For as long as hot hatchbacks have been a thing, Volkswagen has always found itself in the thick of it. Associating Volkswagen with hot hatchbacks is akin to associating Toyota with proper off-road SUVs, they can’t be separated from the brand’s identity.
Volkswagen has done more to popularise the hot hatch concept than any other marque. The now legendary Golf GTI is the model most responsible for establishing and building Volkswagen’s well-earned performance hatch credentials.
Hot hatch buyers are currently spoilt for choice. The segment is enjoying a renaissance with strong offerings from Honda and Ford challenging Volkswagen’s supremacy. Competitors have come and gone, but the king has always worn a VW badge.
On test here is the 2018 Volkswagen Golf R, the flagship variant of the current Golf range. Despite being the flagship, the R model has never really received its fair share of the attention, the GTI is the family’s glory hog. The R does need to put up a very compelling case, it starts in price at $55,990 plus on-roads, a whopping $11,000 more than the GTI.
Performance Golfs have always been rather understated and that is the case here, the R is the wolf in sheep's clothing. From the outside, it takes a good eye to spot the differences over a regular Golf. It’s just a few R badges, exhaust pipes and sexy alloys that point to something special.
It’s a similar story on the inside, there’s an air of sophistication and maturity. It’s a classy looking cabin that’s the polar opposite of the Honda Civic Type R. From behind the wheel the Golf R looks like a premium European car should. All the controls and materials are first-rate which establishes a premium atmosphere. The beautiful flat-bottom steering wheel is wonderfully sculpted and wouldn’t look out of place in any supercar.
The fully digital instrument cluster and the larger than expected infotainment screen delivers all the modern conveniences one would expect in a car of this price. It originally began life as Audi’s virtual cockpit and it’s a brilliant bit of gear. The driver can customise the display to their individual preferences and reconfigure it easily if necessary. We don’t miss the traditional dials as much as we used to.
The use of the digital screens blends nicely with the tactile experience of the switchgear. Of course, everything is incredibly easy to use.
With conservative styling inside and out, the Golf R lacks the sense of occasion we experienced when reviewing the Type R. There’s a very subdued vibe that surrounds the Golf R. It’s not as garish and looks and feels more like a comfortable hatchback instead of a weekend hooligan.
Remembering that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover there was an air of expectation that the driving experience would wipe away any concerns about the styling.
Power comes from a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol engine tuned to produce 213kW and 380Nm. Gear changes are taken care of by a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic that can distribute power to all four wheels when the need arises.
The Golf R does lead from the front axle, Volkswagen’s 4MOTION all-wheel drive system kicks in when the car’s electronics deem it necessary. It’s a very clever system that can shuffle power around to deliver the best performance and grip.
It’s a very responsive drivetrain that exploits the chassis tune. It's a cracking car to drive especially if you're lucky enough to find the right road (or track). It’s so well balanced when pushed, the handling and steering are as crisp as the dial on a freshly screwed together Rolex.
The Golf R will continue to hold on regardless of how much the throttle is pressed. Sublime is the best word to use when describing how competent the Golf R is in the corners.
Hammering through a series of corners shows just how good the feedback is, then there is the agility, it pushes the bar a little higher. Regardless of what we subjected the car to, it always felt like it had more to give. Taking the Golf R to the limit requires a track, forget about it otherwise.
For those keen on straight line speed, the Golf R will hit triple figures in 4.8 seconds. It feels faster than this figure would suggest.
Most interesting is the drive mode selections that are able to be made on the centre console. This is one car where its personality does change considerably as you move through the modes: eco, comfort, normal and race. There is a stark difference between eco and race, the character of the car changes completely.
In comfort mode, the Golf R is a good choice for the daily commute, it’s civilised and practical, just like a regular hatchback.
One thing that detracts from the premium vibe is the amount of noise at highway speeds. Unless the road is as smooth as silk the road roar is intrusive. More could be done to improve refinement in this area.
The blind spot monitor was also identified as needing work, the light that shows in the wing mirrors isn’t dark enough to always draw the attention of the driver.Whenever a motoring enthusiast encounters a Golf owner and enters into a discussion the DSG is always a controversial topic. We would love to be in a position to provide certainty about the long-term durability of the seven-speed transmission in our test car, however, it’s impossible. This version of VW’s dual-clutch technology hasn’t been in the field long enough for an accurate opinion.
Volkswagen has not covered themselves in glory with its response to previous issues, but we hear steps have been taken to deliver a more responsive customer service experience.
The DSG in this instance performed well throughout this test, gear changes were crisp with no noticeable jerkiness at low-speeds. The evidence suggests the dramas of previous incarnations of this transmission have been rectified.
To get the Golf R on-road requires a big spend and we are sympathetic to the concerns and hesitations of potential owners. Some guarantees of long-term performance and reliability help make the value equation stack up. To that end, we encourage Volkswagen to adopt the same five-year warranty coverage offered by sister brand Skoda. The three-year package is a deal breaker for some. Toyota can get away with it, but Volkswagen doesn’t have the same story to tell.
We covered just over 700 kilometres during our test week in the Golf R, the combined consumption figure came in at 8.3L/100km, considering the spirited driving it’s an impressive result.
Volkswagen offers a capped-price service program for the Golf R that provides cost certainty for the first five years/75,000km of ownership. Maintenance is required every 12 months or 15,000km (whichever comes first) with the costs averaging out to $550 for each visit to the service department.
The Golf R is a wonderfully entertaining car to drive, the mix of performance and everyday usability is as close to perfect as we are ever likely to see. The ride and handling are a very hard act to follow. The driving experience defies the car’s conservative, yet sophisticated styling. The Golf R is a precision instrument that can satisfy two briefs.
Getting into the Golf R is the biggest challenge for potential owners, it will require you to walk past and ignore the long history and substantial pedigree of the GTI – it’s a big ask. The GTI casts an imposing shadow. For those who stump up the extra cash, the Golf R is sure to keep them on their toes.
2018 Volkswagen Golf R Specifications
Price from $55,990 plus on-road costs Engine 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol Power 213kW @ 5400-6500rpm Torque 380Nm @ 1850-5300rpm Transmission seven-speed DSG automatic Performance 0 to 100km/h 4.8 seconds Combined Fuel Consumption 7.2L/100km Tank Capacity 55L Length 4263mm Width 1799mm Height 1436mm Wheelbase 2626mm Turning Circle 10.9m Tare Mass 1450kg Service Intervals 12 months/15,000km Warranty three year/unlimited kilometre
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