The 2016 VW Golf R, the 400-Horsepower Commuter Car


Photo by Ryan Tomas

The 400-horsepower commuter car owned by Mrs. Tomas, the 2016 VW Golf R.

Commuter cars aren’t the most interesting. They are intended to keep you comfortable on your way to and from work. Some of the most common examples are the Mazda 3, Ford Fiesta, and Volkswagen Golf. 

The Golf is the most notable because it has very diverse options. It can be bought with multiple gas engines, a diesel one, or no engine at all. Available transmissions are a traditional manual, extra-cost automatic, or even the super-fast, semi-auto DSG. The Golf trims include base ‘S’, mid-level ‘SE’, all-electric E-Golf, adventurous Golf Alltrack, sporty GTI, and super sporty Golf R. The Golf R is the fastest and most powerful car that Volkswagen offers, making 290 horsepower and blasting to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds. It has a 4motion all-wheel drive and a turbocharged four-cylinder engine. 

People might ask, “why does VW make this?” and that’s a reasonable question. The GTI is already plenty fast enough for the street with 220 horsepower, so why does the Golf R need to be even faster? Volkswagen hasn’t said exactly why they make it, but I think I know why. VW has been making high-performance Golfs since the late 80s with the Europe-exclusive Golf Rallye. The super-Golf came to America in 2004 with the R32, which returned in 2007 with a slight refresh and different transmission. In 2012, The R32 became the Golf R. The name was changed due to a new engine, but it carried the high-performance Golf line into the modern era. In 2015, the Golf R was carried on to the 7th generation of Golf, which is what I’m talking about today. 

The Golf R, while being a fast car, is a great commuter. Its engine acts normal, it has four doors, and it’s not too low to the ground. But what if you want to turn up the heat? What if you wanted more power for some reason? Would you be able to daily drive this car with 400 horsepower? Is that number even attainable? To answer those questions, my mother bought a 2016 Golf R for $30,000. She commutes from Pinole to Hercules every day, which is only one exit down the freeway. She drove it for about two weeks until my father took it to his Volkswagen specialty shop, Tomas Sport Tuning, where he plugged into the engine’s management computer and retuned the whole thing with United Motorsports software. He also installed an AWE carbon fiber intake, adding up to about 400 horsepower. 

This is a lot of power for a daily driven car. 290 horsepower was a lot before the tune, but 400 horsepower is a number usually only seen in big muscle cars, but in this car, you’d almost never know. If you looked at this white Golf, you wouldn’t suspect anything at first, until you notice the wide Continental tires, intercooler scoops in the front bumper, and Ferrari-style four exhaust tips. You might not know it’s that fast even if you’re driving it yourself.

Getting in the Golf R is like a scene out of Back to the Future. Grab the key, put it in your pocket, and leave it there. You can walk up to it and touch the edge of the door handle to unlock it, you don’t even have to press a button. Once you open the door, you sit down low in the thickly bolstered leather bucket seats. The six-speed manual shifter is less than a foot away from the steering wheel, making you feel like you’re sitting in a purpose-built race car. This is continued with the small, flat-bottom steering wheel with buttons on it for radio controls and the adaptive cruise control system. Look around you and all the buttons glow blue. The piano-black trim on the center console has an almost mirror-like finish. Push down the glowing aluminum ‘engine start’ button and the engine snaps to life. The Golf R is quiet, smooth, and easy to drive around town.

It’s got climate control, four doors, Apple CarPlay, and heated leather seats. The steering is light, it’s easy to see out of, and the six-speed manual transmission works like a hot knife through butter. If you didn’t give it full throttle, you wouldn’t even notice the power under the hood. 

This flexibility is because the Golf R is still a Golf. Volkswagen designed the Golf as an everyday car first, then modified it to be a performance car. They thought about comfort and convenience first, it’s designed into all Golfs. The body of the Golf R is the same as the other Golf models, making it inconspicuous. The engine is based on the same four-cylinder one put in almost all Volkswagens and Audis, which means it acts normal around town and gets good fuel economy.  

But, around town isn’t the point. The Golf R is supposed to go fast, so what happens when you do? Everything aspect of the Golf R’s performance feels like it disregards the laws of physics. On freeway onramps, the car pushes you back into the leather headrest. It gives you half a second to breathe while you shift, then slams you back as it pulls right back up to redline. Fifty, sixty, seventy miles per hour. The speed keeps climbing until you lift for fear of breaking the sound barrier.

But the Golf R isn’t a one-trick pony, it tackles turns with the same road-ripping force. Turn the electrically-assisted wheel in, and you’re pushed hard into the side bolsters of the sport seats. Floor it out of a corner and the combination of VW’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive and wide Continental tires shove the car forward with incredible force. A quick stab of the brakes will bring you back down to the speed limit, and no one will suspect you. They’ll just think you’re taking the kids to soccer practice.