Volkswagen Golf R hatchback
"The Volkswagen Golf R is quick, fun, and practical but we're not sure it's worth the extra expense over the standard Golf GTI"
- Understated style
- Fun to drive
- Very quick
- Firm ride
- Cheaper rivals nearly as quick
- Four-wheel drive hampers boot space
When most people think of a high-performance Volkswagen Golf, they immediately think of the GTI – the original hot hatchback and a legend in its own right. If, however, the GTI doesn’t quite offer enough extra performance over the standard Golf for you, there’s also the VW Golf R.
As with the rest of the range, the Golf R was kept up to date until it went out of production at the start of 2020. You'll now only be able to get one from dealer's stock, until the new Mk8 Golf R arrives in 2021. You can spot the last iteration thanks to LED headlamps, sequentially flashing indicators and more aggressive vents in the front bumper. There were also some subtle changes inside, but it’ll be the 10bhp engine power increase that enthusiasts are most impressed by.
Like the GTI, the R is powered by a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine, but with 306bhp in place of the 230bhp of its understudy. This not only makes it far quicker than the standard Golf GTI, but fast enough to keep pace with a Porsche 718 Boxster – the 0-62mph sprint is dismissed in 5.1 seconds.
With the dual-clutch DSG automatic gearbox, though, it's even faster, taking just 4.6 seconds. The DSG box was mandatory with the 'Performance Pack' – an assortment of goodies intended to make the very most of that powerful engine's potential. It includes an upgraded braking system, rear spoiler, special 19-inch wheels and the removal of the car's 155mph speed restrictor – enabling a staggering 166mph where it's safe and legal to reach that kind of speed.
Of the rest of the hot-hatch pack, only the BMW M135i (4.8 seconds), formidable Mercedes-AMG A45 S (3.9 seconds) and Audi RS3 (4.1 seconds) can match or beat the Golf R for straight-line speed – and even they'll struggle to match it on a twisty road. Urgent off-the-line acceleration is made possible by the sheer traction of its 4Motion four-wheel-drive system, and this also provides additional grip in corners - particularly in poor weather. Stiff suspension and a low ride height make the Golf R a properly focused performance car.
Compared to the Golf GTI, this extra performance has come with a slight compromise in practicality. Boot space in the Golf R has been reduced from 380 to 343 litres in order to accommodate the four-wheel-drive system. Everything else, however, is business as usual: the car was available with either three or five doors and rear passenger room is unaffected.
As the R is the most expensive model in the Golf range, you’d expect it to come pretty well equipped and, for the most part, it did. You get a sophisticated 9.2-inch infotainment system with sat nav, DAB radio, bespoke 18-inch alloys, a subtle bodykit and heated Alcantara-covered sports seats up front as standard. One slightly disappointing aspect is that the excellent adaptive dampers were only available as a rather expensive option. This is a shame, as they really bring the Golf R to life in corners.
In terms of safety, we wouldn’t worry too much, as the standard Golf hatchback was awarded the full five stars by Euro NCAP and the R gets even more standard safety kit, as well as the extra assurance of four-wheel drive. The standard Volkswagen Golf finished 41st out of the 100 cars ranked in our 2019 Driver Power owner satisfaction survey of cars currently on sale in the UK.
The Golf R is an extremely impressive car, but the regular Golf GTI is so capable – and so much more affordable – it begs the question as to whether the R was worth the extra money. We’re not sure it is – especially when both the Ford Focus RS and Honda Civic Type R are arguably better to drive. But the Volkswagen Golf name holds more prestige, and the R is the ultimate car to wear it.