang GT and Camaro SS get about the same or better gas mileage than the STi — despite having engines literally twice the size. In any event all of them are going to become more expensive to sell — which will make them harder to sell.
Which will make it more likely they won’t be sold at all.
Wait and see.
ON THE ROAD
The R — like the WRX STi and the Benz GLA 45 AMG — is an all-wheel-driver. This is necessary to cope with the tremendous output, which would otherwise be piped through the front wheels (because these cars, unlike V8 muscle cars, are all built on a FWD-based layout).
Without AWD to spread the abuse, something would probably break — or you’d be jumping into the next lane via torque steer.
The AWD system hooks it all up with fully-warranted reliability and lets you focus on sussing out cops rather than fighting to steer the thing in a straight line.
Which is a good thing, because it’s a bullet — a high velocity hollow point that’s within a few tenths of supercar quick. The quickest stuff out there is in the high threes, 0-60 — and we’re talking about stuff like the Corvette Z06 and Dodge Hellcat now. Stuff that also costs easily twice as much and comes with a much higher profile, which is completely counterproductive if you intend to actually use these animals as opposed to posing in them like Better Call Saul (toupee and all).
In its class, the R is untouchable.
The Ford Focus ST and Mini Cooper S are Hoods to the R’s Bismarck. Don’t get within range of the VW’s big guns or you will be sorry. But the R’s real target is the WRX STi, which is a fairer fight (being about the same price and being also AWD — the Focus and the Cooper are front-drivers). But the end result is the same:
The R wins.
Perhaps the Subaru is the better track-day choice, if at-the-limits handling is a factor… and it’s only factor if the driver is a pro or operating at that level, someone with the skill to reach those limits (in either car). And very few non-pros fall into that category. On the street, the decisive factor will be which car pulls harder — and that would be the VW.
The STi, meanwhile, rides like a track-day car. Which is fine on the track… not so much on the street.
The R is the better everyday car because it’s the more livable car. Both the suspension and the seats have enough give built into them to make the R a car you could comfortably commute in, if you wanted. The STi is lots of things — — and lots of fun when sideways, on boost. But an everyday driver, it’s not … unless you’re into pain. It’s harsh, loud and obnoxious. Things teenage boys love.
The R is for grown ups.
Who still have teenaged impulses.
It’s nice that VW offers you the choice of shift-for-yourself (manual six-speed) or let it shift for you (Direct Shift — DSG — automated manual). Normally, I prefer the manual manual just because it’s more hooliganish, even if the automated manual shifts better (faster, more perfectly) than I can. But here it’s a toss up. The DSG is a superb transmission that not only slices off scalpel-sharp, perfectly timed shifts but will (if Race mode is selected) do it with neck-snapping, downshift rev-matching aggressiveness, too. And because things happen so fast, acceleration-wise, it’s an asset to be free to focus on steering angles and apexes and leave the box to do its thing while you do yours. It’s probably also the one you want for long-haul durability as the manual manual’s clutch will likely lead a brutal and therefore short life with you popping it in and out.
A very cool R feature is the quad exhaust (unique to the R; not available with mere GTIs) that “talks back” when you put pedal to the metal. There’s a bypass valve in the system that opens the pipes, virtually eliminating backpressure. Accompanying each full-throttle upshift is a a pleasing politically incorrect mini-burst of internal combustion that brings to mind a Concorde on its take-off roll, the four Olympus turbojets glowing red on the reheaters (as the Brits call afterburners). The Benz GLA 45 has a similar feature, but it’s optional and the car already costs — what was it? — about $14k more to start.
AT THE CURB
It’s just an expensive (though very quick) Golf… is the charge leveled at VW.
Isn’t the GLA45 AMG just a really expensive (and very quick) GLA?
Isn’t the WRX STi a hopped up Impreza?
I think being a Golf — a very quick Golf — is good from several points of view.
I’ve already mentioned the stealth aspect. Even if the STi were quicker (which it’s not) getting away with using that quickness is much more challenging because it’s a known offender. Like a paroled felon with face tats applying for a job. Even trying to drive normally is a challenge in that car because so many other drivers know what you’re about and want to race.
Or worse, mess with you.
