Billed the 'Ultimate Golf' and given more power, but can this facelifted Volkswagen Golf R knock the imperious Ford Focus RS from its perch?

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The catchment area for the already ill-defined category beyond ‘standard’ hot hatches has become even more hazy recently, and the Volkswagen Golf R isn't helping.

The Seat Leon Cupra, blessed with 296bhp in its most powerful format, arguably earns a place at one end of it – despite costing only very marginally more than a regular Volkswagen Golf GTI, while that aforementioned Golf has been given more power under the latest facelift, with the GTI Performance puts out 242bhp - the same inadvertently as the latest Skoda Octavia vRS.

The Volkswagen Golf R has drawn new battle lines with the third generation Ford Focus RS

At the opposite extreme, Mercedes-AMG almost left the reservation entirely with the outrageous and very pricey 375bhp Mercedes-Benz Mercedes-AMG A 45. That leaves a Sudetenland-sized tract of real estate available in between, which the new Volkswagen Golf R – appears well qualified to annex. Although, the middle ground is there for its taking Volkswagen is wary of the potent, four-wheel drive Ford Focus RS which took the segment by the scruff of its neck. But don't think for one moment that Volkswagen are resting on its laurels, as a facelift saw the Golf R's wick turned up slightly to produce 306bhp, before the addition of a petrol particulate filter brought that figure down to 296bhp.

Volkswagen has a long and well regarded history in this niche. Aside from the previous Volkswagen Golf R, this car’s other obvious antecedents are two generations of R32 – models that cemented the range-topper’s use of all-wheel drive.

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They were both powered by six-cylinder engines – a leftover from the front-drive VR6 – which were a big-capacity solution to the Mk3’s weight problems. Given the car’s current identity, it’s worth mentioning that the left-hand-drive-only Mk2 Rallye edition, with a supercharged 1.8 and four-wheel drive, also makes an appropriate forerunner.

The Golf GTI may get all the limelight, but for almost as long as that model has been around, VW has conceived of something like the R to outrank it. This senior model is not intended as some rough-shod tearaway, either. Having four-wheel drive, brimming with kit and being both styled with restraint and knowingly expensive, the R is once again intended for grown-ups.

But is it overly mature or modestly brilliant? We’ll know soon enough. 

It wasn't enough just to review the Golf R on its own, we have also pitch it against its stiffest rivals - including a blast across Valencia against the Ford Focus RS, a triple header with the last generation Honda Civic Type-R and Renaultsport Megane 275 Trophy, and an estate battle royale between the Golf R Estate and the rapid Audi RS4 Avant.

Price £36,150 Power 296bhp Torque 280lb ft 0-60mph 4.8sec Fuel economy 32.8mpg CO2 emissions 195g/km 70-0mph 52.6m

The Volkswagen Golf range at a glance

The R sits alone at the peak of the Golf line-up, in both hatchback and estate forms. The sole engine is VW’s familiar 2.0-litre EA888, tuned to produce 296bhp after the addition of a petrol particulate filter. The six-speed manual is no more, with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic now the only transmission. 

A £2400 factory-option Performance Pack adds an uprated braking system, downforce-boosting roof spoiler, 19in alloy wheels and a derestricted top speed. 


Volkswagen Golf R 2019 road test review - hero side

Historically, the R family line has produced very handsome variations on the stock Volkswagen Golf profile. The aim has always been much the same, described by Volkswagen’s head of design as “a balance between respectability and sportiness, restraint and differentiation”.

The means used to achieve it are familiar, too. The R gets a new front bumper, bigger intakes, a tweaked grille, meatier sills, prettier wheels and many more tailpipes. The 2017 facelift did very little to change this formula, with the introduction of gloss black exterior trim adding to the potent look. The car isn’t perhaps as memorable as during its R32 phase, but it’s more sinewy than the GTI and yet emphatically no more in your face. Job done, then. 

Transmission options include a six-speed manual or a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic

The established game plan has been adhered to elsewhere, too. The biggest alteration underneath – aside from the larger but lighter MQB platform – is the replacement of the heavily tuned old four-cylinder ‘EA113’ motor (a leftover from the Mk5 Golf) with the ‘EA888’ unit, which has been fitted to the GTI for the past two generations.

Inevitably, this has been attacked with the spanners. A newly designed cylinder head has been attached, alongside modified pistons, injection valves and turbocharger, yielding a 306bhp output from 5500-6500rpm – 39bhp more than its predecessor delivered. Almost as welcome are the gains made in efficiency, including a 34g/km drop in CO2 emissions.

As before, the power finds its way to all four corners via a six-speed manual gearbox (or an optional seven-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic) and the latest version of VW’s 4Motion system, including Haldex’s fifth-generation multi-plate clutch and an updated suite of electronic aids.

The multi-plate clutch at the heart of the Golf R’s Haldex 5 all-wheel drive system is familiar enough, using an electro-hydraulic oil pump to engage and send almost 100 percent of available torque to the rear axle when a control unit deems it necessary.

