VW Golf R: Proof that hot hatches can still punch above their weight

By J.G. Pasterjak
Mar 26, 2024 | Volkswagen, VW, Golf, Golf R, Review, Track Test | Posted in Features | Never miss an article

Photography Courtesy Volkswagen

We owe a lot to the Volkswagen GTI. It’s arguably the common ancestor from which all modern hot hatchbacks and sporty compacts arose, and nearly every generation of the model–since 1983 stateside and 1976 elsewhere–has been more potent and more competent than the last.

The latest Golf R–the most radical GTI offered by the factory–represents the ultimate form of the current Mk8 platform, which uses an evolved version of the corporate MQB platform introduced in 2012. The R model packs the platform with performance and technology in the form of all-wheel drive with a torque-vectoring rear diff, an aluminum front subframe, and 14.1-inch front and 12.1-inch rear disc brakes. 

Then add in several drive modes that remap many of the electronic aids for steering, throttle, stability control and torque biasing to produce some profoundly different experiences behind the wheel.

Yeah, all that sounds exciting–and, to be fair, it is–but there’s a price: a nearly $45,000 sticker, with the only option being an $800 upcharge to swap out the six-speed manual transmission with a seven-speed dual-clutch paddlebox. 

Which transmission you choose will be a matter of personal preference–our loaner came equipped with the twin-clutch option–but while the R model gets an upgraded six-speed clutch from the regular GTI, the conventional wisdom from tuners is that the DSG is more durable and capable of handling more power and torque than the six-speed.

Anyway, back to the price. Now we’re at nearly $46,000 for a VW Golf–albeit a very, very special VW Golf–and that’s a lot. And with dealers tacking several thousand dollars in “market adjustment” onto boring cars and several more thousand onto cool cars, these hot hatches are probably even pricier now.

A limited-edition Anniversary package will also be available, tacking another grand onto the MSRP while adding some special badging and deleting the sunroof (and the additional high-center-of-gravity weight that comes with it). Dealers have probably already booked their ski vacations based on the market adjustments on those models.

Fast and Fierce

Thankfully, you’re getting a lot for your dollar here, and if the previous technical specs didn’t convince you, unleashing the 315 horsepower and 310 lb.-ft. of torque from the 2.0-liter turbo-four will end the argument.

The Golf R’s engine has some pleasantly old-school characteristics, with the boost hitting harder than in most modern turbo cars. VW claims peak torque at 1900 rpm, and we don’t doubt that, but achieving that peak torque requires the turbo to be fully spooled. And if you just hopped out of a regular GTI, which barely feels turbocharged, that’ll take a readjustment of your throttle foot on track.

But learning the throttle timing is worth it because the Golf R’s thrust is impressive when it’s allowed to do its job. And that’s the next thing we should talk about, because getting the best possible lap time in this car requires a bit of skill to work around electronic intervention that never quite disappears, no matter how you set the various modes. 

Even with the stability control all the way off, which is selectable not through the drive modes but in a submenu in the DIC where you can monitor individual aspects of the car, there’s still some throttle intervention when you really hang things out. The bummer is that the car is very controllable at and even beyond the limit, so feeling that momentary pause in power can be frustrating when you know your slide is completely reasonable.

So we experimented with the settings and drive modes and eventually produced our fastest lap in Drift mode. Yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like: A vehicle once synonymous with front-wheel-drive performance now offers a drift mode.

Each of those drive modes–Sport, Race and Drift–offers its own strategies for steering assist, exhaust note, throttle curve, torque biasing, traction control and stability intervention. Race mode is pretty solid–we’d put a novice out on track in that mode and they’d learn a lot–but it does intervene a bit too much when things get really slidey. 

Drift mode, where we found our fastest times after a few laps, allows for a lot of rear slip angle, even seemingly encouraging it on corner entry. We’re not 100% sure this is what was going on in the Golf R’s electronic brain, but from behind the wheel, it seemed that as long as the rear slip angle was greater than–or only slightly less–than the front slip angle, the Golf R let us do whatever we wanted. Yeah, full-on, Rockford-style oversteer slides were available in this little German hatchback.