Block you in. Cut you off. Maybe key your paint job in the parking lot. Such hassles are constant when you drive a car like the STi. The Benz is more discrete but you pay for the privilege.
Second plus, it’s a Golf.
People love them because they are so well-packaged. That tall roof and boxy profile, for instance. It gives the car almost twice the cargo capacity (22.8 cubic) that the Subaru WRX STi’s got (12 cubes) and significantly more than the the Benz (17.2 cubic feet). With the second folded down, the Golf’s total cargo capacity expands to 52.7 cubic feet.
And that — cue Paris Hilton — is huge.
Room for people is top-drawer, too.
Both the WRX STi and the GLA 45 AMG are sort of Bruce Jenner-ish in that they are really coupes at heart pretending to be otherwise. Their design/layout is very up-front biased. For example, the GLA has 41.9 inches of legroom for the driver and co-pilot but just 33.9 inches are tossed the backseaters’ way. The VW distributes the real estate more evenly — and generously. Up front, 41.2 inches — and 35.6 (nearly two inches more than the Benz) in the second row.
The Subaru’s similarly front-row biased.
It has an overgenerous 43.3 inches of front seat legroom (more than most people less than six-feet-four-inches tall will probably ever actually use unless they’re sleeping in the car… and the STi is not the car for that) and 35.1 inches in the second. Which is almost as good as the VW — — except that you may have to tuck in because there’s less headroom (an inch less, to be precise) and also you may have to have your passengers carry stuff on their laps because the Soobie’s trunk is so tiny.
There is also ambiance to consider.
The R — like all current VWs — is German. Something the Subaru will never be (just as Bruce Jenner will never have two “X” chromosomes). The R — and all current VWs — shares literal DNA with Audis, which are direct kin. But it’s deeper than that. The culture that creates Audis — and Benzes — can’t help but manifest in the design of VWs. The tall-people-friendly interior space, for instance. Japanese cars — having been designed by physically smaller Japanese people — tend to be a little more cramped inside and this metric is measurable in other ways besides front and second row legroom and cargo room. VWs — including the R — have more adjustability built into them. The driver’s seat, for instance, can be jacked up and down to a greater extent than in something like the Subaru. As a tall person myself, I also find that the steering wheel and shifter position relate more naturally to my tall geek body than in a Japanese car.
You’ll have to try it on yourself and see.
The R’s cabin is similar to the standard Golf’s (and GTI’s) but upgraded in numerous subtle ways, including nicer trim bits and detail touches such as a brushed metal and LED backlit strip on the lower door sills (with matching thin-line LED backlit strips built into the upper door panels) as well as standard leather sport buckets with embossed “R” badging, unique-design 18 and (optional) 19-inch wheels and R-specific flat-bottomed steering wheel. The gauge package is R-specific, too — and features a 200 MPH speedo (180 in the GTI) and a tach redlined at 6,500 (vs. 6,000 in the GTI).
The rev limiter in the R actually allows 7,000-plus RPM — which DSG-equipped R’s will bounce off at every WOT upshift.
God bless VW. There is no “eco” setting (or auto-stop/start) nonsense in the R — which would be as out of place in a car like this as Hillary Clinton at a strip club. Your options are Normal and — wait for it — Race. Press the checkered flag icon and things get serious. The car gets immediately growly — literally, the exhaust note pitches up to let’s-get-ready-to-rumble and so does the rest of the car. DSG-equipped R’s rev-matched/throttle-blipping gear changes will make you feel like you’re wearing Nomex.
Just two — and they are (largely) trivial.
One, VW is only selling the R in the five-door hatchback layout. Which is odd given that the lesser-performing GTI comes as a two-door (three-door, if you count the hatch). Odd, because two-doors are usually considered the sportier way to go and the R is oodles sportier than the GTI. But then, the four-door (five, if you count the hatchback) adds to the R’s stealth.
Two, VWs (all of them) come with this weird little cable thingie for plugging your iPod or device into — as opposed to the usual USB port. So you’ve got this awkward little cable flopping around all the time — and plugging in is awkward, too.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Otherwise? Make mine blend-in silver or white, plug the V1 into the 12V power point and off I go. Without (probably) getting caught.
The R isn’t pricey. It’s a deal.
You just have to be smart enough to see it.