by Jay Traugott
When it comes to fast compact hatchbacks, very few do class and refinement like the Volkswagen Golf R. An evolution of the iconic GTI, the R adds weight through doubling the number of driven wheels, but compensates with a bigger turbo and more power. Its 288 horsepower 2.0-liter turbo may be outdone in the overall power stakes by some competitors, but thanks to the aforementioned Haldex four-wheel-drive system and a healthy 280 lb-ft of torque, the Golf R can still hang with the best of them from the line to the top. The Ford Focus RS employs a similar turbocharged all-wheel grip approach, but the Golf R is the king of elegance and quality. A six-speed manual is standard, with a seven-speed DSG automatic optional, and thanks to a comprehensive list of standard features and an extreme variety of color choices, the Golf owns the class for factory equipment and customization, too.
The Golf R is almost identical to the facelifted 2018 model, affectionately dubbed the mark 7.5 by aficionados, but now, thanks to clamoring from those very fans, a huge array of color choices have been added to the options list. Colors from benchmark models through VW's heritage, like the Mk1 GTI, the Mk4 R32, and even the European Scirocco, have been added, bringing the total number of hues you can pick from to a supercar-like 45. Mechanically, no advancements have been made and no power bump has been bestowed upon U.S. vehicles. The Mk8 Golf coming next year will change that.
Besides the addition of more available colors, the styling of the Golf R is unchanged from last year. LED headlights, daytime running lights, and taillights with dynamic turn signals make a return, while 19-inch two-tone machined alloy wheels are standard - split 5-spoke gloss black units are available as a package add-on. A chrome accent-line helps widen the appearance of the front end as part of the R design enhancements, while the rear sees a subtle spoiler paired with a quad-exit exhaust and a diffuser-mimicking rear apron. R design side skirts are standard.
Despite the addition of a 4Motion all-wheel-drive system, curb weight is not too heavily affected, with the manual transmission Golf R tipping the scales at 3,300 pounds, which is around 230 lbs heavier than its GTI sibling. The wheelbase measures 103.5 inches, with overall length coming to 168.4 inches. Width is 70.8 inches, while height measures 56.5 inches. Overall, the Golf R is ever so slightly longer than the GTI, although not quite as tall - partially because it also sits lower to the ground at 4.8 inches to the GTI's 5.1 inches.
Five standard options are available for the new R: Tornado Red, Deep Black Pearl, Indium Gray, Lapiz Blue, and Oryx White. Optional colors fall under VW's Spektrum range, and there are 40 (yes, FORTY) of them, at an additional cost of $2,500. If you like blue, there are 11 additional shades to choose from, with turquoises, greens, grays, yellows, and a number of surprisingly attractive purple hues too. However, because we aren't reviewing a ricer Honda here, we'd be most happy in a Deep Blue Pearl Golf R - the same color that the Mk4 and Mk5 R32 Golfs were available in. Elegant and different, but with a story to it, too.
The Golf R is a standalone model, with R almost being a separate brand in itself. No Competition pack or Performance Plus package is offered here - the R as it rolls off the factory floor is the fastest Golf you can buy. A Haldex-derived 4Motion all-wheel-drive system drives the front wheels most of the time, with the rears being activated only when necessary. A six-speed manual is standard, but for $1,100, VW will fit their brilliant seven-speed DSG dual-clutch system. The 2.0-liter turbo powerplant is almost identical to that found in the GTI, but here it makes use of a larger IS38 turbo to produce 288 hp and 280 lb-ft. The crankshaft is forged for greater strength, and with the optional DSG, launch control is available, allowing the sprint from 0-60 mph to be dispatched in around 4.5 seconds. The manual version will also manage a sub-five second time, and both will crack 155 mph before running into the limiter. The manual will be outpaced by the likes of the Focus RS, but its power deficit is overcome with the quick-shifting DSG matching the Blue Oval's sprint time, and in some independent tests, beating it.
The R's biggest party trick is arguably not its power bump over the GTI - it's the four-wheel grip. This changes the character of the car considerably, and where we preferred a manual in the GTI, this more powerful 288 hp engine with 280 lb-ft is best exploited with the optional dual-clutch transmission. The addition of 4Motion to this car means that it is less engaging than the GTI but also faster, and having paddles to change gears enhances the 2.0-liter turbo's feeling of blistering acceleration. The standard six-speed manual is great fun too, but the seven-speed DSG makes more sense for all-out acceleration as well as for daily commuting. Regardless of which option is decided on, the R pulls fiercely from the line, with any traction issues being controlled with an almost undetectable precision. There is a slight hint of turbo lag thanks to the larger turbocharger, this is more noticeable in the manual but the DSG 'box hides it better. Overall, as much as we love three pedals, the automatic gearbox works so well in this particular Golf that it'd be an oversight to dismiss it from consideration.
