The 2023 Volkswagen Golf R is the Swiss Army Knife of the hot-hatch world.
In a world full of compromises, finding an enthusiast’s car without one is quite difficult. They are either too expensive, not practical enough to go to work, too harsh to drive anywhere you want, or not fun enough to justify the purchase. If you want no compromise fun hot-hatch, there is a reason why the Golf R has been the go-to choice for many enthusiasts, if you can find one.
Just like the previous generations, the 8th generation Golf continues to have a timeless design that will not look old in a few years. Compared to the GTI, the Golf R has a few important differences, but both models are not overshadowing each other when it comes to the overall design. The Golf R has its distinctive looks that can be easily seen by enthusiasts. The headlights and the daytime running lights are the signature design feature of the 8th generation Golf, but the Golf R does not come with fog lights, which can be a bummer if you drive a lot in inclement weather conditions.
From the side profile, it is slightly harder to find the differences except for the wheels. The 20th Anniversary Edition comes with blacked-out 19″ wheels that give the Golf R a little bit more special and sportier look. For some reason, the Golf R traditionally comes with fewer colour choices, and fewer trims compared to the GTI, and the trend continues here with the latest generation as we only get three colour options.
The rear end is slightly different than the GTI, just like the rest of the car. The Golf R comes with quad-exhaust tips and a bigger rear wing for an extra sportier look. For an untrained eye, the differences are very hard to find, and the subtle looks are what make the Golf R appealing to its audience. The Golf R proves that you don’t need fake vents, fender flares, or design gimmicks to have a sporty and good-looking hatchback.
The similarities continue in the interior, which means it is the most controversial part of the vehicle just like the GTI. There are no physical buttons anywhere in the interior, other than the window switches, and that is the most controversial part along with the new infotainment system. On the positive side, the ergonomics are quite good, the leather seats feel very comfortable with the right amount of bolstering for spirited driving.
The 20th Anniversary comes with minor changes in the interior, including the carbon fibre inserts on the dashboard and door trims, which is the first time in a production Volkswagen vehicle. The only downside is the excessive use of piano black plastic trims which you use the most, including the center console. It would not be easy to keep it clean when you use it every day.
The visibility is excellent for everyone in the interior, and it offers a decent amount of legroom for the rear seat passengers. Unlike the GTI 40th Anniversary Edition we reviewed earlier this summer, the Golf R 20th Anniversary comes with more features, especially for the rear seat passengers, including third zone climate control, and heated rear seats.
Just like any other hatchback, the practicality aspect is very appealing for most people. You can simply fold down the rear seats and can have an interior space like a small crossover. Just like the GTI, you get the same overall cargo space despite having an extra rear differential in the back – 19.9 cubic feet (563 L) of trunk space behind the rear seats, and a total of 34.5 cubic feet (976 L) when the rear seats are folded down and you get fully flat cargo area when you do so.
Compared to the previous generation, the 8th generation looks and feels so much more modern as it comes with the latest tech. The Golf R only comes with a fully digital gauge cluster which is one of the most customizable entries in the market. To VW’s credit, the gauge cluster works exceptionally well with almost no input lag, and being able to choose different layouts including the navigation screen is something no one else offers in this segment.
On the other side, the most controversial part is the 10-inch center display with the latest VW software. The infotainment system does not have any issues, but the problem is the way you interact with it as using the sliders would not be everyone’s cup of tea. I did not have any big issues with it as it gives you the impression of using a tablet or a smartphone, except for the non-illuminated touch-sensitive sliders located right in front of the center display which makes it impossible to see when it is dark out. However, the display quality and the rearview camera resolution are really good.
Aside from the interior quality, the new Golf R stands out against the competition when it comes to standard features unless you go to luxury entries like the Audi S3, or the Mercedes-Benz A35 AMG. There are no other “non-premium” entries that offer features such as heated, ventilated power seats as well as memory features for the driver. The noise, vibration and harshness levels are significantly lower than the competition, making the Golf R the most refined “non-premium” hot-hatch available on the market.
The Golf R comes with an updated 2.0 litre 4-cylinder turbocharged EA888 engine that pushes 315 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque. If you choose the manual transmission, it comes with slightly fewer torque figures at 280 lb-ft, but you still get the same horsepower. The numbers have gone slightly up from 288 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque in the last generation Golf R. Volkswagen updated the EA888 engine and that’s how they get slightly more horsepower and torque. There is no power difference if you choose the 20th Anniversary Edition in US and Canada.
The biggest selling point for the Golf R is the 4MOTION all-wheel-drive powertrain. It sends up to 50% of the power to the rear, just like the previous gen. However, the biggest change is that the new Golf R comes with a torque-vectoring rear differential that can send up to 100% of that 50% of power to one of the rear axles which makes the car feel a lot more playful when you chuck it in the corner. It will never feel like a proper rear-wheel drive sports car, but it is a big improvement for a front-wheel-drive biased AWD system.
The benefits and the fun factor of a great all-wheel-drive system are obvious, but what makes the Golf R even more fun is that it still comes with a 6-speed manual transmission. It is without a doubt the most engaging choice, but it is not the fastest Golf R, as it also comes with a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission. It upshifts and downshifts very fast, and it can accelerate much faster than any other entries in this segment. When it comes to straight-line acceleration, the Golf R punches way above its weight as it hits 100 km/h in less than 4.5 seconds. It is the most powerful and fastest Volkswagen you can get.
Just like any modern sporty Volkswagen, the Golf R can do everything exceptionally well, including being a great daily driver. Unlike the other entries in this segment, it is by far the most refined entry without a doubt. The ride is not punishing in any way, no matter which type of road you are taking it to, it is very compliant even in the stiffest suspension setting. The front end may not be as sharp as some other entries, but thanks to the rear differential magic, the car wants to rotate with more throttle input in the mid-corner.
When you take your Golf R to your favourite backroad, that’s where you remember this is a performance-oriented hatchback. You can choose the right driving mode for better throttle response, suspension and AWD settings for optimal grip. The AWD system gives you peace of mind as it can go fast anywhere without losing traction. On top of that, the chassis is very predictable, and the upgraded brakes give you a lot of confidence at the limit. It is clear that Volkswagen kept what is already good about the previous Golf R, but added the fun factor on top of it when they designed the new Golf R. The updated exhaust design also enhances the fun factor, as you hear more exhaust notes along with pops and crackles when you switch to “Race” or “Nurburgring” driving modes.
The sport compact and the hot-hatch segment is more competitive than ever. Most entries have become so much faster, more capable and serious about performance figures, they started to feel rough around the edges as a daily driver. The Golf R continues to be the Golf R that you would expect, it handles everything thrown at it from the performance perspective, but on top of that, it offers the features and creature comforts that you would only be able to find in the premium segment, with a non-premium price tag.
|2.0-litre, turbocharged inline-4
|7-speed dual-clutch automatic
|315 hp @ 5900 rpm
|295 lb-ft @ 1900 rpm
|3360 lb – 1524 kg
|Fuel Economy (as tested)
|21 MPG – 11.0L / 100km
|Price (as tested)