Soul. It’s what drives passion, excitement and enthusiasm in us. In the right car, it’s the immediate connection between the driver and the tool. It’s what puts a smile on the driver’s face each time they start up the engine and can be thought of as a combination of performance, aesthetics, sounds, road feel, and drivability. The Porsche 997 911 has soul. So does the e9x BMW M3. But money doesn’t always correlate to soul - you can now find a used C63 AMG for under $30,000. And not every car has soul, even when an automaker throws on performance parts, body kits, and other enhancements onto a base platform. Case in point: the 2013 Golf R I recently test drove.
The Golf R shares many components and sits on the same structure as cars like the base Golf, Jetta, and the Audi TT. In fact, the engine was taken directly from the Audi TTS and slightly detuned to make 256 hp and 243 ft-lb. It’s also the only way to get this engine stateside mated to a six speed manual.
Sadly the manual transmission isn’t enough to help the engine overcome the issues I had with it on my TTS. Before 3,000 rpm, the 2013 Golf R feels handicapped and above 3,000 rpm, it throws you back in your seat. You either have too much power or not any at all. The six speed manual doesn’t add any fun either - it’s notchy and robotic. Shifts are a bit long and contribute to the slower 0-60 measured time of 5.8 seconds. To us, the whole experience feels more like a chore and I’d avoid the six speed all together. Blasphemous, maybe, but when the shifting process lacks passion and feels like work, we’d like to avoid it (note: the MK6 Golf R only came to the States with a manual).
The Golf R also comes with standard all wheel drive, though it doesn’t have a true rear differential. While this generally means the Golf R will have better fuel economy ratings than similarly sized full-time AWD vehicles - I saw 30mpg on the highway - performance won’t be as good. Cornering quickly leads to understeer and the standard P Zero Nero tires don’t drive much confidence in grip.
There’s still a lot to like on the 2013 Golf R. The interior is well appointed with black leather bucket seats which are incredibly comfortable over long hauls, and fold-down rear seats that open up over 50 cubic feet of cargo space. Interior materials feel right in the class and cheap feeling plastics are difficult to find.
If you like sleepers - cars which look tame but have enhanced performance - then you’ll feel right at home with the Golf R. Enthusiasts may recognize the R but most will assume it’s another $19,000 base Golf. There are no monster spoilers, massive hood scoops or brake vents. Distinguishing features include center rear dual exhaust, standard LED daytime lights, five spoke 17in rims, and an ‘R’ badge on the front and rear of the car. It works well when an unassuming Ford ST pulls up next to you at the light. But I prefer just a bit more flash to get us excited to drive the car.
If you’re looking for the hot hatch you’re excited to drive and puts a smile on your face each day, I think your time is best spent looking at other models. It doesn’t have a compelling character and doesn’t make you look forward to driving - it lacks automotive soul. But if you’re looking for a practical but spirited car that can get you to the weekend ski destination and help you on your next apartment move you should definitely consider a used MK6 Golf R.
The Golf R was only imported to the US for 3 years and didn’t receive any facelift or engine changes. I recommend picking up a lightly used example with under 40,000 miles with navigation. Current prices peg such an example at just under $20,000. I expect future depreciation to remain around 8% per year, as many Rs were imported Stateside.
Cam follower ($400): Like the TTS, the Golf R has a poor cam follower design. In your PPI, make sure to have the shop look at the cam follower. If it fails, damage to the camshaft and fuel pump will be significant and replacement of the two items will be likely.
Cracked Water Pump ($300): The water pump is largely plastic and has leak issues in all models. Replacement is required once leaks form.