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2013 Volkswagen Golf R Driven Review – They Won’t All Understand

2013 Volkswagen Golf R side angle Shoprider

In order for consumers to better understand automobiles, car reviews often supply reference points. In some instances, this helps avoid unnecessary conversations about cupholders in Lamborghinis, since reality isn’t a valid point of reference when discussing V12-powered Italian supercars. In other instances, the reference points are difficult to locate: how do we even begin to talk about the Buick Encore?

But here we have the 2013 Volkswagen Golf R. 500 of these cars came to Canada for model year 2012. Another 250 were set aside for MY2013. And 750 prospective buyers were surely very aware of the Volkswagen GTI, the lower-powered, front-wheel-drive, fast Golf which rather obviously and quite capably puts the Golf R in context.

The automotive world possesses the general belief that the Golf R is expensive, and not without reason. $40,000 compact cars could never be considered cheap.

In Canada, the basic 5-door Volkswagen Golf GTI costs $30,375, $9300 less than the Golf R. By the time standard Golf R features – leather, 18-inch wheels, keyless access, navigation, big stereo, sunroof – are added to the GTI, it’s a $36,175 Golf. Throw in the cost of all-wheel-drive, a $2300 option on the one AWD Volkswagen which doesn’t come standard with AWD, and the GTI would, if it could, cost $38,475.

2013 Volkswagen Golf R Rainbow Haven Bridge

Of course, even with its hypothetical $1200 price advantage, the GTI is missing 56 of the $39,675 Golf R’s horses and 36 lb-ft of torque. In other words, the buyer of a basic GTI, a car that’s lauded at GoodCarBadCar, is paying $152 per horsepower. The Golf R’s extra (hypothetical) $1200 works out to just $21 per additional pony.

The problem with points of reference, context, and the building of framework is the reliance on numbers and words, on drag coefficients and curb weights, on capacities and classifications. Let’s not deny the importance of numbers, or in the case of this review, the relevance of words. But let’s also avoid talking about the limited-edition Volkswagen Golf R as though it’s a normal car. Volkswagen Canada sent me one to drive for a week. It’s not a normal car.

2013 Volkswagen Golf R rear angle

Now is, however, probably a good time to point out that the Volkswagen Golf R is a very normal car. In last May’s review of the Golf Comfortline 2.5, I questioned that car’s value quotient but called it, “certainly one of the best small cars on sale today.” Everything that makes a regular Golf a good and proper car is also present in this R-badged Golf. The rear seat is spacious. Cargo volume is plentiful. Buttons and switches and knobs and materials feel like they were stolen from Audi’s stock room. The flat-bottomed steering wheel is one of the nicest I’ve grasped. The exterior’s silhouette is as classy as it was 37 years ago.

Price (CDN): $39,675
Engine: 2.0L DOHC 16-valve I-4 turbo
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Horsepower: 256 @ 4300 rpm
Torque: 243 lb-ft @ 2400 rpm
Curb Weight: 3325 pounds
Drive Type: all-wheel-drive
Length: 165.8 inches
Width: 70.3 inches
Height: 57.5 inches
Wheelbase: 101.5 inches
Passenger Volume: 2631 litres
Cargo Volume: 433 litres
Max Cargo Volume: 1303 litres
EPA City: 19 mpg
EPA Highway: 27 mpg
Observed: 22.2 mpg
Observed: 10.6 L/100km

Oh so normal this Golf may be, but it also displays the Volkswagen brand’s highest-performance letter. My attempts to discover how well the Golf R’s separate missions would cohabit required driving a disparate group of individuals in as many different situations as possible. Can this sportiest Golf cope with everyday life? Can this normal car satisfy sporting urges?


“Bluetooth setup requires too much time. Why are there buttons on the ceiling? You left the lights on because they’re not automatic. The seats don’t power upward, forward, or for lumbar; only to recline. Why, when I’m scanning through Sirius channels, can you override the touch screen by upping the power of your heated seat?”

When a test car lands in the GCBC driveway, the everyday annoyances of a car will quickly be discovered by GCBC’s photographer. As for this normal car’s abnormalities, the above list about does it. Besides, for any of those complaints to honestly matter, the Golf R would have to be less than delightful on the road.

2013 Volkswagen Golf R boat launch
All Photo Credits:  Steffani Cain ©
Click Any Image For A Larger View And Check Out More Pictures In The Gallery Below

You don’t read one review of a Golf R to find out what a bunch of other people thought of its cargo capacity, but it’s interesting to note that Mrs. Cain, the driver of a smallish midsize crossover, felt that little sacrifice would be required if we were to downsize to a Golf R. It’s not just the size of the cargo area that impresses – it’s the ski pass-through, the cargo hooks, the low floor height, the easy-fold seats, excellent visibility, and the beautiful VW badge hatch handle. 

