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2013 Volkswagen Golf R – A (Very Fast) Lesson in Economic Diminishing Returns

Allow us to make a few points abundantly clear.  We loved the 2013 Golf R, and would be happy to own one.  However we’ve got some reservations about VW’s pricing strategy for this low-volume halo car.

A base model 2013 VW GTI has 200 horsepower and stickers for about $24,000, so each of those lively turbocharged ponies will cost you about $120.  The 2013 Golf R costs about $12,000 more, and for that 50% price premium you get 56 more horsepower and a lot more convenience options.  This additional grunt comes with a price tag of $215 per horsepower.  That’s a big difference.

This is the basic concept of diminishing returns.  After driving the Golf R, I couldn’t help thinking about my grizzled, grumpy Economics Professor David Murphy from Boston College and his brain twisting lectures on micro-economic theory.

The Golf R is without doubt a splendid car – but Professor Murphy would hate it, because it isn’t a rational purchase.  If there’s one thing economists can’t cope with, it is irrationality.

In addition to 56 additional horsepower and 36 lb/ft of torque, the R model provides; Haldex all-wheel drive, larger brakes, center exit exhaust, unique front/rear fascias, specific  18” wheels,  xenon headlamps, leather sport seats, premium sound, 200 MPH speedometer and blue needles on the instruments.  Sunroof, navigation, push button start and DynAudio sound are extra cost options.

These additions provide a driving experience with an additional super-sized serving of “GTI-ness.”  The R is noticeably faster with more neutral handling characteristics.  It’s steering has more heft and improved straight ahead stability.  It has an exhaust note that is a bit louder and raspier.  It has exactly the same phenomenal ergonomics, creamy controls and high build quality/fit & finish.  Most importantly, it has the same giddy eagerness and playful character that defines the GTI and makes it a truly special car.

But $12,000 better?  We’re not sure.  Let’s break it down:

Power: The Golf R shares the same engine with the GTI, however the R uses a unique ECU that allows additional boost and a more aggressive fuel and ignition map.  Accordingly, the base GTI’s power deficit versus the R can easily be remedied with a $500 ECU upgrade from APR or Unitronic.  A cold-air intake, downpipe and cat-back upgrade will bring the GTI close to 300 horsepower, representing an additional investment of under $1,800.

Handling: The Golf R is all-wheel drive, and the Haldex system is absolutely transparent in operation, with none of the bind, noise and efficiency penalties customary on early Audi Quattros.  The all-wheel drive gives the R a very neutral handling demeanor, and allows you to blast through sweepers and switchbacks with absolute confidence.  With AWD, the Golf R will certainly excel in winter conditions.  Around the Virginia International Raceway, Car and Driver magazine proved that the R is a full 5 seconds per lap quicker than the GTI. So the R is clearly much faster than the GTI, but the $36,000 price does not grant the Golf R automatic admission to the "big swinging" club - as it's 3:14 VIR lap time was soundly spanked by segment rivals Subaru WRX and Mitsubishi Evo. It was also beaten by some vehicles not well known for track-day pedigree, including the Ford Mustang V-6, Camaro SS, Challenger SRT-8 and the 2008 Chevrolet Cobalt SS (note to self - look for one of these Chevy pocket rockets on Craigslist)

Interior: The GTI (in any trim level) has one of the best interior designs and highest fit/finish of any car we've tested.  The Golf R is no exception, however rear seat access in the 2 door is a serious pain.  The seat release is mounted on the outboard side of the headrest and is hard to actuate.  It is also fairly hard to slide the seats forward, and the seatback has to be manually adjusted to the correct recline angle after every time the seat is folded forward.  That's annoying.

Extras: Here is the paradox of the Golf R.  Volkswagen’s option package strategy on the GTI is logical and additive. With each trim level, you get new features added as standard. Get a GTI with the Autobahn package for about $30k, and the car comes absolutely loaded with leather, sunroof, premium audio, Navi, power seats, keyless start, xenon lamps and more.  You’d think that Golf R standard equipment levels would pick up where the Autobahn leaves off, but it isn’t so.  Many of the standard Autobahn features (e.g., Sunroof, Navi, premium audio and keyless start) are again extra cost options on the R.  Some more weirdness: The Golf R has some of the very best leather seats in the industry.  They are supportive and comfy and we’d happily put them in our living room.  They are simply that good.  But we were shocked that they have manual recline adjusters, where the GTI’s are very conveniently electric.  What gives?

Style: The R came in a unique and dazzling shade of blue that well complemented the shape of the car.  The R-specific body kit (sills and fascias) is excellent, with no unnecessary frills or fluff.  The R is clean and far more gorgeous than any basic 2 box design has a right to be.  This is a classically German sleeper, not a high profile car – only the informed will recognize it.  We love sleepers at Gyrhead, but if you like a lot of bling, look elsewhere.

Brakes: The R has a massive set of front rotors, and they haul the R down from speed faster than if you tossed an anchor out the window.  They are easier to modulate and provide a more comfortingly firm pedal feel than the base GTI. 

Intangibles: So all this leaves us with the qualitative “gotta-have-it” factor.  In this regard, the R really delivers.  It is Volkswagen royalty, and carries enormous street cred.  Informed motorheads recognize the R immediately and give praise for your excellent taste in cars.  We get it - being seen in such a well-respected performance car is very good for the ego.

But again, is this worth an extra $12k to us?  This kind of cash buys a damned fine motorcycle, or current/past special interest car. So, for the crew at Gyrhead – the answer has to be no.

Does all this mean we don’t like the R?  Absolutely not – we love the car and the test scores reflect that. However we can never sacrifice pragmatism to our emotions.  Awesome car or not, the economics must make sense, and the added goodness of the Golf R can’t justify the huge extra cheese it’ll cost to plant our butts in one.

© Gyrhead & Sons Restoration Parts 2013.  If you like this article, please share it freely with your friends.  Just remember to cite the source, because our lawyers told us to say it..

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