Volkswagen's new Golf R is either an overpriced hatchback or a cheapskate Audi.
The most expensive of VW's Golf hatchback lineup, and more powerful than its GTI, the R model borrows the powertrain from the upmarket Audi S3 sedan and merges it with a taut, redesigned Golf body.
The sporty R is the only all-wheel-drive model in the Golf lineup, and also the only model capable of chasing after AWD rivals such as Subaru's WRX STI and Ford's upcoming Focus RS.
Starting at $37,415, this mature, refined rally-inspired car lacks the huge rear wing of the Subaru and the overwrought vents and bumpers on the Ford.
Instead, the Golf R plays it cool with low-key front and rear bumpers, redesigned wheels and headlights with an LED daytime light, quad exhaust tips in the back, and subtle "R" badges throughout.
The interior offers excellent heated leather seats with heaps of side bolsters, aluminum trim on the pedals, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and another sprinkling of R emblems.
Inside and out, the Golf R is a handsome machine that tastefully downplays its sporty nature — a car that 30-somethings could drive daily without looking like they borrowed a little brother's ride. The interior's refinement would make any automaker proud. It's comfortable and solid and generally very quiet.
Except for the engine.
With 2.0-liters, the turbocharged, four-cylinder engine makes a hearty 292 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque. It's hooked up to a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. (A six-speed manual is due this summer in the 2016 model and is expected to shave $1,100 off the R's price.)
These power figures are an improvement over the previous Golf R's underwhelming 256 horsepower and 243 pound-feet of torque. They drop the zero-to-60 time by half a second to 5.2 seconds, according to Road and Track.
For this, the Golf R gets praise, and a chance to stay competitive with Subaru's STI.
But does it have to be so loud? Under full throttle, and especially when the car is in its most aggressive Race driving mode (there's also Normal and Individual), the engine noise destroys any chance of enjoying music or conversation on the road.
This is odd: The engine, transmission and AWD system are all borrowed from the Audi S3, a car that's just as much fun and twice as quiet.
Our test model had the only option group available, a $2,495 package that adds handsome 19-inch alloy wheels, a Fender stereo system, parking sensors and an adjustable damping system for the suspension.
It also includes a low-resolution 5.8-inch touch screen navigation system that looks vastly out of place in a car with a $40,000 price tag. It's so tiny, and provides so little useful information, that the space would have been better used as an extra storage cubby.
Oddly, the options don't include a sunroof, which would have opened up the dark cabin a bit.
The rest of the Golf R's driving experience is entertaining — a little muted compared with the Subaru STI, but more lively and rewarding than the earlier Golf.
Despite its billing as the only AWD Golf in the lineup, the system defaults to front-wheel-drive in normal conditions but then pushes up to 50% of torque to the rear wheels instantly if it detects wheel slip.
This setup has plenty of grip, and the handling is neutral with some dabs of understeer. The optional adaptive suspension works well and gives drivers three choices of stiffness. In any of them the R stays flatter in corners than its meandering Golf siblings (excluding the GTI).
The transmission is often sublime, save for the software's reluctance to upshift in Sport mode — a problem common to other dual-clutch transmissions from VW.
Despite the Golf R's highlights — strong acceleration, predictable handling, eminent refinement — $39,910 is a lot of money for this car, though that's about what a similar Subaru STI runs.
A more affordable choice would be VW's front-wheel-drive Golf GTI. A four-door model with a 220-horsepower version of the R's engine is a little under $28,000. The loss of 72 horsepower and all-wheel-drive shaves $12,000 off the MSRP, and it's a worthy trade-off.
A better buy might be the R's bigger brother. The same mechanicals, wrapped inside the excellent Audi S3, costs only $2,000 more — and doesn't require ear plugs.