Most potent Golf to wear the R badge is a deliciously powerful yet well-balanced hot hatchback

What is it?

We’re living in a period of peak mega-hatch. Truly, never before has there been such a wide choice of high-powered, performance-orientated hatchbacks from so many different manufacturers. Even the Toyota Yaris is getting in on the act.  

But while buyers are spoilt for choice, the task of creating an outstanding mega-hatch that truly stands out has become an increasingly difficult task – not least in the premium ranks.

Volkswagen has a long history here, starting with the front-driven Golf GTI in 1976. It wasn’t until 2002, however, that it decided to add four-wheel drive to its hot-hatch mix with the first-generation Golf R32, creating an even more serious car.

The car driven here is the fifth Golf to wear the (recently restylised) R badge. Although not since 2009 has the R been powered by six cylinders, the new model continues an 18-year tradition of four-wheel drive in Wolfsburg’s flagship hatchback. And with the changes brought to the Haldex multi-plate clutch system for the new model, it is now more sophisticated and arguably more effective than ever before.

But first, the engine. The R uses the fourth generation version of Volkswagen’s EA888 unit. This is essentially the same unit brought to the new Golf GTI Clubsport, but with an added 19bhp and 15lb ft. Power peaks at 315bhp with torque extending to 310lb ft on a band of revs between 2100 and 5350rpm, making this the most powerful series-production Volkswagen Golf.

By comparison, the old Golf R made 296bhp and 280lb ft, so this is more than just a token increase in reserves, particularly torque. Drive, meanwhile, is sent through an updated version of Volkswagen’s in-house seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox (DSG), which uses an upgraded auxiliary oil cooler and new software mapping for faster shift times. There is no manual gearbox option – Volkswagen says there isn’t sufficient interest.

As before, there is an optional Akrapovic titanium exhaust system. It doesn’t liberate any more power from the 2.0-litre engine, but it does save 7kg and gives the new model a stirring exhaust note in any one of its more sporting driving modes.

Underneath, there’s a reworked MacPherson strut (front) and four-link (rear) suspension. The R then rides 20mm lower than the regular Golf, and gets Volkswagen’s excellent DCC (Dynamic Chassis Control) with variable rate dampers and an additional 1.3 degrees of negative camber to the front wheels.

The standard wheels, unique in their design specific, are 18in in diameter, though our test wears optional 20-inch wheels with winter tyres.

Other changes? There’s a quicker variable-ratio steering rack attached to the same upgraded front subframe as the Golf GTI, and also larger front brakes with new two-pot calipers. The brakes also use a new master cylinder and, despite being larger than before, are also 600g lighter at each corner.

It’s the four-wheel-drive system, though, that really deserves a closer look. Produced by BorgWarner, it has been re-engineered with the addition of a new central differential that provides a faster and more rear-biased apportioning of drive. There’s also a new electronic rear differential among other myriad changes, bringing torque-vectoring qualities to the rear axle for the first time.

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This setup is networked with a so-called Vehicle Dynamics Manager (VDM). It aims to provide the new model with a more balanced feel with less understeer and, thanks to a new driving mode, drift qualities like those found in cars such as the Mercedes-AMG A45.

There are five driving modes: Eco, Comfort, Sport, Race and Individual. But there’s also a so-called ‘Nürburgring’ driving mode, which uses settings Volkswagen says were developed on the German circuit, where much of the Golf R’s chassis tuning has taken place.  

Externally, the new Golf R is marked out from other Golf models by a uniquely styled front bumper with a front splitter element and large lower cooling ducts. VW has also beefed up the sills underneath the doors, and there’s a prominent twin-plane spoiler atop the tailgate at the rear, plus a large three-channel diffuser bookended by two round tailpipes either side.

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What's it like?

Step into the Golf R and you’re confronted by an interior that does its best to reflect the car’s sporting pretensions without deviating much from that of milder Golfs. There are standard-fit sport seats with integrated headrests, a suitably thick-rimmed sports steering wheel with larger shift paddles than those you’ll find in the Golf GTI, steel-capped pedals and a series of unique digital instrument displays among other bespoke touches.

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The new seats, with heavily sculptured squabs, are especially snug and quite supportive. They offer a good range of adjustment, allowing you to sit low, and there is also plenty of adjustability in the steering column.

The dashboard is well built, though the shiny hard plastics on some sections does give it a slightly cheap look, despite the inclusion of more agreeable materials elsewhere. The two digital displays then deliver sharp graphics at high resolution, though the central infotainment display in our test car was particularly slow to respond at times.

