Volkswagen Golf R review
The Volkswagen Golf R is seriously quick and as easy to live with as any other Golf, but those conservative looks won’t be for everyone
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The Volkswagen Golf R is a hot hatch for the shy and retiring. It’ll beat most cars off the line at the traffic light grand prix, but its subtle styling means you’ll struggle to distinguish it from a humble Golf diesel. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on your viewpoint.
The Golf R is available as a youthful three-door or a more practical five-door – both of which are covered here – and as a big-booted estate, which is reviewed separately. Given its restrained looks, you really have to sample the Golf R’s performance to fully appreciate it.
Its 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine is really strong, while its quick steering lets you dart into bends before using the grippy all-wheel-drive system to dig into the tarmac and fire you out the other side at an indecent pace. It’s extremely quick, and you’re able to use all the power in the wet – unlike front-wheel-spinning hot hatches such as the Honda Civic Type R.
The Golf R doesn’t feel quite as nailed to the road quite like the Honda does, but the flipside is that its suspension won’t break your back at the mere hint of a bump in the road. You can even have adaptive dampers, allowing you to choose between a firmer ride for better handling in bends or a softer setup if you simply want to cruise down a motorway as comfortably as possible.
The Golf R might look like it doesn't want to rock the boat but it has 310hp and four-wheel drive – it's faster than many so-called sports cars
You can also swap the standard six-speed manual gearbox for a seven-speed automatic, which changes gear quickly and smoothly. It is an ideal upgrade if you regularly drive the car in town, or want launch control for maximum acceleration from a standstill. Or, y’know, just for showing off to your friends.
The Golf also comes with lots of safety tech as standard to help you avoid accidents, and it got a five-star Euro NCAP crash rating in 2012, although the tests have gotten stricter since then.
There are just enough changes inside compared to a standard Golf to make you feel like you’re driving something a little special. The sporty front seats have lots of support, you get a leather-bound steering wheel, sporty gear knob, R-branded dials and a smattering of R badges.
But, thankfully, you lose none of the basic car’s robust feel or passenger space. There’s still generous space for four adults, although the boot is slightly smaller than in the standard car to make way for the four-wheel-drive system.
So, the Golf R’s subtle styling means it won’t get the attention you might want from a hot hatch, but if you want a car that’s fast and fun, yet perfectly suited to the drudgery of everyday life – few other hot hatches can compete with its broad range of talents.
The R’s back seats are big enough for you to bring three tall friends along for the ride but you can’t quite cram as much stuff in its boot as in the standard Golf
The Golf R won’t just keep up with some much more expensive sports cars on a twisty back road, it’ll also leave them for dead in terms of practicality
The Volkswagen Golf R’s front seats get the same wide range of adjustment as offered in other Volkswagen Golfs, so no matter your height you should be able to get a decent view out. It’s worth making sure you’ll find the sports seats comfortable, however – they offer lots of support, but might be a touch restrictive if you’re big boned.
You can have your Volkswagen Golf R with three or five doors, but those big sports seats restrict access to the back so unless you’ll barely ever carry more than two people, it’s well worth considering spending the small extra for rear doors.
With them fitted, the Volkswagen Golf R is perfectly up to the task of carrying four people – it has more head and legroom than you’ll get in a BMW M140i and the big windows mean it feels less restrictive than a Mercedes-AMG A35. Three adults will fit on the back seat but you’re likely to hear grumbles from the middle-seat passenger who’ll be tight for elbowroom and foot room because of the large hump in the floor.
VW has also sneakily used hard plastics for the rear door cards instead of the expensive spongy ones applied up front, although this is a similar problem on other hot hatches.
On five-door models at least, you should have no trouble fitting a child seat – the rear doors open wide and the clearly marked Isofix points make it easy to clip in the base and pop the seat on top.
While the way the Volkswagen Golf R drives will put the biggest smile on your face, you can derive a lot of pleasure out of the simple little things that VW does really well.
Things like interior cubbies that open with a damped smoothness, felt-lined door pockets that stop things rattling around and the sun visors complete with light-up vanity mirrors. USB and Aux plugs are nothing revolutionary but the R goes one step further by reminding you to take your phone when you leave the car.
Those felt-lined door pockets are big enough for a couple of water bottles on all four doors, and you’ll find the cooled glovebox can happily swallow a big bottle of water. The cubby under the front-centre armrest is big enough to hide valuables, you get two cupholders and a small tray that’s perfect for change.
In terms of practicality, the only area where you really pay for the R’s increased performance is in the boot, where the regular Golf’s 380-litre capacity drops down to 343 litres to make way for the car’s four-wheel drive system. Even so, it isn’t too much smaller than you’ll find in a BMW M140i or Mercedes-AMG A35.
While the boot is slightly smaller than in regular Golf models, it is no less practical – you still get hooks for your shopping, tie-downs for your luggage, a 12v socket for powering electricals and an adjustable boot floor that makes sliding objects in and out a breeze.
The Golf R is comfortable, has loads of grip on slippery roads and is quick enough to humble sports cars – other hot hatches are more hardcore though
The Golf R's 2.0-litre engine produces 70hp more than already-quick GTI – it's almost crazy fast
No two ways about it – the Golf R is a seriously rapid family hatchback that can out-accelerate a long list of more expensive sports cars.
Getting from 0-62mph takes just 4.8 seconds and the car’s light pedals and slick gearbox makes this an easily attainable figure. Fitting the seven-speed DSG automatic gearbox will lose you some sense of involvement but it makes the car even easier to drive and quicker, with 0-62mph taking just 4.6 seconds – faster than some Porsches.
You’ll find everyday performance is just as impressive, so even if you put your foot down in fourth gear at 50mph you can overtake without having to wait for the engine to get up to speed. In this respect, it’s better than the Honda Civic Type R.
Such performance doesn’t come without its drawbacks, but fuel economy of about 40mpg, irrespective of the gearbox you choose, is none too shabby for something this quick – though expect to get closer to 35mpg in the real world.
The Volkswagen Golf R really comes into its own when you use it every day. It doesn’t suffer from laughably stiff suspension, so you can drive down lumpy country roads without every bump being transmitted into the cabin.
The optional adaptive dampers are an option you absolutely must go for. They have a Comfort setting that slackens everything off so you would have no idea you’re in a sporty car – great if you’re faced with a long motorway slog that you want to dispatch as comfortably as possible. At a cruise, the Volkswagen Golf R’s large tyres transmit a little more road roar into the cabin than the basic car, but you don’t get the annoying engine whine that, say, a Honda Civic Type R inflicts on you.
You can also stiffen the optional dampers – say you’re presented with the opportunity for a B-road blast – to cancel out major body lean even in fast bends. Most of the time the Golf is two-wheel drive but, if slip is detected, power will be sent to the back wheels for amazing traction. It feels like a big hand is shoving you forwards as you power out of corners and makes the VW extremely grippy on wet and slippery roads.
The Golf R shares its five-star Euro NCAP crash-test score with the regular car, although it was evaluated under 2012’s less stringent test conditions. Automatic emergency braking comes as standard and it includes active cruise control that can slow the Golf to match the speed of the car in front.
Driving in town is easy because the Volkswagen Golf R offers a great view out that makes it easy to spot cyclists and pedestrians and fitting into tight spaces is no bother thanks to the front and rear parking sensors. The optional automatic gearbox comes into its own in town, giving your left leg a rest and changing gear quickly and smoothly.
The Volkswagen Golf R’s interior may not be as overtly sporty as some fast family cars but it’s beautifully built and comes with plenty of kit you’d expect to see in some far bigger cars