For the record, the 2013 Volkswagen Golf R is delightful on the road. To its credit, the R is delightful in a variety of scenarios. Keep in mind, this vehicle offers sports car-like dynamics in a family car body that happens to hold within its doors an acceptable level of luxury car-like features.

2013 Volkswagen Golf R blue under wharf
Car And Driver‘s test results for a 3-door Golf R revealed a 0-60 mph time of 5.9
seconds, 0-100 in 14.6, a top speed Of 127 mph, and 70-0 mph braking in 186 feet

Nevertheless, my best friend, the police officer, had experienced quicker GCBC test cars. His wife had been frightened by the ferocity of the 3.8L Hyundai Genesis Coupe’s acceleration last summer, for example. But you know better than to think that 0-60 times are the sole means of impressing Ford Crown Victoria drivers.

He came from the other side of the city to see the Golf R, a good enough excuse for me to find a couple of the best nearby corners. Even with the sporty image it presents, I didn’t expect the Golf R, at 3325 pounds, to keep body roll at bay, not to this extent. It’s not just holding the road at any cost – there’s a partnership which requires the driver to know how the Golf R is feeling, how it’s coping. I wouldn’t say I explored the Golf R’s limits on a rural residential road not far from my home – I’m not that stupid – but I would say the presence of a police officer in the passenger seat didn’t hold me back from discovering that although I was pushing the Golf very hard, I wasn’t approaching its limits.

2013 Volkswagen Golf R Blue under wharf

He’s not a car fanatic, but I’ve had a bit of influence over my wife’s brother for the last decade, and I feel I’ve made some progress in convincing him that there are desirable cars other than the Porsche 911. 

It helped that the Golf R is distinctly German, that the VW badge is, more than ever, intrinsically connected to Weissach’s sports car builders. As befits a younger brother, he was banished to the back seat when we picked him at his bachelor pad, across from his university. Despite his seating position, which never came close to earning any whines from any of its inmates, the soon-to-be engineer was in fact hugely impressed. There’s no doubt that design changes like the upgrade to terrific 18-inch wheels and the enlargement of the lower grille openings played a role in impressing my mother-in-law’s baby boy. But there’s also the unquantifiable: the door’s thunk, the 2.0L turbo’s growl, and even the quality of the carpet.

For a man who savoured the experience of holding on tightly as I went round and round and round roundabouts in a Subaru BRZ a month ago, the Golf R offered welcome respite. My father is… ahem, getting on in years. And he struggled to get in and out of the BRZ’s passenger seat. In the Golf R, the performance was more, let’s say, mature. 

If the Subaru BRZ was like my father’s four-year-old granddaughter, who constantly engenders love and pride but also has some questionable moods and insists on commandeering his home office to find nursery rhymes on YouTube and sometimes forgets her manners and doesn’t always know that it’s quiet time… breathe… the Golf R is the 29-year-old son: harder to get to know, not nearly as cute (but characterful in his own pointy-nosed way), more expensive to have over for dinner, and surprisingly capable of multitasking. 

The capable 29-year-old-son, by which I mean the Golf R, could carry a full load (1303 litres) of his company’s herring catch from Lunenburg to Meteghan while traveling much faster than his granddaughter can on her tricycle or in the back of my brother’s Grand Caravan. 

My newest friend is a Qatar-raised Indian who was educated (and educated some more) in the UK. He’s an exceedingly bright fellow, and he once had the opportunity to test drive BMWs at his leisure on a hill climb in rural England. So we threw him and his Manitoban wife in the back seat of the Golf R, drove through downtown Halifax and across the bridge to Dartmouth to witness a spectacular sunset and attack some twisty roads. As one does. 

Of course they liked the Golf R. But that may have been because there was no dog in the car. Every other time we’ve picked them up there was a Labrador Retriever puppy trying to lick whatever she could reach.

How does one grade fanboyism? This guy imported his Golf GTD from Europe, steered his wife toward the purchase of a Golf Wagon, was once terrorized by a gas attendant who filled his A2 Jetta diesel with regular gasoline, and encouraged his brother to drive across Canada in his A3 Jetta VR6. I kid you not.

