Lacey Elliott: Fans have coined the Golf R the ‘ultimate’ Golf. However, with its premium price tag is this 2018 Golf R a better choice than the very capable and less expensive GTI? I had an entire week with the R to find out.
Dan Heyman: Few may remember it, but this is not the first ever Golf model to employ a form of four- or all-wheel-drive. It all started way back in 1990 with the Golf Country Syncro, a weird and wonderful thing that – it could be said – was ahead of its time in two ways: first 4 x 4 Golf, and first VW crossover, of which the brand now sells boatloads. It wasn’t really a performance tool or hot hatch in the typical sense, however, which is where these two diverge completely. Still, though: it’s interesting to see just how far the AWD Golf has come in, what has to be said, a very short time.
LE: It is the front end of this hot hatch that has received a slight facelift. Standard features now include LED adaptive headlamps and large air intakes. Take a look at the back end and the body-coloured rear spoiler creates a seamless look.
The standard 19” Spielberg alloy wheels look fantastic. They are standard on the R. Details like this are what really put the finishing touches on a vehicle for me.
I was giddy like a school girl when I saw that my VW for the week was in a gorgeous shade of purple. VW calls it Violet Touch Pearl. The Golf R is available in 30 colours. For an additional $3,000 you can get just about any colour you can imagine. I don’t know any other vehicle that has this many choices; the GTI, for example, only has six. For someone who wants a car that is personalized, this will be an advantage.
Volkswagen interiors are not one of my personal favourites. They look kind of plain. Absolutely nothing wrong with it. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I personally prefer a more modern looking design. With that being said, the overall look is clean and well laid out. The fit and finish are top-notch and everything does have a luxurious feel to it. The carbon accents on the dash and door panel caught my attention right away. A small detail that jazzes up the cabin.
The 12-way power adjustable driver seat is super comfortable. I could spend hours behind the wheel. On this R, heated leather seats come standard. The leather gives a great feeling of luxury for buyers. The GTI gets heated seats but you need to upgrade to the Autobahn trim if you want leather.
The Autobahn also gives you a sunroof. Something I would really have liked to have seen at least as an option on the R.
The digital dashboard behind the steering wheel is standard on this R and allows each driver to set it up for their own personal preferences. Tell you more about this in a moment.
Of course, a hatch design is the way to go if you are looking for a smaller car. The high, flat roof line gives so much space. The seats split 60/40 to create room for long items as well.
I recently drove the Honda Fit and something a friend pointed out to me was the width and height in the front seats. He felt the Golf had a lot more space for his larger frame. I wonder if Dan will agree?
DH: Ahhh, that colour. While I won’t say it got me quite as excited as it appears to have gotten Lacey, I do admire VW for having the cajones and faith in its buyer group to see that there was a spot for a Golf that wasn’t panted silver (or a version thereof), black, white or at a push, blue. Wouldn’t be my colour choice, but with 30 colours to choose from (albeit at a premium), I’m sure I could find something to whet my appetite. In fact, I already have: it’s called TNT Orange. Yeah, that’s about right.
Otherwise, in the styling department, the Golf R is either just there, or just right depending on your taste. It has to be said that amongst competition such as the Ford Focus RS, Mini Cooper Countryman All4 JCW and Honda Civic Type R – ESPECIALLY the Civic Type R – the Golf R is the most conservative, by a long shot.
Which, I’m sure if you ask Volkswagen, is right about where it should be. Like an AMG Mercedes or RS Audi, it’s all about Q car-ing it and sneaking up on the competition, and you will have no trouble doing so here. Indeed, only the most eagle-eyed Golf people – there are lots of these types, believe me – will spot the difference between this and the GTI, or even the standard Golf: subtly flared wheel arches, upgraded – but not overly blingy rims – and dual exhaust outlets are the biggest giveaways, but you have to look closely to spot them.
Inside, it’s more of the same and to answer Lacey’s question: yes, I actually found the front seats to be quite roomy, even though they are of the more highly-bolstered, sport style and I find that big bolsters like that often cut uncomfortably into my thighs. Not here, though; apart from a slightly high seating position, the front seat experience is right on. Other than those seats and a couple of badges, however, the interior is very much like the exterior: understated, and the purview of the ultimate Q-hatch.
Lacey wants a sunroof and a slightly flashier interior; I guess I could say it wouldn’t hurt VW to at least offer the former on the R, but then that would add weight and negatively affect the structural integrity and we wouldn’t want that, not for a top-spec performance model like this. Flashier interior? Bah, humbug. This is luxurious and functional, just like a car that puts driving first and looks second should be.
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ON THE ROAD
LE: There are a few differences in packaging and comfort features between the Golf R and the GTI. For most people, though, what it will come down to is how this hatch handles on the road.
Under the hood of this car is a 2.0L turbocharged direct injection engine (TSI) that allows higher torque at lower RPMs. You can get more power and use less fuel; two things that I love about this engine. Plus, since it’s rated at 9.6L/100km in combined city and highway driving, you don’t have to sacrifice fun for fuel efficiency.
The R is capable of getting to 100 km/h in just under five seconds, thanks to it delivering 292hp and 280lb/ft of torque through a very slick 7-speed DSG transmission. The GTI comes just under these numbers with 220hp and 258 lb/ft of torque.
