No matter what you’re interested in, there are individual experiences you have to try. If you enjoy traveling to new places and haven’t been to Europe, find a way to make that happen. Want to read a classic piece of American fiction? Curl up on the couch with a copy of Lonesome Dove. It’s more than 800 pages long but so good that you’ll blow through them. If you’re more of a foodie, it’s worth it to go to an expensive steakhouse at least once.
It’s the same with cars. There’s an informal checklist of experiences to try. Many consider owning an Alfa Romeo to be one of the items on it. If you don’t know how to drive a stickshift, think of a way you can change that, then do it. I promise you won’t regret it. Do you own a Jeep, but you’ve never gotten it dirty? Find an unpaved path or, better yet, off-highway vehicle (OHV) park near you, throw your rig into 4-Low, and give it a mud bath.
The Volkswagen Golf R is on that checklist, too. It’s the rolling definition of a hot hatch. Since 2002, it’s combined the practical dimensions of an ordinary hatchback with the dynamics of a performance car. Engine and transmission offerings have changed in the years since the R32 came out, but the Golf R’s status as the prototypical hot hatch has not.
I scratched the Golf R off of my list last year with a 2017 model. That experience opened my eyes to why people bought it and other small performance hatchbacks, such as the Subaru WRX STI and Ford Focus RS. I gained an even greater understanding of why the Golf R is such an icon after driving the ’18 version through the Texas Hill Country and around a track in San Marcos, Texas.
As the top model in the Golf lineup, the Golf R comes standard with a wide array of features. Many of those are new for 2018, such as LED headlights that can turn in curves and LED taillights, an eight-inch Composition Media system display, and Volkswagen Digital Cockpit. The Golf R is also equipped with the most potent version of VW’s turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder TSI engine, 4Motion all-wheel drive, and five-mode Dynamic Chassis Control. Safety tech includes an assortment of airbags, Park Distance Control parking aid, Blind Spot Monitor with Rear Traffic Alert, and new-for-2018 Forward Collision Warning and Autonomous Emergency Braking with Pedestrian Monitoring. Navigation is also a no-cost feature.
That means configuring a Golf R is a short and straightforward process. The only options it leaves you are exterior color (there’s only one available interior color scheme), transmission (manual or DSG dual-clutch automatic), and a multitude of exterior and interior add-ons, such as paint-protection film and floor mats. My Tornado Red test car had the DSG gearbox and no optional accessories. After an $850 destination charge, its as-tested price came to $41,735. That’s a lot of money for a hatchback, but you get what you pay for. VW makes a Golf that feels fun and special, no matter where you fire it. If you want that kind of driving enjoyment straight out of the showroom, it’ll cost you more than 40 grand. That’s the price of admission to the party.
On the Outside
After nearly 20 years of producing four generations of Golf Rs, VW has the look down. Even though it’s only available with four doors in the U.S., the 2018 Golf R embodies what people mean when they use the term “hot hatch.”
That was particularly true of my media loaner. Its Tornado Red paint was impossible not to see. R-design bumpers and side skirts added definition. Large cutouts below the LED headlights and daytime running lights looked ready to gulp in air. The 19-inch Englishtown alloys looked as if they were always willing to slice through the wind and carry the Golf R to higher speeds.
Out back, a small spoiler topped the rear hatch. Perhaps the most obvious sign that the R is more than just a regular Golf is its quartet of chrome exhaust finishers, which book-end a subtle rear diffuser.
On the Inside
The interior of the Golf R is all business and almost entirely black. Nearly every surface is either black leather, matte-black plastic, or shiny piano-black trim. Glossy carbon fiber-like (aka Carbon Touch) trim and contrast stitching on the seats, flat-bottomed steering wheel, and gearshift gaiter make the cockpit a little more visually dynamic while various bits of metallic trim, including the brushed aluminum pedals, add brightness.
Despite its aggressive looks, the Golf R is comfortable inside. The front seats are power-adjustable and heated. I’m 5’10” and have plenty of headroom in both rows. Thanks to the convenient Auto Hold feature, I don’t have to keep my right foot on the brake pedal at stoplights. Adaptive Cruise Control makes highway cruising simpler and less stressful. Legroom is adequate in the back seat, so I am just able to sit “behind myself” with the driver’s seat adjusted to my height and preferences.
The Golf R also has usable dimensions behind the rear seats. After a Sunday evening trip to the grocery store, my girlfriend and I made the delightful discovery that the Golf R’s 22.8 cubic feet of cargo capacity are enough to hold a week’s worth of food and snacks for two people.
VW’s Digital Cockpit tech fills the space between the tach and speedo, showing information ranging from the navigation system’s route to MPG. The Composition Media infotainment system looks appropriately modern, and its eight-inch screen responds quickly to inputs. However, its touchscreen buttons make me miss the hard buttons of the old setup, which I found easier to press without having to look at them while driving.
Under the Sheet Metal
Like other (non-electric) Golfs, the R model has a turbocharged/intercooled and direct-injected four-cylinder engine. Although its head is aluminum, its block is cast iron. Variable intake and exhaust valve timing and two-stage exhaust valve lift help increase performance and fuel economy. According to the EPA, that’s 22 mpg in the city, 29 mpg on the highway, and 25 mpg combined.
To prepare the 16-valve 2.0-liter I4 for life in the Golf R, Volkswagen put it through what it calls “a motorsports-style development program.” Engineers either enhanced or completely redesigned the EA888’s cylinder head, exhaust valves, valve seats, springs, pistons, injection system, and turbo. Those enhancements (and premium fuel) raise the 2.0’s output to 292 horsepower at 5,400 horsepower; torque is up to 280 lb-ft and is available starting at 1,800 rpm. In VW’s words, those figures make the Golf R the “most powerful Golf model ever to be sold in the North American market.”