If the front slip angle ever became too much greater than the rear slip angle, however, there was a momentary throttle interruption to help bring things back in line. As a result, producing the fastest lap time became a contest of quickly getting into a cornering attitude with a bit of rear slip angle–but not so much that we were losing forward momentum–and making sure we never let the car transition to an exit push as we tried to straighten out the wheel and then power down to the next corner. When it worked, it was spectacular, propelling the Golf R off of corners with authority–particularly in third gear. 

But in a couple corners at the Florida International Rally & Motorsport Park–those where the exits flatten out or even go off camber a bit–this put the car into a natural understeer state. Much of the key to landing a good lap came in anticipating these areas and making sure the car didn’t push so much that there was throttle intervention.

As a result, we weren’t surprised that our theoretical fast lap was considerably faster than our actual fast lap. We have no doubt we could have gotten down to that theoretical lap time, but it would have taken more laps and more driver adjustments. Plus, we didn’t want to return the car as a smoldering husk. 

But even though we couldn’t hit the ideal predictive lap that our Garmin Catalyst tried to goad us into, we still scorched the FIRM to a new fast lap in the hot hatch division. The Golf R’s 1:21.35 lap put it a couple tenths ahead of the previous leader in the class, the Hyundai Veloster N, and a couple more tenths faster than the other R car, the previous Honda Civic Type R. The only places the Hyundai seemed to pull ahead were in transitional areas, and we think the Volkswagen’s extra 300 pounds yielded the advantage. 

Even a cursory glance at the data traces shows where the Golf R (blue) beats the Honda Civic Type R (red): in acceleration and braking. The Honda has better speed through slow (1) and fast (2) corners, but the VW powers down the straights and produces greater deceleration into the corners (3). The thrust difference is even more apparent when the Honda needs fourth gear. As soon as the Civic makes that shift (4, 5), the VW just keeps accelerating and runs away down the straights.

Fast and Friendly

The Golf R’s lap times jibe with our experience behind the wheel: explosive exits, strong power down the straights, predictable grip and, most notably, exceptional performance in braking. The massive 14.1-inch front discs aren’t just for show, as they also deliver the whoa. And although the Golf R produces some blistering straightaway speeds, we found ourselves braking later and harder into some corners thanks to the power and stability of those brakes. Paired with Drift mode’s intense desire to hang out the rear, they deliver some extremely confident trail braking.

The Golf R is more than just fast lap times. We found the pedals and wheel to be perfectly placed, while the grippy leather seats offer plenty of adjustment range. The sunroof steals some headroom, but even with a helmet on, we didn’t encounter interference and could sit in our desired position–which is fairly vertical–without having to compromise. 

The DSG transmission is a great track companion, banging off up- and downshifts quickly and cleanly. Our one complaint: When the DSG finds the engine bouncing off the rev limiter, the subsequent upshift is heavily delayed compared to a standard upshift. We think the ECU is giving the engine some time to stabilize rpm before executing the shift, but even if we’re wrong in our assumption, the big thing is shifting before hitting the rev limiter. 

The Golf R offers more than just plenty of power. It also has lots of interior space, all the brakes and a comfortable driver position. After a bit longer with the car, we figure, we’ll warm up to the DIC.

Off-track and in the regular world, the Golf R is, well, a Golf. With four real seats and a 20-cubic-foot cargo area, it’s every bit as useful and practical as Golfs have always been–just that this one will get you to that next garage sale waaaay faster than the rest of the bargain hunters. 

We have very few good things to say about the DIC controls, though, which are either dash-mounted, touch-sensitive areas with no haptic feedback and poorly defined activation areas, or deeply embedded menu items in a Byzantine touchscreen UI. 

