The thinking person’s hot hatch.
Words by: Adam Allen
Are you sure we’re looking at a Golf R here? Kinda hard to see with that subdued paint job…
You could tightly shut your eyes and still see the TNT Orange livery our tester was bathed in. Part of an exclusive palette of colour choices, the $2,995 upgrade is worth it if you’re the extroverted type or have a tough time finding your ride in a busy parking lot. Unlike some other wild paint options available across the industry, this one is flawlessly applied and should age nicely. One thing’s for sure: it’s guaranteed to attract attention wherever you go. Even a thick coating of winter grime couldn’t subdue this hue. After spending time on the VW online configurator, we were particularly taken by Reseda Green which may lack the visual punch of TNT Orange but is extremely nice.
Other than the vivid colour choices, what else is new for 2018?
The changes for model year 2018 are incremental, but meaningful at the same time. Take the 8” Discover Media infotainment system. It convincingly vaults the Golf R to among the best in class with only Ford’s SYNC3 system able to mount a challenge in ease of use. It should boil down to personal preference for which one you prefer, but the VW unit deserves kudos for being the best in-car technology solution in the brand’s history. We never once needed to consult the owner’s manual to determine how to get the most out of it, and it’s one of those systems that has blessedly zero lag when you execute a command. Also visually impressive is the new Digital Cockpit. When we first encountered it in the Tiguan we tested recently, we tried to resist the urge to fall for its sharp graphics and configurable interface. After a short while we surrendered our lament for the old gauges and their analogue needles because Volkswagen really does have a winner on its hands. The exterior changes are less noticeable but still have a positive aesthetic impact- LED lighting fore and aft are much better and more visible than before. You can also get some cool Spielberg 19” wheels for a paltry $250, but we’re not sure the standard Pretoria rolling stock are in need of an upgrade- they too look fantastic.
How do driver and passengers fare once ensconced in the Golf R?
Even the most basic Golfs have impressive interiors. They are thoughtfully laid out, meticulously assembled and look far more expensive than they actually are. The same holds true for this uber-Golf, but you are treated to niceties such as ambient lighting, a perfectly sized multifunction steering wheel and seats that look unyielding but are as superb at holding you in place in the twisties as they are providing comfort for long days in the saddle. It is not hard to find the perfect driving position in this car. You also get a comprehensive list of safety equipment, a rearview camera that provides an expansive view of your six and Android Auto/Apple CarPlay combo that may be destined to collect dust, so good is the stock Discover Media interface. The interior is so well assembled that we wonder why anyone would feel the need to step up to the Audi S3- no one could look at you with a straight face and tell you the Golf R’s innards aren’t just as lavish as its upscale stablemate.
Does it drive as good as it looks?
As good as the first-rate interior and clean, timeless styling enjoyed by the Golf R manifest themselves, the driving experience is what was most memorable to us. Shared with the S3 is the EA888 2.0 litre turbocharged four banger making 292 horsepower and a broad shouldered 280 foot pounds of torque in this application. In our tester, taking care of shifting duties was…us. It isn’t often that VW Canada has a Golf R with an honest-to-goodness manual gearbox available, and we jumped at the chance to row our own gears, an easy choice since this tranny is so darn rewarding to manipulate. Yes, we know that the DSG gearbox gets better with each passing year and that it allows for blazingly fast launches and will be faster around a race track. Fact is, we don’t give a hoot, not when the manual option is so satisfying and fun. All Golf R’s feature Dynamic Chassis Control (DCC) which add or subtract firmness to the suspension depending on the drive mode you’ve selected. Unlike so many cars that have this feature, there is a clearly discernable difference between Comfort and Race. The best part is that the Comfort setting doesn’t make the R all wallowy and uncoordinated, nor does the Race setting lend a teeth gritting feel that will leave you tired and weary. It’s interesting because all this top-drawer hardware (we can’t forget about VW’s surefooted 4Motion all-wheel drive and shrewd XDS differential) doesn’t disguise speed like you typically see in a German car. The controls stream constant and steady data of what is happening with the drivetrain and at the four contact patches to your butt and fingertips and the engine turns a surprisingly high 3,000 rpm at highway speeds, no doubt because of shorter gearing that renders a downshift to make a pass unnecessary. Don’t get us wrong, it isn’t unpleasant whatsoever- it’s just that where so many cars provide an insulating veneer, this Golf R does not.
