If you like to have fun behind the wheel, this is for you.
Unlike many people who learned to parallel park in a city, I learned to parallel park in the mountains of North Carolina. I’d been able to skip this skill in driver’s education, but if you want to park a car on the narrow, winding roads of Western NC, often you have to parallel park. If you do this without precision you are likely to find your car in need of a tow out of a gully, or worse. So I had to figure it out.
I tell you this because ironically, I learned to parallel park in a VW Beetle named Zack, and then in a VW Rabbit with automatic seat belts. It was my college roommate’s car and often she’d toss me the keys and let me do the driving (and parallel parking). So it was a bit of a trip back in time to drive through the twisty mountain roads of North Carolina in VWs once again. This time in the new VW Golf R and the GTI—and no doubt a much more thrilling experience; these cars have more power and sport capability than ever, and there was no parallel parking involved (which these cars can do automatically without much assistance from the driver).
The VW Golf Lineup, Refined For Fun
Here’s another little back story: a few years ago VW retooled its lineup to focus more on SUVs and less on the small cars that are so popular in places with narrow roads like Europe and Asia. While VW was the world’s largest auto maker, the company had a relatively small business in the US. Then came ‘Dieselgate’ and the entire brand faced a new test: survival.
The company shifted its focus in North America to designing and building SUVs and the strategy was hugely successful. But did it demand that the company abandon the hatchbacks and sedans that its fans and family of drivers, designers and engineers love so much?
Of course not. What it does mean is that VW can now design and build only the cars that their fans love; they can abandon ideas like “a Golf for everyone” and only build Golfs the way their most dedicated buyers want them. That is where the Golf R and GTI come in: These are cars for hatchback fans who want all sporty fun all the time.
Stick Shift, Please
The first hint you may have about who these cars are designed for comes in looking at the brand’s pricing: every trim level is available in a stick shift—in North America only. Even the top of the line model has a manual option, though each model is also available in automatic with paddle shifters, which are pure fun. It’s been the tradition that only base model cars or special editions get a stick shift, and the rest of the line up comes in automatic. Not so in the Golf R and GTI. Both have a manual transmission because the drivers of these cars really like to drive a manual.
For drivers who do prefer automatic, paddle shifters are are standard. Also standard is the nifty toggle gear selector, the same as you’ll see in the Audi A3 and S3. The shifter is slim and it’s easy to pop into gear; I liked its unobtrusiveness on the Golf’s command center.
Choices, Choices: Which Trim Is Best?
From there, though, choices have to be made. First, which Golf is right for you? The R is the truly performance version, with 315 horsepower and sport suspension and tuning. And, it’s fully loaded with all the goodies like head up display and Nappa leather seats.
The GTI gives buyers more choices with three trim levels that let you pick from fun and sporty to luxe and sporty. Buyers can opt for plaid cloth seats; as someone who is not a fan of cloth seats, I found I liked the their smart look. Or you can choose leather seating or go all out in the Autobahn edition which has red accents on the upholstery and steering wheel.
Buyers of any of the trims will find a larger center cup holder, a nice phone storage cubby, 2 USB-C ports and the wide glass driver and media display screen. While it’s technically two screens, the glass panel spans most of the dashboard, with the media screen in the center of the cabin, the driver information screen right behind the steering wheel and then to the left, a touch sensitive pad with headlight controls and fast-access climate buttons, This is not the typical place to put climate buttons but since most of the climate functions are accessed via the media screen, it’s nice to have defrost controls quickly at hand.
What the Golf GTI Costs
The S edition has a 4 cylinder turbo engine with 241 horsepower and 273 torque, with 10.25” digital cockpit pro, 8” media screen, ambient lighting, heated sport seats in plaid upholstery, IQ Drive driver assist and safety features, and push button starter for $29,545.
The SE adds a sunroof, illuminated front grille, smart key with, wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and 10” upgraded media system with navigation, $34,295.
You can add leather upholstery for $1,225.
You can also add black wheels for $395.
Want something a little special? Autobahn edition adds adaptive damping, 19” wheels, head up display vented and heated front seats, and park assist for $37,995
If you want the fun paddle shifters, you can add them for $800.
What the Golf R Costs
This is simple: About $44K and everything is included. The R has only one trim which is fully loaded. This includes a 4 cylinder turbo engine with 315 horsepower and 295 torque, track modes including drift and special modes, illuminated front grille light bar, blue details, performance spoiler, 19” wheels, head up display, 10” Digital Cockpit Pro, 10” center media system with navigation, R steering wheel with performance setting shortcuts, front and rear heated Nappa leather seats, Harman Kardon audio, ambient lighting, sunroof, wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, IQ Drive driver assist and safety features and park assist, $43,645; add $800 for automatic transmission with paddle shifters.
A Finely Focused Golf Family = Yay
I really like this trend of building cars that are tailored to the buyers who purchase and drive them. And while I’m really glad to see VW focusing more on SUVs, I didn’t want to see the company abandon the fun and sporty cars that have defined its modern existence. Because when you have the time and road to yourself, it’s pure joy to spend it winding on a fun and challenging road that keeps you engaged in the drive. And the parallel parking.
Disclosure: I was VW’s guest for this test drive; travel and accommodations were provided but all opinions are my own.