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Jaunting through New England in a 2016 Volkswagen Golf R

We trek across New England to find out what Volkswagen\'s Golf R is like to live with

The 400-horsepower Volkswagen Golf we were promised in Beijing a couple of years ago got lost in transit, so the R model continues to occupy the very top spot in the Golf hierarchy -- in the United States, at least.

It defends this position with a turbocharged 2.0-liter TSI four-cylinder engine tuned to make 292 horsepower at 5,400 rpm and 280 pound-feet of torque at just 1,800 rpm. That's enough grunt to pelt Volkswagen's hottest hatch yet from zero to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds - to put that figure into perspective, a base Porsche 911 Carrera performs the same task in 4.4 seconds. Apples to oranges, granted, but the 3,283-pound R isn't that far behind its rear-engined cousin if you put the two on a drag strip.

That's impressive on paper, and it's astonishing when you've got your foot buried deep in the throttle with the turbo four screaming away and the outside world going by like a VHS tape stuck on fast-forward. The Golf R isn't a muscle car, and it wasn't designed to race from stoplight to stoplight. It was primarily developed for twisty roads, so after landing in Boston we headed north to scenic Maine to discover what the R is capable of.

Meet Mr. Hyde…

The Golf R's true character comes out during a spirited jaunt on a winding back road, where this compact car gone wild feels fundamentally right. It corners flat and it remains glued to the road, even on wet surfaces. That's thanks in part to a stiff, sport-tuned suspension, and to Volkswagen's 4Motion all-wheel drive system, which uses a Haldex-type clutch to transfer the turbo four's power where it's needed most. The trade-off to the Golf's cornering prowess is that its ride is, well, stiff; the R is stiffer than a GTI. So while it's possible to dial in a mother-in-law-friendly comfort mode to soften up the ride a little, buyers who want a dose of suppleness with their speed are better off stepping down to the GTI. Though, in all fairness, the Golf R sells on performance, not on comfort.

The steering is as accurate as a Swiss watch, the Golf goes precisely where you point it, but there's not a whole lot of feedback. That's one part of the driving experience that we'd like Volkswagen to improve, especially considering older R models (like the brilliant, limited-edition New Beetle RSi) boast a steering that's click-in perfect. The crisp six-speed manual is a delight to shift; Volkswagen offers the R with a quick-shifting dual-clutch automatic transmission, but it's hard to deny that you feel more connected to the road with an old-fashioned stick and a trio of pedals.

The TSI is a lively, responsive mill with only a faint hint of turbo lag. The R relies on the four-pot's torque low in the rev range, and the forward momentum becomes explosive after about 5,000 rpm as peak horsepower approaches. Generously-sized brakes on all four corners confidently bring the action to a stop.

… and Dr. Jekyll

Golf R owners don't spend the bulk of their time engaging in hilarious automotive hooliganism on the back roads of New England. They drive it to the grocery store, use it to haul passengers around, and occasionally take it on a road trip with a trunk full of suitcases. We did just that to find out what it's like to actually live with the R.

The Golf R is the ultimate sleeper, especially when it's painted Lapiz Blue Metallic like our tester. It doesn't draw any unnecessary attention to itself with oversized spoilers, hood vents, or other tacky-looking add-ons. Brand aficionados recognize the R immediately, but to the uninitiated it's just a vee-dub with big alloys and four exhaust tips. Move right along, there's nothing to see here.

The front seats strike a nice balance between support and comfort, even after a few hours behind the wheel. And, the R is much nicer inside than a standard Golf, the amount of soft-touch material within the driver's reach is on par with what's commonly found in cars positioned in the next segment up. The passengers sitting in the back won't get the same impression, however, because the door panels are noticeably harder than the ones up front. Clearly, corners had to be cut somewhere.

We mostly like the no-nonsense, function-over-form design of the cabin, but we understand those who find it drab. The analog instrument cluster is clear, simple, and easy to read, though it's basic for a high performance machine. A car like the Golf R deserves at least a boost gauge and an oil pressure gauge. A Euro-spec Beetle with a 1.4-liter TSI churning out 150 horses can be fitted with both of those (and a stopwatch, to boot), so why can't the sportiest series-produced Golf ever get them?

The infotainment system represents Volkswagen's first step towards gesture-controlled software. Waving a hand - frantically or Queen Elizabeth II-style - in front of the thin black band under the touch screen summons a menu that lets passengers add a point of interest, cancel the route, or dial in a new route, among other options. Even if you choose not to wave at it, the MIB II system is one of the more straight-forward units on the market because it responds well to input, including pinch-to-zoom for the navigation, and it's intuitive to use. Don't like it? Rest assured, the R is compatible with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.

We averaged approximately 25 mpg over a week's worth of mixed driving, according to the trip computer, which is on par with what the EPA says we should be getting. Fill-ups are a little pricey because Volkswagen notes the R prefers premium unleaded.

Leftlane's bottom line

The R is fast and it offers superb handling, but we can say that about at least a dozen other cars on the market. What makes it really special is that it's a still a Golf. That means it comfortably carries four adults plus gear, or you can fold down the split rear bench and drive home from Best Buy with a washing machine in the trunk. Go ahead, try that in a Camaro.

The Volkswagen Golf R truly lives up to the term "all-arounder” that gets tossed around like Mardi Gras confetti in the auto industry.

2016 Volkswagen Golf R w/ DCC & Navigation. Base price $37,895, as-tested $38,715.

Photos by Ronan Glon.

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