The hot hatch segment is filled performance cars that are highly capable in their own rights.
However, they tend to be a bit loud, in-your-face, and even a little crude. You will find examples such as the Honda Civic Type R (reviewed here), Hyundai Veloster N (reviewed here), and the recently discontinued Ford Focus RS; these are some of the most fun and engaging cars in the market, but are also as subtle as wearing Loudmouth Golf pants. For those who want a more refined experience, enter the Volkswagen Golf R, a souped-up version of the OG hot hatchback, the GTI.
The 2019 Volkswagen Golf R is mostly unchanged from last year, except for a couple of minor things. One of these is the addition of a whopping 40 exterior colours under the VW Spektrum Program. Prospective buyers can special order a Golf R in one of the wide array of colours to make it their own, and in our example this week is a fiery Mars Red that reflects a red or orange hue depending on the light. As the rest of the styling is quite conservative, the new Spektrum Program is suitable for those who like to be expressive. Meanwhile, those who prefer anonymity can pick one of the five standard colours and no one would suspect you are driving one of the most capable daily commuter cars in the market today.
Power comes from Volkswagen’s 2.0-litre turbocharged engine (codenamed EA888), producing 288 horsepower at 5,400 RPM, and 280 lb-ft. of torque at a street-friendly 1,800 RPM. An unusual update to this powerplant for 2019 is that it actually lost four horsepower to last year’s model in pursuit of better efficiency. While we do not expect any real-world detriment to its performance, some buyers might be turned off by the year-over-year decrease in power output.
Those who give the 2019 Golf R the chance will appreciate the linear and silky-smooth power delivery. We observed little turbo lag when trying to get the Golf R going from a dead stop, and the little pocket rocket is responsive during highway overtakes. Our tester’s six-speed manual transmission is a joy to row; the shifter is precise and notchy, and clutch uptake is light and easy.
With power delivered to all four wheels through Volkswagen’s 4MOTION all-wheel drive system, the Golf R feels planted and confidence inspiring during hard cornering. Understeer is not felt during our spirited drives on the backroads, and the rack-and-pinion power steering is communicative with good steering weight. There are five drive modes (Eco/Comfort/Normal/Race/Custom) to choose from, with my personal favourite being Custom for its seemingly endless customizability. Owners have the option of individually adjusting its eight settings to create a personalized driving experience. One feature we normally dislike is fake engine sound that gets piped into the cabin, but the Golf R’s acoustics in Race mode are nicely tuned to enhance the energy felt from the sporty driving experience.
Fuel economy is rated at 11.4L/100km in the city and 8.2L/100km on the highway for a combined consumption rating of 9.9L/100km. We observed a mixed commute rating of 10.6L/100km, similar to what we observed in the 2019 Honda Civic Type R, and both require premium fuel. What tips the scale to the Golf R’s favour is its 55-litre fuel tank capacity, eight more than the Civic Type R, leading to a meaningful increase in drive range.
Staying true to the Volkswagen’s humble tradition, the Golf R’s interior is simple and classy. The monotonous interior design is similar to that of the regular Golf and Jetta, but materials are noticeably improved from its mainstream brethren. Much of the hard plastics are covered by soft-touch material, and the simulated carbon fibre trims on the centre console and door adds a bit of sophistication over the Titan Black interior. The leather seating is a rarity and a real bonus among fellow hot hatches, and the driver’s seat is eight-way power adjustable with four-way power lumbar support. Rear passenger legroom is less generous than that of the Civic Type R, but the Golf R can accommodate seating up to five so it has an advantage over the four-seater from Japan. Despite its small footprint, the Golf R has a very useable cargo area with luggage volume up to 645 litres.
Infotainment is controlled using the eight-inch touchscreen on the centre console. Navigation is standard on all Golf R models, as well as a nine-speaker Fender premium audio system. The Golf R’s infotainment is largely the same as the rest of the Volkswagen lineup. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity are supported, and the overall system is intuitive and easy to use. The digital instrument cluster features high level of customizability and contains a lot of useful information, however we noted that it would be a nice touch having blue ‘needles’ to reflect true Golf R heritage as in models of the past.
The biggest differentiator between the Volkswagen Golf R and its competition is the inclusion of driver assistance technology. We noted in our reviews that there were none available in the Veloster N, and the Honda Civic Type R is only available with a blind spot display system. The 2019 Volkswagen Golf R can be equipped with optional Driver Assistance package, which comes with forward autonomous emergency braking assist, Park Distance Control, Blind Spot Detection with Rear Traffic Alert and Lane Assist, Adaptive Cruise Control, and automatic high-beam control systems, giving drivers the utmost confidence during their day-to-day commute.
The 2019 Golf R starts at $42,495. The price tag for the optional Spektrum paint is $2,995, not a bad price compared to the cost of aftermarket custom paint. Our tester also added $1,565 for the Driver Assistance package and $595 for the Black Styling package (19-inch Pretoria black alloy wheels and Carbon Fibre mirror caps), bringing the as-tested total to $47,650. Its price tag is steep when you compare to the all-inclusive pricing structures of the Civic Type R and the Veloster N, but the Golf feels leaps and bounds more sophisticated than either of these hot hatches inside and out. With regards to driving dynamics, the other two are more engaging with an unfiltered driving feel, with the Honda being the best track weapon of this trio. The Golf R’s suspension setup and all-wheel drive capability makes it way more comfortable and far easier to live with day-to-day.
Like many have said, the 2019 Volkswagen Golf R is truly a jack of all trades. It goes about handling serious business in the most unobtrusive way, and does not offend anyone in its path. It is really hard to make an argument against choosing this car. It is rare to find a car offered in both manual and automatic in today’s market; and for 2019, buyers can have it painted in a colour that will surely complement his or her own personality. The Golf R is the true meaning of a Volkswagen, and we hope to see it live on with the eighth generation not far in the horizon.