A more mature option among juvenile rivals.
It’s easy to overlook the stoic Volkswagen Golf R compared to exuberant rivals like the Honda Civic Type R, Subaru WRX STI, and Ford Focus RS. Of the quartet, the Golf R has the most understated style, a higher asking price, and on paper, at least, less performance. But it makes up for its shortcomings with quality, agility, and general quickness. And with standard features – including a digital gauge cluster that’s essentially VW’s take on the Audi Virtual Cockpit – in abundance, it’s a more grown-up choice in a segment filled with boy racers.
At $39,785 to start, the Golf R is one of the pricier options in its class. Both the Honda Civic Type R ($35,700) and the Subaru WRX STI ($36,595) are more affordable. Only the outgoing Ford Focus RS ($41,120) is more expensive. But VW doesn't have a ton of options that might hike the price, and that's why it scores so high – our tester was just $40,635.
The 2019 Golf R offers 40 optional colors – but the 2018 model still makes do with just five standard colors, including the Lapiz Blue metallic pictured here. The standard 19-inch wheels cost $235 when done in gloss black, but the leather sports seats are standard, as is the six-speed manual transmission (a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic costs $1,100), not to mention safety gear like blind-spot monitoring, lane-keep assist, and rear cross-traffic alert.
The Golf R, like the GTI, is an understated car. But it’s this subtlety that makes the top-end R model so visually appealing. It doesn't need a big, shouty wing or dramatic red accents – it’s secure in its level of performance without resorting to such primitive automotive threat gestures. Its barely angrier fascia, 19-inch wheels, and quad exhaust tips are compelling enough. Unlike more over-the-top offerings (we’re looking at you, Civic Type R), the Golf R is refreshingly subtle, and to most onlookers, completely inoffensive.
The Golf's cabin is simple, stylish, and covered in high-quality materials. Black leather and soft-touch black plastics cover almost every surface within hands reach, although there is conservative use of piano black plastic on the infotainment screen and brushed aluminum on the gear lever. But if we had to dock the Golf R's cabin anywhere, it'd be for its bland design. The new Jetta has the same issue – the materials are great and the layout is clean, but it all feels a little too conservative and business-like.
The Golf R’s 12-way power adjustable, leather front bucket seats are form-fitting, and come standard with heating, memory settings, and faux-suede accents. They aren't exactly the definition of comfort, though, as the ride is harsh and the firm seats don’t do anything to alleviate it.
Ignore the stiff seats, and the front compartment offers room to stretch out. Driver and front passenger make do with a comfortable-enough 41.2 inches of legroom. But the Golf R is still down on space compared to the Civic Type R (42.3 inches) and Ford Focus RS (43.1 inches). It makes up for it somewhat in the rear, where passengers have 35.6 inches of legroom – a good amount more than the Focus RS (33.2 inches). Numbers aside, the Golf R is plenty spacious for four adults.
For 2019, the Golf R loses the outdated instrument cluster display screen and gains VW’s new Digital Cockpit instead. Meanwhile, an 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system is a big improvement over the prior setup and it offers both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, although it lacks a WiFi hotspot. The display’s touch responsiveness is superb, and its big, crystal-clear graphics make interacting with it easy while on the move. The huge 10.3-inch digital instrument cluster is also easier to read than most analog setups, and its generally just really nice to look at. We dig its customizability, too, with each gauge layout offering multiple variants.
If you’re shelling out more than $40,000 for a hatchback, it better come loaded. And the Golf R does. Standard features include Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, as well as heated seats and HID headlights.
Cliche alert: The Golf R handles like it’s on rails. This hot hatch is extremely grippy, and, thanks to its quick steering rack, fun as hell to toss around. The all-wheel-drive setup, stiff suspension, and super sticky P235/35R19 tires make it cling to the pavement. Toss this hot Golf into a corner quickly and it barely shrugs. Or you can engage the standard Launch Control feature and scoot to 60 miles per hour in about five seconds.
The turbocharged 2.0-liter engine underhood is lively, but laggy at lower revs. With 292 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque, it’s not the most powerful on paper – the Honda Civic Type R (310 hp) and Ford Focus RS (350 hp) both have more grunt – but the Golf R still feels ridiculously quick thanks in large part to its standard all-wheel drive, which allows it to get off-the-line with little drama. Its quick-shifting automatic transmission is a huge bonus in a class that eschews two-pedal setups. Our six-speed manual equipped tester was a riot to row through the gears, but the dual-clutch is the still the quicker of the two transmissions.
Safety isn’t the Golf R’s specialty, but that’s not out of the ordinary for this segment. The R has standard passive safety features like adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and lane-keep assist. Again, that’s not uncommon for a class that focuses on performance and affordability. The R’s relatively high score, though, is due to its five-star overall crash rating in the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s testing.
The Golf R’s 21 miles per gallon city, 29 highway, and 24 combined keep it competitive in the class. The Subaru WRX STI returns 21 city, 27 highway, and 23 combined, and the outgoing Ford Focus RS gets 19 city, 25 highway, and 22 combined. Only the Honda Civic Type R is more efficient overall, returning 22 city, 28 highway, 25 combined.