Payne: Car of Year Golf R encore
The sleeper R is for the speed jockey who doesn't need a muscle shirt to show off his pecs.
How did the VW Golf respond to winning the 2015 North American Car of the Year at the Detroit Auto Show?
By rolling out the new Golf R two weeks later: The biggest, baddest, fastest Golf ever.
It's like Pixar bettering "Toy Story" with "Toy Story 2." Like Verlander following a five-hit gem with a shutout. Like Apple introducing a new iPhone 6, then eclipsing it with a big screen iPhone 6 Plus.
The R is for those who don't think the sensational Golf GTI is enough.
The GTI, of course, is what we North American Car of the Year jurists really mean when we say Golf was the best new car to hit U.S. roads last year. The $25K GTI is no boy toy indulgence, but an affordable, practical pocket rocket that makes up a full 50 percent of U.S. Golf sales. And for good reason. The GTI's performance is legendary. Wolfsburg's wizards conjured a front-wheel-drive chassis that rotates like a rear-wheel-driver thanks to an ingenious limited-slip front differential. Driving this fun box is a 210-horsepower, turbo 2.0-liter with a staggering 258 pound-feet of torque. Unleash this puppy on tight roads and it's more fun than a Platinum Pass at Cedar Point.
Detroit News auto critic reviews Volkswagen's all-wheel drive pocket rocket.
With hatchback utility and a refined interior worthy of coaches priced 10 grand higher, the GTI is gift enough for the fun-starved compact car buyer. But like Corvette's insane Z06, the gonzo Golf R takes GTI to another level.
Is R short for 'roids? This hormone-fed hot hatch squeezes another 82 horses (292 total) and 280 pound feet of torque out of the same four-cylinders that motivate the GTI. Then it connects this bag of bobcats to the road with a torque-vectoring, all-wheel drive system that grips like a locomotive on rails.
But when I asked Hans Stuck — the legendary German race ace who assisted VW on Golf R development — what he likes best about the R, he replied with a wry grin: "Iss zee brakes."
Zee man doesn't lie. On paper, the oversized 13.4-inch front and 12.2-inch rear rotors available only on GTI's Autobahn Performance Package come standard on the R. On road, stomping the brake pedal feels like someone chucked a boat anchor out the hatch. I took the R out on the twisty Route 78 in the Cuyamaca Mountains east of San Diego. Flinging the R over the gnarly, knotted road took me back to Hell, Michigan's exquisite Route 32 loop where I last enjoyed Audi's 2015 Audi A3 — my favorite handling car on last year's Car of the Year short list.
That's no coincidence.
Volkswagen owns Audi and the Golf R and A3 dine at the same family dinner table. Same MQB platform. Same AWD system. Same engine block. The A3 shares the GTI's eager engine while its sister hot rod, the S3, shares the R's 292-horse rocket. Which is to say, the Golf R is the Audi S3 in sheep's clothing. Good grief, no wonder this thing has more moves than Derrick Rose.
VW lists the $37,415, base Golf R's competitors as the $35,290 Subaru WRX STI, $44,025 BMW M235i, and $48,375 Mercedes GLA45 AMG. Obviously, the $42K S3 belongs on that list as well. And the forthcoming Ford Focus RS. That's rare air.
What makes the R stand out in such company is that it doesn't stand out.
If I'm an alpha male with 40,000 quid to throw around I want to enter I-696 like I own it. With a gaudy hood scoop and rear wing that looks like it was torn off a World War I biplane, Subaru's STI comes down the on-ramp like Rickenbacker diving out of the sun. The Focus RS (can't wait) appears in the rear-view mirror with a maw like a Great White at dinner time. The Audi S3? It wears its four rings on its massive grille like Usain Bolt wears his chest-full of gold medals. The M and the AMG are a Bimmer and a Merc. Say no more. You can smell the expensive cologne.
The R, on the other hand, is the sleeper of the bunch. From a distance it doesn't look much different than the base Golf. Hmm. ... Air-gulping lower gills seem oddly large. The wicked glow of LED running lights. But by the time you've digested this information the thing is by you with a bark like a hyena. Hawp! Only then do you see the signature, quad tailpipes receding in the distance. What the hell was that?!
The R, then, is for the speed jockey who doesn't need a muscle shirt to show off his toned body. The predator who likes to sneak up on his prey. The practical Tasmanian Devil.
I covet the Audi S3, but would happily buy an R — and not because it would save me five grand and a hat-full of speeding tickets ("Don't tell me, officer. The big Audi grille tip you off again?"). Both all-wheel-drivers would taunt a Detroit blizzard — but the five-door hatchback (a first for R which in previous generations has only been offered as a three-door) is much more utilitarian than the low-roof, cramped rear quarters of the S3 sedan. And VW's intuitive, touchscreen console will save you the daily torture of the Audi's rotary dial.
Audi, however, could teach VW a thing or two about marketing.
While the mother ship's luxury brand has seen rapid growth in the U.S. market, V-dub has stalled. Indeed, Audi's 182,010 in sales is roughly half VW sales — despite the former being a niche luxury automaker. That's shocking underperformance for Volkswagen's signature nameplate.
Did VW miss the boat on SUVs? Are VWs over-engineered for the U.S. market? Do hatchbacks only sell on crossovers? A combination of the above. Witness Audi leading in the shark-eat-shark luxe segment with bold styling, pricing, and segment-busting SUVs. While Audi wowed the compact SUV market with the entry-level Q3, for example, VW is MIA in a fast-growing subcompact segment featuring the Honda HR-V, Mazda CR3, and Chevy Trax.
Ex-Audi communications chief John Schilling has come across the aisle to help solve the mystery. And VW's invested billions in a new Tennessee plant to churn out crossovers. In the meantime, we can thank them for the Golf. And the Golf GTI. And the Golf R.
Like Christopher Nolan's "Batman" movie trilogy, each sequel gets better than the last. So will Golf stand pat with the R? Not likely. VW teased a 400-horsepower Golf R400 concept last spring. Please?
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
2015 Volkswagen Golf R
Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger compact hatchback
Price: $37,415 base ($39,910 as tested)
Power plant: 2.0-liter, turbo, inline 4-cylinder
Power: 292 horsepower, 280 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: six-speed DSG automatic or six-speed manual
Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.9 seconds (auto); 155 mph top speed (manufacturer)
Weight: 3,340 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 23 mpg city/30 mpg highway/26 mpg combined
Highs: AWD all-weather performer; stealth fighter
Lows: Worth the premium over superb GTI?; bigger European console screen, please