Which isn’t something you can say for the Golf R’s accelerative ability. With a 0-62mph time of 4.7sec, the new model doesn’t match the claimed 4.6sec of its predecessor but it equals the official times quoted for the BMW M135i and Mercedes-AMG A35, and comfortably beats the 6.2sec of the Golf GTI Clubsport.

And the Golf R also feels quicker than the figures. The manner in which it launches from a standing start is nothing short of spectacular. Load it up with revs with the launch-control and it explodes away in Race mode with great determination. There’s momentary slip at the front wheels before the drive is properly apportioned, but from then on the driveline is tremendously effective at placing the Golf R’s reserves to the road.

Low-end response from this EA888 unit also seems to have improved. There is now a more natural, gradual build-up of turbocharger boost pressure below 2000rpm, after which the broad spread of torque makes this engine hugely tractive – just as before. Equally, this engine now revs more freely as it approaches the 6700rpm cut-out. And you get this breadth whatever the driving mode. 

Neither does the process of selecting the most responsive driving mode feel so laborious, either. One press of the new R button on the left-hand spoke of the steering wheel instantly sets all the various functions – engine, steering, gearbox, four-wheel-drive system and dampers – into their most aggressively tuned state, at which the new Golf R feels deliciously responsive and eager.

The added urgency brought by the reworked engine is supplemented by an improved action to the new Golf R’s DSG gearbox, which delivers smoother and faster shifts than the older unit used by its predecessor, most notably on downshifts.

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Indeed, the new Golf R delivers a good deal of feel and involvement – more so than in any previous incarnation. It is always more intense and engaging than the Golf GTI over any given road. However, while the variable-ratio steering system is very accurate, eager to self-centre and quite communicative, the lightness evident at lower speeds lingers, even when you’re pushing hard out on the open road. As confidence-inspiring as the new car is, it would be even more memorable with some meaningful weight to the helm.   

That said, the result of the new chassis tweaks is an almost total absence of understeer, even on these winter tyres, for which the torque-vectoring system has to take some credit. There’s a very brief moment of push at the front end under power into tighter corners, but the Golf R is truly throttle adjustable and with it hugely enjoyable to hustle along.

The outstanding grip is backed up by tremendous body control. Late and aggressive turn-in brings just a brief pause for thought before the VDM system nails the right level of damping force. The Golf R resists lean extremely well, remaining flat and eager as it scythes through corners and keeping pitch and dive well under control. It is this overall composure that defines the new model, and brings a more fluid but more agile feel than any previous Golf R.

As for ride quality, while the old model could prove a little brittle over less than smooth roads, the new one brings genuine compliance even in its most extreme settings. Certainly, this feels the most broadly usable Golf R there has ever been. 

5 Volkswagen golf r 2020 first drive review greg kable driving

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Should I buy one?

On first impressions, the new R not only lives up to lofty expectations, but exceeds them.

Yes, it’s quick; perhaps not at the level of the Mercedes-AMG A45, but it certainly has the measure of its key rivals, the Audi S3, BMW M135i and Mercedes-AMG A35 4Matic.

However, it is also a terrifically well balanced car whose traction and exploitability is every bit as impressive as the tractability and superb manners of its reworked engine. For sheer performance and all-season appeal it rises above the new Golf GTI, and comfortably so.

Admittedly, to properly gauge its handling in the dry, we’ll need more favourable weather conditions – and perhaps we’ll get them when we test this car in the UK.

For now, what we can say is that the Golf R’s clever chassis technology brings a broader range of characteristics to the table than before. There’s greater compliance and overall comfort at the more relaxed end of the scale, but added response and even more impressive body control in the more sporting settings than its highly admired predecessor.

It all means that even at more than £39,000, the Golf R would seem money well spent. 

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Join the debate

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Fishy Smeller 9 March 2024

An alternative review on this site given only 4 stars and essentially highlighting the same short comings as some rivals which the press is hell bent on just slagging off. 

BertoniBertone 8 December 2020

£ 39 K starting price ?  So that's straight into the highest VED bracket years 2-6 onwards at £ 475.00 - just to keep it on the road before turning a wheel.  I trust everyone's going to PCH this  and hopefully forget their financing very high VED at a nice fat APR margin for the leasing company..... 

Bimfan 7 December 2020

What's the point of criticising the cars performance shortfall against VW claims, (a whole 0.2 sec in 0-62 sprint) when it is being tested on winter tyres?

Also, on winter tyres, ride/handling will inevitably be affected compared to grippy, stiffer sidewalled summer tyres.

I think this Golf R will be a great hot hatch/family car and can't wait to be able to order one, Brexit notwithstanding.