Aside from that, we love it. But look, it’s almost cliché to complain about infotainment controls these days. If you own this car, you’ll get used to it pretty quickly. Is it great? Definitely not for someone who has only a week to figure it out, but these are automotive writer problems. Push through the learning curve and you’ll be fine.

Besides, all those concerns about those clunky controls are going to disappear in Turn 1 of your first track day.

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CrashDummy Reader
3/23/23 9:02 a.m.

"...getting the best possible lap time in this car requires a bit of skill to work around electronic intervention that never quite disappears, no matter how you set the various modes."

Am I the only one that thinks all sporty cars (especially those that cost almost $50K) need to have an option that just turns everything off? One of the (many) reasons the early Miatas are so fun is that they just do exactly what your hands and feet tell them to do; the car isn't thinking about it. If I'm at an autocross or track I want to drive the car, I don't want the computer to drive it for me. Leaning heavily of the TC or ABS might lead to a faster lap (you see this with GT3 racecars I think) but it's certainly a less fun lap. 

Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard GRM+ Memberand Director of Marketing & Digital Assets
3/23/23 9:10 a.m.

In reply to CrashDummy :

Fortunately it's an easy fix with a Bluetooth dongle, but we're not really supposed to tweak the software on press cars:



Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
3/23/23 10:55 a.m.

In reply to Tom Suddard :

It's cool and also really silly that can pretty much make a car faster these days with a fancy app.

Brett_Murphy (Agent of Chaos)
Brett_Murphy (Agent of Chaos) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
3/23/23 1:11 p.m.

Compared to the GTI, there is no doubt that the Golf R is a nicer car overall. It's really a hatchback Audi S3 for less money. 

What is striking is how little difference there is in the time between the GTI and the Golf R. It really highlights how capable the GTI is out of the box. 

fidelity101 UberDork
3/24/23 9:45 a.m.

Corolla GR

Coniglio Rampante
Coniglio Rampante Reader
1/31/24 10:30 a.m.

This article reminds me of how good the Veloster N really was on track, since its time at the FIRM finally got eclipsed by a segment competitor ... with AWD, more hp, torque, and a DCT.

Well done, Hyundai.

p.s.:  thanks for keepin' it real by acknowledging that $45K is expensive.  So many other outlets act like vehicles that cost $40-$70K (or more!) are "affordable."  I have a good career, but that oft-flippant attitude towards price makes me wonder if I should have started my Only Fans channel a little sooner. wink

BA5 GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
1/31/24 11:10 a.m.
Brett_Murphy (Agent of Chaos) said:

Compared to the GTI, there is no doubt that the Golf R is a nicer car overall. It's really a hatchback Audi S3 for less money. 

What is striking is how little difference there is in the time between the GTI and the Golf R. It really highlights how capable the GTI is out of the box. 

That'd probably be an interesting comparison.  How can you/how much does it take to get one of the hot hatches lesser siblings to match track times with the stock hot version?  Can a Civic Si with stick tires run with a stock Type R?  Can a GTI with suspension and a tune match a stock Golf R? etc.  

thashane GRM+ Memberand Reader
1/31/24 1:45 p.m.
CrashDummy said:

"...getting the best possible lap time in this car requires a bit of skill to work around electronic intervention that never quite disappears, no matter how you set the various modes."

Am I the only one that thinks all sporty cars (especially those that cost almost $50K) need to have an option that just turns everything off?

One of my praises for the Elantra N is that you can turn off everything, in *ANY* mode (eco included) just by pressing and holding the button for couple seconds. Can even be moving, in gear, ect. Great job Hyundai!

I believe we are increasingly developing less capable drivers, as even those in amatuer motorsports rely on electronic intervention. If an hpde or autocross isn't an appropriate time to turn off stability control, when is?

BoxheadTim GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
2/1/24 2:03 p.m.

Why oh why did this need to be posted right now when I started actively shopping for Golfs the first time in my life?

grover GRM+ Memberand Dork
2/1/24 2:31 p.m.

In reply to BoxheadTim :

The hive knows. 

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