First Drive: 2015 Volkswagen Golf R

SAN DIEGO – The high-powered, low-volume 2015 Volkswagen Golf R could play a big role in getting the German automaker’s U.S. sales back on the good foot. That would mean more VWs rolling out of showroom doors.

Here’s the deal: the VW Golf recently was named Car of the Year by two very prestigious organizations. Now, the Volkswagen Golf R helps to fill out a lineup that includes the regular Golf, a performance version of that compact car, a diesel powered Golf and an electric Golf. A station wagon is on the way, but we came here to test drive the Golf R. It is the high-powered version of this car.

By the numbers, this Golf R has a 2.0 liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine under the hood that makes292 horsepower and 280 pound feet of torque. It’s mated to a direct sequential gearing, read six-speed dual clutch, automatic transmission branded (DSG). This version goes on sale in the spring. It will be joined by a six-speed manual Golf R this summer that will be sold as a 2016 model; it will about $1,000 less than the automatic.

With the fast-shifting DSG, the Golf R can get to 60 mph from a standing start in a blistering 4.9 seconds and it has a top track speed of 155 mph. Because of low sales for the two-door Golf R in the past, the 2015 version will only be sold in this market as a four-door. Mileage is expected to be 23 mpg in the city, more than 30 mpg on the highway and 26 mpg combined.

The car has the 5th generation permanent 4Motion, but don’t let semantics fool you. It is front-wheel drive; the back wheels, using sensors, gained instant torque before the front wheels slipped. That could be often as the torque band hits its peak from 1,800 rpms to 5,500 rpms.

The Golf R has huge vented disc brakes: 13.4 inches in the front and 12.2 inches in the rear. It’s 0.8 inches lower than a regular Golf and the ESC (electronic stability control) can be switched off.

However, that is something that should be done on flat smooth surfaces like race tracks and not on tight twisting two lane country roads that climbed to more than 4,000 ft. in altitude as we headed to Julian, California, about 100 miles northwest of here.

The 2015 Golf R’s exhaust note was formidable as the push button start engine came to life. The quad exhaust had what my driving partner called turbo blip with the change of every gear. The tight turns and switch backs reminded us that four-wheel-drive is good on dry pavement too as the Golf R planted on the road and stayed in its track. When we approached turns too fast, its big brakes slowed us down without a lot of fuss, removing anxiety in the process.

You’ve got to know your Volkswagen Golfs in order to distinguish the Golf R. The exterior package includes subtly different bumpers with larger air intakes, side skirts and a rear diffuser. The quad adaptive Xenon headlights have LED daytime running lights forming a square U under each, the side view mirror caps are painted black, and it has a modified grille with the “R” logo embedded. But the easiest way to differentiate it is to get a look in the rear, which most vehicles on the road did as we sped away, and glimpse the four chrome-tipped exhaust pipes in the rear and the “R” badge on the liftgate. The five exterior colors are Tornado Red, Limestone Grey Metallic, Deep Black Pearl Effect, and Oryx White.

Inside, the 2015 VW Golf R features extensive upgrades. It has front sport seats, Nappa leather seating surfaces and a three-spoke sport steering wheel that features a chrome “R” logo on the crossbar. While dash and door trim panels have a “carbon touch” design, the sills have a stainless steel look with a blue hue. The pedals, dead pedal and shift knob are trimmed with an aluminum alloy and the center stack template has a black piano finish. There was blue ambient lighting that we didn’t see because of our daytime drive.

The car has a bunch of creature comforts: satellite radio, heated front seats, LED reading lights, a media device interface (but USB plugs won’t come until summer), Bluetooth, a rearview camera, power driver’s seat, dual zone climate controls, a navigation system, adaptive damping, 19-inch wheels, front and rear park assist and a premium audio system.

We think the new Golf R’s drive mode selection it really distinctive. It features comfort, normal, sport and individual selections. Engine response, shift points, suspension settings and steering ratios will adjust depending on the setting.

But what makes the drive mode selector different is that the change in driving characteristics is distinctive and immediate. And the individual setting lets you mix and match settings to your liking. The engineering that went into the Golf R is evident in big and small ways.

Prices start at $37,415 for the model with 18-inch alloy wheels. It climbs to $39,910 for the model featuring 19-inch alloy wheels, an adaptive damping system, a premium audio system, a touchscreen navigation system and park assist. There were a few quibbles about the price, the main gripe being that it was in range of some other small, sporty German luxury brands.

That may be true. However, the 2015 Volkswagen R has a following. During an internet pre-sale, 500 copies were sold in less than 12 hours. This is a low volume halo car. It’s got the performance goods that enthusiasts love and the aspirational traits which should get more people into other trim levels of the Golf. VW marketers can’t ask for the new Golf R to do too much more than that.

Frank S. Washington is editor of