Thanks to four-wheel-drive, the Golf R is capable of keeping you out of trouble on slippery surfaces, but it is still very much a front-biased system and is prone to a hint of understeer when pushed too hard on the track. On the street and at lower speeds, it's a much more useful system and certainly can't be faulted when launching hard from a standstill. Thanks to standard dynamic damper control, the R is comfortable and compliant over bumps of all sizes, while still maintaining enough rigidity to allow you to dive into corners without fear of excessive body roll. The brakes are also upgraded for the R and are sharp and easy to modulate. Where the GTI feels effortlessly light and nimble, the Golf R's extra pounds are noticeable on more winding stretches of road, and its weight doesn't allow direction changes quite as deftly as its less lardy sibling. However, it's still a hoot to drive, the extra power making launching out of corners more entertaining, rather than the corner itself being the main event. Its weight is well balanced, and the aforementioned understeer is only an issue if you really go wild. This is thanks, in part, to a traction control system that uses individual wheel-braking to mimic a limited-slip differential. All in all, this isn't a GTI-plus - it's a completely different type of driving experience, but still rewarding in its own way and great to experience daily.
The manual R's 2.0-liter has earned it respectable gas mileage estimates from the EPA. It scores 21/29/24 mpg on the city/highway/combined cycles, and its 14.5-gallon gas tank should return an average of 348 miles with mixed driving. By comparison, the Focus RS, which is no longer available for 2019, scored 19/26/22 mpg on the same tests. The lighter manual-equipped GTI bests both of them, with 24/32/27 mpg. The DSG-equipped Golf R is not far off, scoring 23/30/26 mpg, making it the most economical R option with a range of around 377 miles.
The Golf R strays from the hot hatch norm considerably. This is a car that won't disappoint those accustomed to premium interior materials. Leather is plentiful, and brushed aluminum accents make the hatchback a top contender for upscale feel. Quality is typically German. The seats, too, are comfortable but supportive, while the infotainment system is powerful and easy to use. Ambient lighting is standard as well, and its subtle application brings to mind the upmarket feel of a Mercedes, which is never a bad thing in any car. The faux carbon is well-executed, but knowing that it's fake detracts from the experience slightly. The R's interior is truly class-leading and inoffensive enough for those who are too old to have any idea what vaping is.
Despite being a ridiculously rapid hot hatch, the R is still based on one of the best compact hatchbacks out there, this means that five adults can sit comfortably, although taller individuals may find legroom compromised by a front seat being reclined a little too far. Up front, the driver's seat gets 12-way power adjustment with lumbar support, which, in tandem with the adjustable steering wheel, allows for a perfect driving position regardless of driver size. Getting in and out is great in the back, although front occupants may brush against the large bolsters. Headroom and space all round is great, and the Golf R's interior feels large and roomy.
The R is the top Golf offering available, and therefore gets perforated leather seating as standard. Faux carbon fiber trims and accenting add to the sporty feel, while splashes of aluminum impart a level of quality not common in a hot hatch and where plastic is used, it's of the soft-touch variety. Ambient lighting adds a subtle blue hue to the interior at night, tying in with the signature blue needles on the digital instrument cluster. Customization isn't an option in terms of material colors though, with black leather your only choice.
The Golf R can stow 22.8 cubic feet of goods in its trunk, and it's 60/40 folding rear seats have a pass-through for longer items. The maximum capacity with those seats down is a massive 52.7 cubes, which rivals some small crossovers. The trunk will allow weekend luggage for four in the back, and, in the most voluminous configuration, enough space for four large suitcases without stacking.
In the cabin, numerous cubbies and compartments are dotted around, with a quartet of cup holders included too. The center console has space for your phone, while the armrest houses a bin for wallets and the like. The door cards also have decent storage, with molds for bottles too, and the glovebox is above average. Even with all the extra fun this car provides, its practicality justifies its purchase.
The R is fitted with a host of standard features that you would pay more for in some other VW models. Included is Climatronic dual-zone automatic climate control, adaptive cruise control, keyless entry with push-button start, heated front seats and an auto-dimming rearview mirror. The VW badge in the hatch also opens to reveal a hidden rearview camera. LED adaptive headlights, heated mirrors and park sensors are included too. Forward-collision warning with autonomous emergency braking, lane-keep assist, and blind-spot monitoring with rear-cross traffic alert are among the driver aids. In DSG-equipped models, launch control is also added.
The R's eight-inch touchscreen controls infotainment and connects to an eight-speaker Fender premium audio system with a subwoofer. The amplifier is a 400-Watt unit and offers crystal clear audio with rich bass. Voice control, navigation, and HD Radio complement SiriusXM satellite radio, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. An SD card slot, CD player, aux input, and three USB ports are all standard, as is Bluetooth connectivity. The infotainment system as a whole is an improvement over that found in older models, but responses can occasionally be a fraction too slow. Good graphics and vibrant colors work to alleviate the negativity of the slightly sleepy system.
The Golf R has thus far not yet been subject to any recalls, and J.D. Power has given it a rating of 81/100 for reliability. The 2018 Golf R, however, did suffer two recalls - one in November and another a month later - for an improperly secured fuel line and incorrectly welded rear seat guide sleeves.