Volkswagen says that shorter response times and an optimisation of the amount of torque sent rearwards in “specific driving situations” (in other words, aggressive cornering) has helped the R to achieve a more neutral handling balance.

The manufacturer also claims pseudo transverse differential locks on both axles to go with the longitudinal one by virtue of the electronic differential system (EDS), integrated into the stability control, that brakes a slipping inside wheel, letting drive make its way uninterrupted to the opposite side.

Known as four-wheel EDS, the system is enhanced on the Golf R (as it was on the Golf GTI) with the inclusion of XDS+, essentially a cleverer line of software code that works to minimise understeer and thereby improve agility.

Additionally – and notably, because it cannot be performed in the GTI or any other Golf – the electronic stability control can be fully deactivated in the R if the ESC button is held for three seconds.

As with the GTI, there are MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link set-up at the rear, but both have been structurally tweaked for better rigidity and the R’s ride height dips by a further 5mm.

The new model also shares its stablemate’s progressive, electrically powered steering ratio, aggressively metered to take just 2.1 turns between lock stops.

Three-, five-door and estate variants of the Golf R are offered.

Volkswagen was shrewd enough to notice that some of its Golf R buyers would feel inclined to use it on a track day and to improve its track appeal an optional Performance Pack has been offered. The pack doesn't see any fettling done to the 2.0-litre TSI unit, but changes made elsewhere to reduce weight and increase downforce to give enhanced track pace and consistency. 


Volkswagen Golf R 2019 road test review - dashboard

The interior of the regular Mk7 Volkswagen Golf is a pretty straightforward, classy affair, and the R receives the kind of changes that are par for the course on a rapid but refined hatchback; a heavily sculpted steering wheel, aluminium-finished pedals and some gloss plastic trim are the highlights.

There are also new seats, finished in Alcantara and leather, which grip and support a driver without the long-term discomfort of something racier. All of our testers found a comfortable driving position, with only one complainant, who’d have liked the wheel to reach closer to the seat, to avoid an overly upright seatback. All of the switchgear, in typical Golf fashion, is easy to indentify and use.

We'd prefer a mechanical handbrake to the standard electric parking brake

Optional is a seven-speed dual-clutch DSG gearbox, whose manual override is sent to annoy us by having the upshifts and downshifts in the ‘wrong’ direction.

Still, there is convenience to be had in the shift from the regular Drive setting to a Sport setting (and back again) being a simple back-pull on the lever. Wheel-mounted paddles come as standard with DSG, mind.

Elsewhere, the R is as-you-were to the regular Golf. The rear seats are fine for most adults (although access is restricted a touch by large front seats in the three-door version) and boot space is competitive.

Standard kit is fairly comprehensive and updated via the latest rafts of changes, including LED head and rear lights, front and rear parking sensors, an aggressive bodykit, LED foglights, electric heated folding mirrors, tinted rear windows, adaptive cruise control, and automatic lights and wipers on the outside. Inside there are plenty of luxuries to enjoy too such as dual-zone climate control, heated front seats, Volkswagen's 12.3in digital instrument cluster, and the inclusion of an 8.0in touchscreeen infotainment system complete with sat nav, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, DAB radio, smartphone integration and a three-year subscription to Volkswagen's online services.

It must be said that the Golf R's interior has been augmented by that new, swish-looking, glass-fronted 8.0in touchscreen. The crystal-clear display is a definite step-up from the Golf’s previous infotainment systems, and although the menus are familiar, better processing power makes them more reactive to inputs. But not gesture control; that comes on the optional Discover Navigation Pro system, which gets an even bigger 9.2in screen, and is an £1325 option.

For the first time on a Golf you can also replace the regular instrument binnacle with a 12.3in digital screen, which puts loads of information, such as navigation maps, conveniently below the driver’s eye line.


Volkswagen Golf R 2019 road test review - engine

Volkswagen claimed a 0-62mph time of 5.1sec for the manual Golf R while it was on sale, while the quick-shifting dual-clutch auto model slices a further 0.5sec off the benchmark time to give a claimed headline acceleration figure of 4.6sec. As before, top speed is electronically limited to 155mph.

It was a streaming wet day at MIRA when we tested the DSG-equipped variant of the Golf R, but the natural advantage of four-wheel drive came to the fore during the acceleration runs. Even two up, full of fuel and in the wet, it was a 4.8sec 0-60mph car in our hands.

VW's electronic XDS+ system mimics the effect of a limited-slip differential

Look beyond that initial stat and it’s no less impressive. This car performs a standing quarter mile (13.4sec) almost a second faster than the second generation Ford Focus RS.

It’s quicker from 30-70mph through the gears, too (4.3sec versus 4.9sec), so you’re looking at an A-list hot hatchback with sweet gearshifts up or down from the DSG ’box.

What’s missing, compared with some big-league rivals – and, of course, Golf VR6/R32s up to and including the Mk5 – is the noise of a many-cylindered engine, so the Golf R again utilises a ‘soundaktor’ (sound actuator) for extra throatiness.

