2015 Volkswagen Golf R

Can Europe’s most popular car make a splash here?

Discerning Americans will recognize those traits, combined with sports car performance and AWD versatility in the R model. A platform-mate of the recently tested Audi S3, it uses the versatile MQB structure. This makes it stiff yet light, a quiet and refined rip-roaring performer that truly engages the driver. Power comes from a highly boosted 2-liter, called EA888, which cranks 292 ponies and 280lb-ft of torque. For now this is only channeled through the excellent six speed twin clutch transmission, which VW calls DSG. The coming months will bring the option of a manual. DSG and launch control mean this Golf will claw to 60mph in 4.5 seconds and do a 13.2-second quarter mile—stunning numbers for a car of such seemingly humble origins.

What the raw stats don’t convey is the sheer joy the R exudes, from its barking exhaust note to the way its steering precision and weighting match perfectly to the chassis’ dynamics. There’s optional adjustable suspension, but even the standard setup combines a decent ride with really biddable handling, backed up by stout and linear brakes.

The newest Haldex 4Motion torque-distribution system feels much more faster acting than previous Golf AWD models; while it’s no countersteering hooligan, the R has a very rewarding neutrality. As compared to the similarly priced and targeted Subaru WRX STI, the Volkswagen is more refined and quiet, has a nicer cockpit and a much better ride. Sibling Audi S3 is even higher quality inside (as reflected in its sticker price), but of these three, only the Golf R comes as a hatchback stateside.

A true Q-ship, the R resembles most other 7th-generation Golfs: chiseled and well proportioned but otherwise unprepossessing. However, aficionados will note the lowered stance, quad pipes and massive wheels seemingly shrink-wrapped in ultra-low profile rubber. Subtle detailing and badging tells you this is the top dog, not the more common front-drive GTI. Inside there are backlit blue lighting strips in the sills and door panels and similarly hued gauge needles. Leather wraps the seats and steering wheel. The touch screen infotainment system is intuitive but slightly slow-acting with low-grade graphics.

There’s decent room for four, and the hatchback format makes it really practical. As a flagship for the lineup, the R makes total sense; whether more than a handful of our countrymen can wrap their minds around a $40,000 Golf remains to be seen. But in a world of overpriced “crossovers,”  this sport utility will seem a bargain.

2015 Volkswagen Golf R

EPA ratings: 23/30mpg; 26mpg combined

Price as tested: $37,415