Spoiler alert: he liked the Golf R. And he should. Seriously, whether we’re going to complain about the R’s $40,000 sticker or celebrate its value, a car that can be acquired for barely more than half this price better be impressive when it costs $40K. 

Judged individually, the elements that help us decide how nicely the Golf R drives do indeed work nicely. Fortunately, though, fanboi lives near some of HRM’s best rural roads, roads which presented me with an opportunity to explore handling attributes that had yet gone partially unexplored. 

This Volkswagen wants to go faster, not something that can be said of every performance car. It’s insatiable, like a puppy that wants to play fetch despite exhaustion, like a four-year-old niece that is forever capable of watching yet another version of Baa Baa Black Sheep. I’d expect this in a 2002 Volkswagen Lupo GTI, but I was surprised to feel that sort of energy coming from the Golf R, a car I figured would lean more toward grand touring, less toward hot hatchery.

This attitude stems from the fact that there’s still a hint of that 80s Golf feel, even as it weighs in at 3325 pounds. Call it tippy-toes, transparency or tenderness, it’s the general sense that this heavy all-wheel-drive Golf R isn’t a bruiser. Favourable comparisons would liken it more to a BMW M3 than a BMW M5; more to a Corvette and less to a Viper; more Prelude and less Accord Coupe; more TT than A5.

The Golf R’s manual transmission is a bit surprising, not only because of its presence but in its delicacy. The clutch is light and easily manipulated. Golf R steering, perhaps numbed by the winter tires of this test car, is accurate and consistent and even a bit communicative; the latter trait an extreme rarity these days. A greater amount of feedback is felt through the proverbial seat of your pants. And from 3500 rpm in third gear, such a spectacular sweet spot, the Golf R scoots like it has an extra 50 horsepower.

2013 Volkswagen Golf R Fisherman's Cove NS
With very little time on highways, some heavy-footed rural driving, and the majority
of time spent in the city in temperatures below -10°C, the Golf R beat its EPA city and
combined ratings of 19/22 mpg with a final tally of 22.2 mpg, equal to 10.6 L/100km.

These are just words, though, words that can’t convey the feelings generated by the Golf R during a long drive on an ocean-hugging road. Judging this car only by its individual elements – shifter, clutch, motor, suspension, styling, features – is like evaluating a top NFL prospect on his performance at the scouting combine and nothing else. How the football player combines his strength, endurance, and intelligence on the field matters more. Vertical jumps set a baseline. A 40-yard dash provides a point of reference. But in-game action is the true test.

The fact that there are quicker cars doesn’t detract from the Golf R’s accelerative experience. Other cars with a greater tenacity for gripping pavement do exist, but their existence does nothing to limit how you’ll feel about the Golf R’s interactive handling. The Golf R meshes its capabilities together in a way that made me think it’s faster than it truly is, grippier than it can be, and as tactile as I want it to be. 

Not a single one of the Golf R’s performance attributes asks for sacrifices. Sure it’s quick, but it pootles around town like a Camry. Of course it hangs on tightly in corners, but surface changes never negatively impact ride control. You’ll pay Volkswagen for the R’s performance, but you won’t pay for it, not on an ongoing basis like you would with a Camaro’s visibility, a BRZ’s noise, a Lancer Evo’s frenetic engine, or a 370Z’s lack of rear seats. In the Golf R, performance is enjoyed in a conventional hatchback with excellent visibility, hug-me-closer seats, a ride that’s comfortable enough for your grandmother, and tolerable fuel economy.

All too often, the best-of-both-worlds mentality leads to excessive compromise. One-man bands. Google Wave. Radio toasters. Those ghastly brown dual-purpose eyeglasses people used to wear before Transitions saved us.

Volkswagen’s Golf R, however, is the ultimate sacrifice-free compromise. While our main point of reference suggests that the Golf R is a pricey piece, buyers who would otherwise purchase a loaded GTI would be foolish not to consider spending a little extra to acquire a significant amount of extra power, winter-beating all-wheel-drive, and very nicely executed styling alterations. And the joy, oh the joy, that comes with owning something exceedingly rare; something only automotive savants will recognize; something that will inspire true German car enthusiasts to thank you for not leasing a BMW X1.

Balanced performance
Interior space
Clutch-shifter tandem
Timeless design

Missing power features
Some control confusion
Desirable alternatives
$40 Large?

Related From
Historical Monthly & Yearly Volkswagen Golf Sales Figures
2013 Subaru BRZ Driven Review
2013 Hyundai Genesis Coupe 3.8 GT Driven Review
2012 Volkswagen Golf 2.5 Comfortline Driven Review