In-depth reviews

Volkswagen Golf R review – the ultimate Golf

“The Volkswagen Golf R is one of the hottest Golfs ever, and handles very well”

Carbuyer Rating

3.9 out of 5

Owners Rating
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Pros

  • Very quick
  • All-weather confidence
  • Better to drive than before

Cons

  • Some options should be standard
  • Annoying technology
  • Underwhelming sound

Verdict - Is the Volkswagen Golf R a good car?

The Volkswagen Golf was one of the first cars to get a hot hatch variant in the GTI, and the R takes things even further thanks to more power and four-wheel drive. As a result, it feels quick and handles very well, even in adverse weather conditions. However, some of the drama is lost with its underwhelming sound, and the infotainment system taken from the standard Golf is frustrating to use.

Volkswagen Golf R models, specs and alternatives

The Volkswagen Golf offers plenty of ‘hot’ options, and the Golf R sits above the GTI, GTI Clubsport, diesel GTD and plug-in hybrid GTE - both in terms of price and performance. Volkswagen has since released an even hotter model, called the Golf R 20 Years, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the R version.

Unlike the other fast versions of the Golf, the R stands out by featuring four-wheel drive. Despite having a power output of 316bhp, the 4Motion system allows drivers to feel confident in the Golf R in any weather. It’s a similar recipe to the Golf R’s main rivals, which include the Mercedes-AMG A 35 and the mechanically related Cupra Leon and Audi S3. The Golf R 20 Years ups power to 329bhp, making it the hottest version of the Golf currently on sale.

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The previous Volkswagen Golf R was a huge success for the brand, both for its capability and for its reasonable monthly payments. It was available in three- and five-door versions, plus there was an estate version, and manual or automatic gearboxes were offered throughout its lifespan. It proved so popular that VW’s R sub-brand introduced more models; hanging off the Golf R’s coattails are the range-topping Volkswagen T-Roc R, Tiguan R, Arteon R and Touareg R, with varying levels of driver involvement.

For the latest generation, you can choose between hatch and estate body styles again, but both have five doors and all Golf Rs have an automatic gearbox. Given that most buyers specified one, that’s not particularly surprising, and the lack of a manual gearbox doesn’t diminish the driving experience too much.

The slick-shifting DSG gearbox helps the Golf R slingshot from 0-62mph in as little as 4.7 seconds. That’s barely quicker than its predecessor, but feels plenty fast enough on winding British tarmac. It’s just a shame that the mandatory petrol particulate filter (PPF) mutes some of the engine noise.

What’s more annoying is the Golf R’s infotainment system. If you’ve read our review of the standard Volkswagen Golf (or other models, like the Volkswagen ID.3), you’ll know that we find the infotainment touchscreen frustrating to use. It can be slow to respond and difficult to operate while driving, being needlessly complicated to find even basic functions. If you feel the same after you test-drive a Golf R, it’s worth checking out the previous-generation model, which has nearly the same amount of power and a much more user-friendly setup.

You might find more standard equipment on the old car, too. On a range-topping model like this, we feel that the optional heated seats and reversing camera should be standard. There are plenty of other options to tempt you to spend more, including a Performance Pack that adds extra sporty features and a higher top speed, along with a useful head-up display. The Performance Pack is a tempting extra, especially as the bigger spoiler and wheels make it stand out against the Volkswagen Golf R-Line trim level.

MPG, running costs & CO2

The Volkswagen Golf R is likely to be marginally cheaper to run than rivals

Officially, the Volkswagen Golf R will return up to 35.8mpg, with the R 20 Years special edition getting 34.9mpg. In any case, that’s slightly better than its main rivals. The Audi S3 and Hyundai i30 N will both return around 34mpg, but you would struggle to notice the difference in the real world. Of course, if you exploit all the Golf R’s full performance then your fuel consumption will dramatically increase, but economy of around 30mpg should be achievable in normal driving. It’s worth noting that hot hatchbacks like this tend to favour super-unleaded fuel, which is more expensive than standard unleaded petrol.

The Golf R no longer sneaks under the £40,000 mark, and that means that you’ll be faced with an annual VED (road tax) bill of nearly £500 for the first five renewal years. You may find that a service plan will cost more than a regular Golf with a smaller engine, while the powerful Golf R will likely go through tyres, brakes and some fluids more quickly. With relatively large 18- and 19-inch alloy wheels, tyres will be more expensive than for lesser models. 

Engines, drive & performance

The Golf R is one of the fastest hot hatchbacks on sale

Powering the flagship Golf is a familiar 2.0-litre petrol engine. It’s used extensively throughout the VW Group’s sporty models, from Skoda to Porsche. Here, it’s tuned to produce 316bhp, which is 10bhp more than the old Golf R and 20bhp more than the Cupra Leon and Volkswagen Golf GTI Clubsport. The special edition Golf R 20 Years boasts a little more power at 329bhp, plus mechanical changes under the bonnet that provide an improved throttle response and notably quicker gearchanges. While the GTI and Cupra Leon are front-wheel drive, the Golf R gets VW’s grippy 4Motion four-wheel-drive system.

