Most everyone is familiar with the Volkswagen GTI, the original “hot hatch” that sparked a new performance category back in the 1970s.
It didn’t take long for the competition to realize the German automaker was on to something, and began churning out their own versions of hot-rodded but affordable economy cars.
Over the years and through several generations, the GTI has had some great years and some not so great years. And while the current version is likely the best one yet, there’s another Golf-based hottie that’s even more desirable: The Golf R.
With the R, VW has added more power, a more performance-oriented suspension system, revised brakes, and most importantly, all-wheel drive.
The addition of a revised front fascia featuring gaping air intakes and a pair of center-mounted exhaust pipes twinned in the rear — and a set of unique, sharp-looking alloys — lends a welcome dose of differentiation to the R.
Inside, there’s little that needed changing from a regular GTI, since the interior already easily wears a best-in-class crown thanks to its Audi-grade materials, simple-yet-complete gauge and control layout, and highly supportive and comfortable front buckets.
The biggest changes are found underneath the chunky body, where numerous upgrades lurk. VW’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive system permits all those extra horses — 256 vs. 200 in the GTI — to be sent to the tires with the most grip, with nearly all of it capable of going to the rear wheels should road conditions demand.
The 2.0-liter, twin-cam, direct-injection engine receives a larger turbocharger along with reinforced block and connecting rods for durability.
A quicker steering ratio, a slightly firmer suspension and bigger brakes seal the performance envelope.
The result is a fast, refined, fun-to-flog hatchback with impeccable road manners. The R comes into its own slicing along serpentine two-lane back roads, with all four wheels contributing prodigious grip. For a rather tall small car, body lean is negligible.
On interstate slogs, the R rides firmly but compliantly, with subdued road and wind noise making it a fine long-distance tourer.
The electronic steering is ultra-responsive, with plenty of useful feedback through the thick-rimmed steering wheel. And the brake pedal responds in perfect sych to the pressure applied to it.
All R’s come with a six-speed manual gearbox. A solidly engaging clutch works in smooth harmony with the short-throw lever, making slick, quick gear changes second nature.
So does the R merit its 25 percent price premium over a standard-issue GTI?
Considering the all-around performance gains, plus the plethora of standard equipment (optional on the GTI) and the R’s unique appearance, it makes a highly compelling case for shelling out the extra bucks.