VW pairs the Golf R’s beefed-up four-banger with either a six-speed manual transmission or a seven-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic. That joins forces with 4Motion permanent all-wheel drive, a Haldex center differential, and a set of 235/35 R19 summer performance tires to launch the Golf R to 60 mph in less than five seconds. Based on driving conditions, 4Motion decides when to engage the rear wheels. If the Golf R is under light load or coasting, the center diff takes the back wheels out of the mix to save fuel.
When all four wheels are needed, a control unit calculates the necessary amount of drive torque required for the back wheels. It then engages an electro-hydraulic oil pump that controls how much the multi-plate clutch should close. The resulting oil pressure increases the contact pressure on the clutch plates in proportion to how much torque it needs at the rearend. If necessary, up to 50-percent of the Golf R’s torque is transferred to the back axle.
The XDS+ cross-differential-lock system acts as a sort of limited-slip differential and reduces understeer. Philipp Dörfler, a member of VW’s product communications team, explained it via email: “In moments of fast cornering, the aim of XDS is giving out exactly the right amount of power, providing pressure on the inside wheel to help to prevent [sic] wheel spinning.”
Up front, the Golf R uses a strut-type suspension with modified lower control arms. In the back, there’s a multilink setup with specially tuned toe-link bearings. The Golf R sits 0.8-inch closer to the ground than the base Golf, and 0.2-inch closer than the Golf GTI. DCC adaptive chassis control interprets signals from the wheels and accelerometers to individually vary the compression and rebound of the dampers at all four corners, depending on the drive mode selected. The Golf R offers five modes: Eco, Comfort, Normal, Custom, and Race, which unlocks the Golf R’s most aggressive damper, engine, and transmission responses.
Engineers tuned the Golf R’s electric power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering to be quicker than other Golfs. Getting it from full lock to full lock only takes 2.1 turns of the steering wheel (380 degrees) instead of 2.75 (500 degrees). To balance out the increased power under the hood, they equipped the Golf R with the 13.4-inch vented front and 12.2-inch vented rear disc brakes from the GTI Performance Package.
On the Road
Around town, the Golf R has the firmness and solid feeling I’ve come to associate with German vehicles. In fact, it’s confident and planted steering feels more substantial than what I’ve experienced in other modern VWs. Other cars I’ve tested had a pronounced weight to the steering. There isn’t weight to the Golf R’s wheel; it is more of a firmness. The switchgear is just as solid. Every bit of it feels precise and as if it is built to a high standard.
To test just how docile the suspension can be, I frequently put the Golf R in its Comfort setting. It does a respectable job of soaking up all but the most considerable bumps in the road, but something about it feels . . . artificial. As if the Golf R is doing an impression of how a softly sprung small sedan would ride. That becomes even clearer, the more I engage the Golf R’s Normal setting. Even though it is stiffer, it seems more authentic and genuine to the Golf R’s character.
No matter which mode it is in, the Golf R puts its power down well. It can hook up in an instant, then pull until I either run out of road or courage. On paper, it has 292 horsepower, but I strongly suspect it to be an understatement. I’ll go so far as to say, it at least feels quicker than the 350-horsepower Ford Focus RS I tested a couple of years ago. Whatever its real figures are, I never felt as if I were wasting them. Challenger Hellcats are a ton of fun, but unless you’re blazing down a runway at 190 mph or going around a track at 10/10s, you’re leaving a lot of its horses in the stable. While the Golf R offers far less horsepower, it’s always accessible and thoroughly enjoyable.
If only the brakes were as effective in delivering their message. The left pedal scrubs off speed in a linear progression, but the connection between it and the rest of the car is too insulated for my liking.
At the Track
To fully feel the burn of VW’s hottest hatch, I knew where I had to go: Harris Hill Raceway (H2R) in San Marcos, Texas. It’s my go-to testing facility for performance vehicles. Before I got onto the tarmac, I put the Golf R in Race mode, which automatically engaged the DSG’s sport setting. An Irish former motorsports journalist named Connor was kind enough to ride shotgun and coach me through the 1.82-mile course’s 11 turns and up and down its 150 feet of elevation change.
We charged up one of the course’s straightaways, a slight incline that precedes a tight right-hander. The 4Motion system didn’t hesitate to put the EA888’s power to the ground. The tach needle sawed into the rev range with a mania. Throttle pinned, exhaust at full blat, the car minutely bobbing up and down as the suspension reacted to the surface underneath it, I had the sensation that Connor and I were flying.
A glance at the speedo revealed we were only in the 80s. I would have been happier to see 100, but I can’t say I was disappointed. In those conditions, the Golf R felt — and sounded — faster than it was. It made me realize the number on the speedometer doesn’t matter when you’re already smiling. After all, performance cars are as much about “feel” as they are about figures.
I have mixed emotions about the Golf R’s suspension. On the one hand, its softness in turns is surprising. The body leans considerably more than I expected. On the other hand, that lean suggests I should do a better job of setting up for a turn and take a cleaner line the next time around the track. Connor was quick to show me how to do that. Whether I was flying right through a curve or blowing it, the Continentals kept their grip and didn’t shriek in protest.
Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter where I drive the Golf R. However quickly I happen to go in it; it makes me grin. It feels special. Most importantly, it is fun — over every mile of suburban street, open highway, and winding racetrack. Add it to your list of things to experience as a car enthusiast…then find a way to scratch it off.