In short, it’s a hockey-puck-sized resonator that lives under the weather panel at the base of the windscreen, and it vibrates and resonates through the screen, making a noise – an artificial one, granted – akin to a bigger, throbbier engine.

For an artificial set-up, it’s far from a bad one and most of our testers quite liked it. However, it’s the unofficial work of a few minutes to disable it, as some owners of Golf Mk6s are wont to do, which apparently reveals more of the turbo whoosh.

Despite the streaming conditions, we managed to work up the brakes to a smoke around our ‘dry’ circuit (where cornering force remained at over 0.9g), so we’d expect that you’d have to look after them on a track day. On the road, though, they’re excellent.


Volkswagen Golf R 2019 road test review - cornering front

If you consider VW’s GTI brand to be akin to Ford’s ST, then R is more like Ford’s RS: more extreme, more brash. And the firm has allowed the Golf R’s dynamic make-up to expand in those areas – within some Volkswagen constraints, as you’d imagine.

So although there’s optional Adaptive Chassis Control – which progressively firms the dampers, sharpens throttle response and reduces steering assistance as you flick through the modes – the ride starts out firm and ultimately becomes brittle over some surfaces in the firmest settings. But with it comes a welcome keenness and alertness that’s missing from the more rounded, much less incisive Golf GTI.

The VW's balance of grip is excellent

The Golf R’s demeanour is much more intense than that of the GTI. Despite very quick steering off straight-ahead, the response feels intuitive, and despite being electric, it’s endowed with what passes for genuine feel.

It’s engaging in a way that’s beyond front-wheel-drive alternatives like the Seat Leon Cupra and almost up there with a BMW M140i for feel and involvement. It’s tied down, secure, agile and keen, in a slightly old-fashioned way. It's firm yet responsive.

What helps, of course, is that the Golf isn’t exclusively front-wheel drive, so whereas some rivals with this much poke would wash wide under power and have over-assisted steering to prevent corruption, instead the Golf pushes power towards its rear wheels when the fronts find it tough.

And although the Golf is mostly a front-led car, pushing power to the rear only when things get difficult, the hydraulic system is at least electronically controlled so it can push all of the power to the rear if it wants to, allowing Volkswagen a vast range of tuning that it has utilised well to make the R a truly throttle-adjustable and enjoyable steer.

In its honesty and feedback, there are shades of a mid-1990s rally replica to the Golf R – it’s that keen and committed. On bad roads, this results in an occasional harshness and kickback, but the R just feels very honed most of the time. There’s precious little dive under hard braking and turn-in is sharp and accurate. Despite the quickening steering ratio, the rack feels intuitive, too.

Initially, the car will lean towards understeer – as it should – but the limits are so high that you’re unlikely to reach them very often on the road. It’s more likely that it’ll scythe through a corner, giving impressive response and feedback, and that you’ll only broach those limits on a circuit.

Do so there, though, and the Golf displays an impressive neutrality for a hatchback. There’s lift-off turn-in, the four-wheel drive system shuffles power around and, should you get back on the power, it’ll push into a four-wheel drift, especially in the wet.

Very few modern hot hatches drive with such incisiveness and verve.


Volkswagen Golf R 2019 road test review - hero front

It could be persuasively argued here that VW’s policy of making the Golf GTI a comparatively expensive hot hatch has left the R a little high and dry.

For there to be daylight between the two, the cheapest R – manual six-speed gearbox and three doors – is around £35k.

The Golf R comfortably beats its Renault and Vauxhall rivals on the residual values front

That makes it slightly cheaper than an Audi S3 (a car with the same running gear, a better interior and an inbuilt, four-ringed resistance to depreciation) and about a grand less than the more powerful, rear-wheel-drive BMW M140i.

The R has many virtues beyond its price, but its value advantage over the ‘premium’ competition is more slender than we’d ideally like.

The Golf R’s CO2 emissions land it in the reasonably sensible VED band G. With the DSG gearbox fitted, the Golf R is claimed by VW to manage 40.9mpg. We recorded 33.7mpg at a cruise and 28.7mpg as an overall test average.



Volkswagen Golf R 2019 road test review - static rear

If we felt a twinge of disappointment in the fact that the Golf GTI was a touch less exciting than it could have been, there’s no such feeling with the Golf R.

Here is a car that blends the sophistication that you’d expect of a Volkswagen with the rawness and sheer driver appeal of the best superheated hatches.

Only the greatness of the Focus RS keeps the Volkswagen from the top of the class

Of the current crop of 300bhp+ hatches, only the FK2 Honda Civic Type R and the Ford Focus RS remain the superior choice, with the Golf followed swiftly by the Mercedes-AMG A45.

And, arguably, the Volkswagen is a happier everyday proposition: at once capable of transporting you and your beloveds in comfort on humdrum daily errands before unleashing all kinds of entertainment when the right road or track day arrives.

With such a blend of sophistication and rawness, it’s hard to escape the feeling that this 'ultimate Golf' is a cult classic in the making.


Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Volkswagen Golf R 2014-2020 First drives