The shiftable automatic gives you a more connected driving experience and is impressively smooth when shifting. I think the base 6-speed manual would have impressed me as well. With that being said, I am slowly starting to prefer an auto transmission. In city driving it is less work and you can still get a more involving drive when you need it.
Dynamic Chassis Control, ESC with Sport Mode, progressive steering and sport suspension work together to deliver a light weight car that dashes confidently in all driving conditions.
The Driving Profile Selection I mentioned earlier is where you can customize your own driving style. Normal, Sport, Comfort or individual mode. Normal mode seemed to be what I used the most. Quick off the line and little effort to pass on the highway.
Plagued with the usually rainy weather and wet streets of Vancouver, I couldn’t play too much with the Sport mode. This is where the R comes out on top. It includes Volkswagens 4Motion AWD system as standard equipment, and it’s able to distribute the power to all four wheels as required. It makes this a fun little all year-round car in all parts of this country. The GTI comes only as a front-wheel-drive vehicle.
DH: Man oh man, what a drive. It doesn’t seem that long ago that this kind of power and poise was reserved only for sports coupes and sedans. Here in the year 2018, however, this little hatch can pretty much take anything you throw at it, from road surface conditions, to severity of curves and camber angles, to around-town cruising at a snail’s pace. It’s just so well executed in every way that you’re flabbergasted it starts life as a proletarian hatchback.
You start to feel that fizz soon as you fire the engine; the off-beat warble you’re presented with is very circa 1980’s Group B rally, and right up my alley. It’s gruff without being brutal, authoritative without being too in-yer-face and does well to showcase the power you have underfoot.
Thing is, once you flex said foot, it’s about as in-yer-face as you can get. All four wheels scrabble for purchase as 280 torques are deployed at a lowly 1,800 rpm, so you’d better be ready. You get slingshotted towards the horizon, feeling a little guilty but realizing that the DSG transmission – always a manual man, myself – is actually the best way to keep up with what’s going on just in front of you under that stubby bonnet. Bang-bang-bang upshifts can be carried out by even a rookie driver, and you’re glad that in order to make said upshifts, you kind of have to keep your hands on the wheel which doubles as a hand hold as the scenery continues to blur.
While the R still suffers from a slight lack of feedback through the steering rack that so many modern VW’s do, you have to make sure to not let that blind you to the fact that your steering inputs are nevertheless received instantaneously by the front axle, even more so if you’ve played with the driving modes.
Make yourself aware of that fact, and you’re able to then focus on what the car’s doing below and around you. You can feel as 4Motion distributes power where it’s required, to help you better rotate around that turn, scrubbing off understeer with just a slight lift of the throttle. There are not many cars out there that respond to an aggressive drive with such vigor and panache, but the Golf R does so, with even more to give that you really can’t safely access without a race track. I’ve had the chance to sample the Golf R in that scenario and – get ready for this – one of the cars that came to mind when I did so was the Porsche 911 Carrera 4. High praise? Sure. The R is not as fast as the Porsche, not quite as knife-edged and of course not nearly as expensive but like that car, the systems and power it does employ can make any driver feel like a real star out there. That’s not an easy feat to achieve, but VW has managed to do so with the Golf R.
SAFETY & TECHNOLOGY
LE: The direct shift gearbox also comes with engine start/stop technology to get the most out of the fuel consumption.
What surprises me is that VW adds on the Driver Assistance Package for an extra $1,500. This additional cash gives you blind spot detection, adaptive cruise control, lane assist and autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian warning. These are things that quite a few auto manufactures are including for no extra charge.
The Golf R starts at $43,465. The custom paint colour and Driver Assistance Package brings the price of this specific R to just over $48,000.
The GTI with Autobahn trim and the Driver Assistance Package is about $9,000 less.
DH: I guess this day in age, we do have to discuss safety features even on a car like this, but the beauty of the R is that while it employs all those things Lacey mentions, they aren’t overly invasive as can often be the case. Of course, more than many cars I’ve driven in recent memory, the price for the Driver Assistance Package is one I’d happily forego. It’s just not what this car is all about.
LE: Both cars have ups and downs when it comes to features and options. Both are very capable and enjoyable to drive. At the end of the day, the big question still remains: Do you spend your money on the Golf R or GTI?
In my opinion, the extra 70hp isn’t worth the additional money. However, the numerous colour choices and the leather seats paired with the 4Motion AWD would all be reasons I would consider spending my money on the Golf R.
DH: I guess the real victory for the R is that while it no longer is the only player in the North American ultra-fast hatch game, it still manages to stand out among the crowd. I suppose it has its history of dealing with the European market to thank, where the likes of Renault, Seat and Peugeot have had vehicles like the R for quite some time. Even though it’s kind of the elder statesman now, it hasn’t really lost a step.
Would I choose it over the GTI? It’s not an easy call, but if you’re smart with your option choices and willing to survive with a more standard colour, you can do a lot worse than the R in the big performance game. I think that’s a price I’d be willing to pay and the fact that you’re seeing more and more Golf Rs out there these days proves that I’m not alone.
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