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Volkswagen Golf R review – ride and handling

Not as sophisticated, capable or engaging as it once was

Evo rating
  • Engine still pulls; erm, strong resale?
  • Every dynamic element feels like it’s taken a step or two backwards

The Golf R is a car with an awful lot of software commanding your attention from the moment you slide into its bucket seat. It is possible to simply press the ‘start’ button and drive, as long as you don’t mind the haphazard and unsettling intervention of the Lane Assist function, which has to be switched off every single time the ignition is turned on.

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To adjust the ESP setting you’ll need to delve into the central display, look for ‘brakes’ within the assist screen and confirm your choice. Having spent lots of collective time in the Golf 8R, we have found a shortcut to the ESP’s lesser setting – a flick down from the top of the screen will show a further sub-menu that you can then add an ESP shortcut to. There’s still a need to confirm the selection, and you’ll need to haphazardly flick up again to rid the screen of it again, but it’s a useful tool. This is the sort of useful consumer advice you’ll only find on evo.

If you really want to set the car up for enthusiast driving, it’ll take pressing buttons for at least 30 seconds after ignition to get there. The Mk8’s fully digital cockpit, central infotainment screen and haptic temperature control screens are also a taste we’ve yet to acquire…

Anyway, with Lane Assist disabled and Comfort driving mode selected, the Golf R feels more or less like a TSI-engined Golf R-Line. It is completely undemanding: quiet, refined, well-riding even on the optional 19-inch wheels, coasting at times to save fuel, and perfectly set up for local trips or long motorway drives.

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Objectively these are all good things, qualities that will make the R an effortless companion, especially for those who are only interested in owning the best, most expensive Golf, but aren’t really interested in hot hatchbacks per se. The previous model was always good at covering off this market, something that’s unchanged in the new R.

The problem occurs if you want your hot Golf to be exciting when the road gets interesting. For all its glossy persona and capability, you can drive for miles and miles and wonder what all the fuss is about.

That is until you dare delve back into the driver modes. Get busy with the different elements in Individual mode and the Golf R’s more aggressive side starts to reveal itself. The powertrain, optional adaptive dampers and steering ratio all immediately wake up, washing off some of the polish that all these elements portray when just ambling about, but unlike its predecessor what’s revealed underneath doesn’t exactly feel up to scratch.

Despite added weight to the steering, the Golf R feels looser and less precise around the straight ahead than it really ought to. Start leaning on the chassis and the front end is immediately put under pressure, the dampers’ struggle to maintain complete control of the front wheels fed back to you via kickback through the steering wheel. Introduce some challenging cambers or bumps and it doesn’t take much to find the bump-stops.

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> Honda Civic Type R 2023 review

This is all the more disappointing when you learn that, like the GTI Clubsport, the R’s front end actually has some pretty serious geometry, with an aggressive amount of negative camber, while the subframe is reinforced and the progressive steering rack is bespoke.

Yet the front end’s outright grip and control just isn’t there. Brake very hard into a tight corner and you can get the tail swinging to help turn-in, and once in the corner it’s possible to get on the power very, very early – sometimes this simply fires you out of the corner in a satisfying manner.

But in some circumstances it results in dramatic power oversteer, thanks to the torque vectoring rear differential, and try to maintain yaw and it almost feels like the tyres are being dragged in underneath themselves, sometimes manifesting in a sort of lateral hop like you’re in an AMG from the early noughties.

Ironically, a modern A45 S AMG will do the same oversteer motion, and very occasionally the GR Yaris, but there’s something about the way the R relinquishes grip and then drives forward with all four wheels scrabbling away that feels a little less resolved.

The engine also isn’t without fault. At lower revs it feels constrained by the car’s weight, but once over 4500rpm the mass is less of an issue and the R does pick up speed. As mentioned, the larger paddles behind the wheel are a big improvement as well, although they’re still a bit of a stretch to reach.

The Golf R 20 Years doesn’t really add a huge amount of competence to the handling package, as its upgrades are focused more around the powertrain.

But despite some new tricks, the Golf R’s overall driving experience feels undernourished in a way the old car’s didn’t. The basics are there, but the dynamic capability that resided below the polish is gone, replaced with something that’s more ham-fisted and broadly less capable.

To many Golf R buyers, this last ten per cent won’t matter. But to us, for what was always a very desirable car that had the dynamic chops to back it up, it’s returned to the Mk6 syndrome of not actually being that great to drive, which makes the Mk8’s price tag even harder to accept.

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