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Volkswagen Golf R 20 Years 2023 review

The new Golf R 20 Years edition is the best Mk8 yet, but still doesn't hit the highs of its most capable rivals

Evo rating
  • More bite from the engine and transmission
  • Still lacks ultimate driver involvement and satisfaction; DCC is STILL optional

It’s 20 years since a Volkswagen Golf wearing an R badge went on sale. Not an R in the sense that we’ve come to know them, no: that first R32 unleashed in 2002 took as its basis the 2.8-litre Mk 4 Golf 4Motion, and the resultant 3.2-litre engined car, forever the most unique unique of all the R models, was something of a pocket exotic. 

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The idea continued into the more sober and talented Mk5, although the R32 struggled to distance itself from the superb GTI of the time. That struggle continued with the Mk6, which also junked the expressive but sadly out-moded VR6 engine for a stronger version of the GTI’s four-cylinder turbo motor and was now simply known as the Golf R. It wasn’t until the arrival of the Mk7 R that the R really found its forte, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

With the sun casting long shadows on the R’s lifetime as an ICE car, Volkswagen is celebrating the lineage with this, the R ‘20 Years’. Everybody loves a fast Golf special edition, don’t they: is this one worthy of the badge?

On initial acquaintance, it’s hard to not feel a pang of cynicism at the ‘20 Years’ recipe. Peak horsepower has only risen from 316bhp to 328bhp (torque is unchanged at 310lb ft), and the headlines are detail trim differences and equipment bundled in for the price. The ‘20 Years’ gets the R Performance Package as standard, with its larger rear wing, derestricted top speed (168mph) and additional driver modes (Special and Drift). 

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> Volkswagen Golf R32 Mk4 review, history and specs

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The 19-inch ‘Estoril’ rims are standard rather than an option, painted black, and available with blue accents with certain exterior colours, and the mirrors are now either blue or black, too. Look out for the blue R logos, and a ‘20 Years’ logo on the B pillar. Inside, you get the fully electric nappa leather sports seats, and some genuine carbon fibre trim pieces on the dash and doors; open the door at night and ‘20 R’ will beam down into that puddle…

There is more to it than that, however. Probe a bit further and it turns out that not only does the engine muster a few more horses from the remap, but there are mechanical changes as well, namely to the throttle body and the turbocharger. The throttle flap now remains open even when you come off the throttle, while the turbo stays spinning at a constant speed – or is pre-loaded, in VW-speak – meaning that throttle response is improved, according to VW. 

There’s a 50 per cent improvement in Race mode and above, while the Special setting gives the full effect. Teamed with this, the engineers have recalibrated the DSG box for more aggressive shifts, and the sound inside the cabin has been made more lively above 4,000rpm; from the outside, there are more pops and bangs from a lower rpm. Finally, and it must be said of dubious value, there’s now something called ‘Emotion Start’, whereby a pat of the head and rub of the stomach makes the car start with an unnecessary flare of revs and pops from the exhaust.

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It’s good to know there’s more to the ‘20 Years’ than it first appears, but initially on the road it’s the same old Mk8 Golf R we’ve come to respect, if not love. It’s an effortlessly easy sort of hot hatch with a blistering turn of speed, and an infotainment and instrumentation setup that drives me mad within minutes. Like most VWs thus equipped I’ve driven, this one too also developed software faults during our time with it: you would have thought VW might have been able to sort these issues out by now.

The initial impression is the highly-tuned EA888 motor, which punches hard from low down, but still feels very energetic at the top of the rev range. Ultimate throttle response is good, although the turbocharger does take a second to properly wake up – something that’s much more apparent here than in its lower states of tune as found in the base GTI. We’d generally avoid the engine sound’s Sports and Race modes as these introduce an irritating throb via the speakers, but the pops and bangs, no matter how juvenile they might seem, do up the emotional appeal.

The seven-speed dual-clutch transmission is arguably the biggest beneficiary of the makeover. There’s a new level of urgency to the changes both up and down the ratios. This isn’t manifested in the response of the paddles, rather the actual speed of the shifts themselves which is a nice surprise. 

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Combined with the R’s impressive traction and powerful brakes, you have a very quick way of getting from A to B. Incredibly, the DCC adaptive damping is still on the options list for the ‘20 Years’, but it’s a vital part of the car’s armoury, enabling a comfortable ride at one extreme and a track-focused setup at the other, even if it’s still infuriating to make use of that variability on the move. You can certainly feel the torque vectoring on the rear axle doing its thing, even in Sport and Race modes, but select Drift and power oversteer is there for the taking, which can feel very lively.

As is often the case with torque-vectoring rear differentials on these new-age hot hatchbacks, the feel isn’t natural or consistent, leaving you guessing as to the amount of torque each rear wheel will get mid-way through a bend. And because it’s never more than 50 per cent of the available torque, the front axle itself needs to be managed as there’s no physical locking differential to manage the remaining drive. 

Things only deteriorate when the roads get tougher because it’s now the chassis just can’t handle bumps and complex surfaces. There’s not enough resilience in the front end under heavy braking and hard cornering, making the wheel shudder and kickback, and in really challenging situations the infinitely adjustable dampers never quite find a balance between control and suppleness. The result is a clouded front-end which is short on ultimate feel anyway.

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> Volkswagen Golf R Mk8 review

All in, then, the R ‘20 Years’ is a capable kind of super hatch, but still not one that delivers that last 15 per cent of driver involvement or satisfaction. Compared with something like the new Honda Civic Type R or the best of the Renaultsport Meganes that has always been the case, but the Mk8 lacks the sparkle and inherent rightness that made the Mk7 R such a favourite.

Prices and rivals

Nevertheless, while £48,095 still seems to me a lot of money for a fast Golf, given the included equipment it’s a sensible approach if you want a high spec R (which normally starts at £42,695). I should say, however, that with the £3,500 Akrapovic exhaust and £850 DCC dampers amongst other options, our test car came in at £55,482,19. Gulp.

Still, while the ‘20 Years’ isn’t numbered, it is only going to be made for a year with a prediction of around 500 cars coming to the UK. It might not radically change our feelings about the 8R, but if you want one it’s surely the model to go for. 

Specs

EngineIn-line 4-cyl, 1984cc, tubocharged
Power328bhp @ 5200rpm
Torque310lb ft @ 2100-5500rpm
Claimed weight (actual)1555kg (1529kg)
Power-to-weight214bhp/ton (214bhp/ton)
0-62mph4.6sec
Top speed168mph
Basic price£48,095
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