2019 Volkswagen Golf R review - the art of having your cake and eating it too

With no major flaws, yet a real depth of character and a peerless image, the Golf R is popular for good reason. It’s brilliant.

Evo rating
Price
from £34,070
  • So rapid, so versatile, very satisfying to drive, feel-good factor
  • Aural fakery can be a little much, expensive with options

The Mk7 Volkswagen Golf R has been a familiar sight and sound in these parts for a while now, and although its relative age should be catching up with it, the Golf R’s innate ‘right-ness’ still emanates with undeniable strength.

This talent for combining the standard Golf’s classless ease with real performance gusto and driver engagement is the R’s real talent, and the fact that it feels worth the extra over its talented little brother, the GTI, is a testament to how brilliant the current generation Golf R is.

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It may have gone through a recent update for emissions regulations' sake, but the recipe hasn't been affected despite a 10bhp drop. It may not be the fastest, cheapest or most dynamic of its ilk, the Golf R's brilliance is in its completeness.

Engine, transmission, and 0-60mph time

The R’s familiar ’EA888’ 2-litre TSI engine has in recent times been through a subtle de-tune thanks to reformed WLTP regulations, pegging power back to 296bhp from its prior 306bhp figure. As of 2019 the Golf R is now only available with a seven-speed DSG, one more unfortunate result of both changing legislation, and a changing market weeding out the few (us, in other words) who still buy cars like this with a stick and three pedals.

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What the numbers don’t tell you is this engine’s wonderful character has been retained. It’s crisp, delicate and even makes a fairly good noise, if you listen past the piped in intake warble. This is especially present on cars fitted with the (expensive) optional Akrapovic exhaust, which creates an oddly satisfying soundtrack that is less motorsport than something like an i30N, yet more natural than an Audi S3.

The transmission is the usual VW-group DSG. When on the move it’s fast, quick-witted and rarely, if ever, caught out, but does suffer from dawdling responses and a jerkiness when mooching around town. The six-speed manual was one of the finer cable-operated shifts of its type, without the slickness of a Civic Type R’s perhaps, but a willing and capable partner to the engine. It’s a shame VW has killed it off.

Technical highlights

The powertrain is an obvious highlight, but whereas it used to remain within the boundaries of the upper-level Volkswagen Group hot hatch, the venerable EA888 has since been fitted to a veritable smorgasbord of other VAG derivatives, including SUVs such as the Cupra Ateca and even the Porsche Macan. Rather than dilute the Golf R’s specialness, it’s only accentuated by the wonderful calibration with the chassis and handling balance only the Golf exhibits. It remains, by quite some margin, the most satisfying of its ilk to drive.

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Adaptive dampers deserve special mention, as even when fitted with the optional 19-inch wheels wrapped in slim 35-profile section tyres, the ride remains polished and body-control contained when in the softer setting.

Inside, the R has all the Golf’s usual tech including the full width (12.3in) high-resolution display in front of the driver, and the option of the 9.2in Discover Navigation Pro infotainment system with its glossy touchscreen. Add to that the Driving Modes available before, including the option of a programmable Individual setting, and there’s almost limitless potential for button pressing, swiping and hand gestures to the point of distraction.

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What’s it like to drive?

Like the old one, it’s absolutely brilliant. One of the many clever things about the R is that it has such a duality of personality. Drive away normally and it can be difficult to see what the attraction is from a real enthusiast’s perspective: it’s completely undemanding, comfortable, light to the touch and quiet. A long, and dull, journey, completed primarily in ‘eco’ mode with the ‘box declutching at every opportunity, elicited a high 30s mpg figure.

On the other hand, given more throttle the R positively leaps for the horizon, continuing to rev out with infectious enthusiasm with the ‘box snicking instantly through each successive ratio. It’s the kind of car that feels properly fast anyplace, anytime, especially so given it squanders nothing with the total traction capability of the four-wheel drive system. In fact, while the R isn’t a naturally flamboyant car, it’s far from inert, with the ability to go neutral and then a bit more under full power out of tighter corners.

The more you drive the R, the more you discover a subtle and unflappable poise to its ride and handling balance that really gets you hooked. The DCC dampers are a wise idea, especially if you must go up a rim size, only enforcing the R’s sheer breadth of ability. The optional Performance Pack only adds to the R’s capability, with larger brakes, standard 19-inch wheels, and a few subtle styling tweaks.

 

Price and rivals

The punchy list price of the R at £34,070 seems to have been no hindrance to the model’s success. For many buyers, though not all, there is obviously a certain kudos to owning a fast VW Golf, and given the new car is better than ever, there seems no reason its success will diminish in the future.

Along with the death of the six-speed manual, the three-door body style has also fallen by the wayside. Although this has raised the basic price, and removed what is probably the ‘cooler’ body style, it’s not the great loss the six-speed manual is. The Performance Pack integrates larger brakes, 19-inch wheels, some subtle styling enhancements and a derestricted top speed. It’s pricey though at £2300, and when combined with other choice options like the Akrapovic exhaust (£2975) can result in a near-£50k Golf.

Few buyers stick with the standard, non-metallic white paint finish as most usually plump for one of the six metallic options priced around £600, including the popular Lapiz Blue. However, there are two other non-metallic colours to choose from: Tornado Red (£300) and the pearl Oryx White at £1000.

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The standard, 18in alloys can be swapped out for bigger items, at a price, there are three different designs to choose from costing between £800 and £1000. That said, there’s nothing wrong with the base-spec, five-spoke wheels, so money is better spent elsewhere.

Leather upholstery is optional, and available in three finishes: black Vienna, grey nappa and anthracite nappa. The former adds £1750 to the bottom line, whereas the other two cost significantly more at £2500 – they’re all pricey and we have no complaints with the standard cloth trim.

Fortunately the R comes well equipped: adaptive cruise control, LED headlights and VW’s digital instrument cluster (Active info display) – with integrated sat-nav – constitute the basic specification. While the passive chassis is pliant and accomplished, DDC (Dynamic Chassis Control) is worth considering for £850, adding scope to customise the driving experience.

You could argue the Golf R strikes the perfect balance between performance and everyday comfort and we’d struggle to disagree. That very point, though, stops the R being as engaging to drive as our favourite hot hatches such as the £31k Honda Civic Type R.

If all-weather performance is a priority the Golf R’s four-wheel drive system will appeal. The closely related Audi S3, wraps Golf R running gear in a more premium shell and commands a list price of only £1000 more, but seems to lack the Golf’s final layer of driver engagement.

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