In the event of a problem, Volkswagen offers America's best bumper-to-bumper warranty of six years and 72,000 miles. This warranty also covers the powertrain for the same duration or mileage limit, whichever comes first, and if you sell the vehicle, it is transferrable to the new owner.
The 2019 R earned five stars out of five in the NHTSA's overall rating, with full marks for all side crash tests. The Golf managed the best possible overall score of Good in tests conducted by the IIHS.
The Golf R is equipped with all available safety features and driver aids. These include a blind-spot monitor that can counter-steer if a risky lane-change is attempted, and rear cross-traffic alert that can activate emergency braking if necessary. Lane-keep assist and forward-collision warning with automatic autonomous braking are also included, as are adaptive headlights with auto high beams, park distance control with maneuver braking and adaptive cruise control. Pedestrian detection, a rearview camera, and LATCH child seat anchor points are also standard. A post-crash braking system also features, as do dual front and side-impact airbags, curtain airbags and seatbelt pre-tensioners. The car can also cut fuel supply and deactivate the alternator in the event of a crash, following which hazard lights are automatically activated.
The Golf R is a special type of vehicle, with immense capability for fun as well as great practicality. Its interior materials, standard equipment, and all-weather capability make it a very attractive option. The 288 hp powerplant is also addictively powerful, although not as motivating as some rivals. With an abundance of color choices, it's also unlikely that you'll ever spot an identical Golf R, and the optional DSG gearbox is fantastic. However, a new model is coming late next year, which promises more of everything - power, tech, and comfort. On the other hand, it is an expensive vehicle. As the last of a generation, it's a refined and polished gem, and we'd be happy to own one every day. But unless you live in snowy conditions, when are you ever really going to use that extra grip? We'd still rather have the cheaper and just as exciting GTI. It's going to take a truly revolutionary eight-gen Golf R to change our minds on that.
The Golf R starts at $40,395 before the obligatory $895 destination charge. This gets you a six-speed manual gearbox and a multitude of standard equipment. Adding the seven-speed DSG will cost $1,100. Fully loaded, the only other changes one can make are sportier wheels and a custom paint job, bringing the price to $44,230 before taxes and fees. As the Golf R is now discontinued until the new model arrives late next year, dealers with current-gen models on their lots may offer further incentives to make space before new Golfs arrive.
The Golf R is a standalone model at the top of the Golf ladder, combining the best performance, convenience, and safety features available in the range. As such, options are minimal and are limited to a choice of either a standard six-speed manual gearbox or a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic DSG gearbox, which costs $1,100 extra. Besides the transmission, a total of 45 color choices have been made available to increase individuality.
2.0-liter Turbo Inline-4 Gas
The only package available to enhance the 2019 Golf R is actually an option that changes the standard 19-inch wheels for more sporty five-spoke variants called Pretoria wheels, painted in gloss black. This costs $235. Either option comes wrapped in performance tires, so unless the standard wheels are unappealing to you, we'd suggest saving the extra cash.
With only one model available under the Golf R banner, the choices are limited to color, wheels, and transmission. Our perfect spec would be painted in Deep Blue Pearl and shod with the optional wheels. However, this is all based on appearance and personal preference. We highly recommend the seven-speed DSG gearbox for its quick shifts, great response, and added convenience on the daily drive. A regular Golf R in a choice of one of the five standard colors and equipped with the DSG transmission will cost $41,495 before destination charges, taxes, and other fees. This is the best choice as it helps keep the already-inflated price down while making the R as dynamic and as comfortable as possible.
This section should have been comparing the Golf R to the Focus RS, but that car has been discontinued as of 2019. Instead, we focus on the mechanically identical S3. Both share the same engine and drivetrain, but are very different, particularly as the S3 has a trunk as opposed to the Golf's hatch. The interior of the Audi is far more upscale and premium and its virtual instrument cluster is more customizable. However, the benefits stop there. The Audi is far more expensive for basically the same car. The Audi is also not available in the multitude of colors that the Volkswagen is. In addition, some reviewers have found that, despite shared underpinnings, the S3 is often slower around a track than its cheaper cousin. Plus, the VW boasts a larger dealer network in the U.S. and is, therefore, more readily available and easier to maintain. We'd stick with the Golf R on this one.
This comparison fuels a debate that will rage until some VW executive deems it necessary to bring about the end of one of these models. In simplified terms, the GTI is the best hot hatchback you can buy. It's practical, fast, frugal, and fun. It's also fairly affordable. The R takes the GTI's performance characteristics and turns them up a notch, adding all-wheel-drive and more power. Does this automatically make it better? We think not. The idea of a hot hatch is to provide thrills while still catering to the economics of a middle-class car enthusiast. The R is too expensive to fulfill that role. Thanks to its 4Motion system, it's also a heavier and grippier car, which in this case, means less fun at lower speeds. If we had to choose one car to drive for the rest of time, the GTI would probably be our first choice.