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 in the US, 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 VW 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 2019 Volkswagen 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.
The price of the Volkswagen Golf R starts at $40,395 MSRP 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 put an extra $1,100 onto the base price. 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.
See trim levels and configurations:
2.0L Turbo Inline-4 Gas
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 new 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, although how much is yet to be seen. 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.
With only one model available under the Golf R banner in the USA, 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 and more at top speeds. If we had to choose one car to drive for the rest of time, the GTI would probably be our first choice.
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