Inevitably, people will compare it to the Subaru Impreza STI and the Ford Focus RS. How does the VeeDub measure up?
And they may even mix the Honda Civic Type R into the conversation, but in the interest of comparing apples to apples we’ll only scrutinize the ones with all-wheel drive (yet despite its front-wheel drive layout the Civic would give all three a run for their money, but we digress.) Beginning with the Subaru, it’s the least compelling choice amongst the three. It’ll still serve up a generous helping of driver enjoyment- few cars are as much fun on loose surfaces as is the STI- but it’s getting long in the tooth and feels less substantial than the Ford or VW. After spending some time in the interior, some may even call it cheap. As good as it is, it’s increasingly harder to compete with its rivals and although you could use it as your daily driver, it wouldn’t embrace that role as easily as its competitors, instead preferring to be flogged on a rally stage. The Focus RS is the clear choice for those who will take their ride to the track. We drove one a couple of summers ago and came away hugely impressed, and our inner hooligan was smitten with its Drift Mode. It also has an excellent engine and manual-only gearbox, fade free brakes and suspension that stubbornly clings to all kinds of tarmac. While it does fare better than the Subie as an everyday car, it doesn’t really know how to relax and the Recaro seats border on uncomfortable. That leaves the Golf R as the goldilocks of the group. The performance metrics aren’t far behind the others, and best of all it’s accessible so you don’t feel like you need a racetrack or deserted two lane to unlock its dynamic delights. The interior is head and shoulders above the pack, feeling positively luxurious in comparison and a place you would gladly spend time in no matter the length of your commute. It may not have the tightly wound feeling of the others, but it is no less rewarding to drive and significantly more user friendly as well. To our eyes, its classic two-box aesthetic is easier on the eyes, too.
What might go wrong?
Some people complain that the price of the Golf R isn’t worth the premium over a GTI. We think those grumblings are misguided, however. Yes, the GTI is an achingly brilliant car by any measure, but the Golf R is faster and offers all-wheel drive- let’s see you try and coax lurid oversteer on a snowy road in a GTI. Plus, its smartly furnished interior packed with the expected gotta-have-it features makes it feel like a discounted Audi. We’re pretty sure that as close as the GTI and Golf R may be they attract distinctly different buyers. Drawing our own ire is VW’s decision to fit what they refer to as the Soundaktor, a device fastened to the firewall that augments the engine’s sound to make it sound more aggressive. Instead, it gives the Golf R the agricultural soundtrack of the Subaru STI. Who ever complained that Volkswagen’s 2.0 litre turbo, one of the better ones out there, sounded bad? We’d grudgingly select Comfort Mode just to shut the thing up even though we were missing the sharpened responses of Race Mode. Head to YouTube to see how to disconnect it and never look back. The only other demerit we noticed was the lack of a heated steering wheel- not a deal breaker but a puzzling omission at this price point.
Should I buy a Golf R?
If you find yourself shopping cars in the uber-hot hatch segment-lucky you- the Golf R may be a smidge slower and handle with slightly less grip than its competitors, but it is easily the most well-rounded choice. It’s fun no matter the situation or the road you find yourself on, and who doesn’t enjoy applying full opposite lock in a Golf on a slippery drive home? For those of us that are getting a bit older but still cling fiercely to the days of our youth, the Golf R is the perfect choice.
2018 Volkswagen Golf R- Specifications
Price as tested: $46,860
Body Type: 5-door, 5-passenger hatch
Powertrain Layout: Front engine/all-wheel drive
Engine: 2.0 litre inline-four turbo, DOHC, 16 valves
Horsepower: 292 @ 5,400 rpm
Torque (lb-ft.): 280 @ 1,800 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Curb weight: 1,508 kg (3,325 lbs)
Observed Fuel Consumption: 10.8L/100km (22 mpg)