That brings a couple of benefits. The first is that the 0-62mph time is far quicker than any front-driven hatchback can manage; taking just 4.7 seconds to reach 62mph from a standstill (4.6 seconds in the R 20 Years). The R is only beaten by the much more powerful Audi RS 3 and Mercedes-AMG A 45 S. Another upshot is that the Golf R feels secure even in wet weather, not that we’d advise exploring its performance in torrential downpours.

The current Golf R is better to drive than the old Mk7.5 generation as well. There’s still almost no feel through the steering wheel, but the steering is at least quick and very well-weighted. There’s a lot of grip, and the all-wheel-drive system instantly tidies things up if the car steps out of line.

Our car was fitted with the optional R Performance Pack (fitted as standard to the R 20 Years) and the ‘Dynamic Chassis Control’ adaptive suspension, which we’d expect a large proportion of buyers to specify. The Performance Pack not only adds bigger wheels and a more prominent rear spoiler, but it also ups the top speed to 168mph (from 155mph) and introduces a ‘drift mode’ for exuberant skids. However, this feature isn’t intended to be used on public roads, and neither is the ‘Race’ drive mode.

A selection of driving modes are made available when you specify the Dynamic Chassis Control option, including an Individual option that lets you choose your exact preferences. There are even 15 suspension settings to explore, which seems like overkill but should ensure that you can find your ideal setup. Most buyers will probably find their preferred setting and then never touch it again.

Interior & comfort

A sporty interior but new technology doesn’t impress

Inside, the Volkswagen Golf R gets the same sporty treatment as the cheaper GTI models. The sports seats and steering wheel are the same, albeit with blue trim for the R and red for the GTI. The R does get bigger gearshift paddles mounted behind the steering wheel, and its carbon-effect trim aims to make it feel more racecar-like. The seats are supportive and offer a good driving position.

Compared to the standard ‘R’, the commemorative ‘R 20 Years’ adds 19-inch alloy wheels with blue and black accents, contrasting blue or black side mirror caps, a larger rear wing and the R Performance Package mentioned above. The optional heated seats also come as standard on this model.

It’s a shame the screens in front of you aren’t so ergonomically thought-out. The Golf R shares its infotainment setup with the standard Golf Mk8, and the screen can be slow to respond and confusing to use. There are too many sub-menus, with even basic functions like a temperature change requiring you to prod at small icons. The touch sliders beneath the screen aren’t easy enough to use, and aren’t an improvement on the Golf Mk7’s dials. They are illuminated at night, though, unlike in the Cupra Leon. 

Standard equipment includes automatic Matrix LED headlights, sat nav and smartphone mirroring, three-zone air conditioning and adaptive cruise control. But as this is a range-topping model, it’s stingy to ask extra for a reversing camera and voice command.

The options list is long. You can add individual extras like a panoramic sunroof, heated seats, a premium Harman Kardon stereo and a self-parking system. Golf R buyers can also add the aforementioned Performance Pack and an Akrapovic titanium exhaust system.

Practicality & boot space

The Golf R is still a practical choice that’s capable of being family transport

Hot hatchbacks became more popular than sports cars because they bring driving thrills and practicality, and that’s true of the Golf R. It’s based on the sensible Volkswagen Golf, which has plenty of space for four adults and a reasonably large boot. Unlike the Audi S3 and RS 3, there’s no big loss in boot space due to the addition of the four-wheel-drive system.

You get a 374-litre boot, which is just six litres down on lesser Golfs. If you need more luggage space, you’ll be glad to know that the Volkswagen Golf R and Cupra Leon are both available as estates - or there’s the bigger and less involving Volkswagen Tiguan R SUV.

The Golf R isn’t suitable for towing, perhaps due to the central position of its exhaust system.

Reliability & safety

A five-star safety rating is helped by a huge array of driver assistance features

The Golf R can piggyback off the standard Golf’s five-star Euro NCAP safety rating, and the amount of driver aids it includes is very impressive. There’s the usual autonomous emergency braking (AEB), Isofix child-seat points and an assortment of airbags, plus lane-change assistance, traffic jam assist, speed limit recognition, adaptive cruise control and VW’s Car-2-X system, which can remotely communicate with other cars and infrastructure to warn of hazards ahead.

Owner satisfaction is not so good. Volkswagen’s family hatchback last finished 75th in our list of the top 75 cars on sale in the 2022 Driver Power survey, and dropped off entirely in 2023. It scored poorly across all sections, and finished bottom for the usability of the infotainment system. Evidence of cost-cutting has frustrated some buyers, many of whom feel they should’ve stuck with the last-generation model. At least the Golf R should impress its owners when it comes to performance, if not for running costs.

Charlie writes and edits news, review and advice articles for Carbuyer, as well as publishing content to its social media platforms. He has also been a regular contributor to its sister titles Auto Express, DrivingElectric and evo. As well as being consumed by everything automotive, Charlie is a speaker of five languages and once lived in Chile, Siberia and the Czech Republic, returning to the UK to write about his life-long passion: cars.

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