In our review of the 2018 Volkswagen GTI, the Roadshow staff agreed that it's one of the best "bang for the buck" rides on the road with a sweet blend of performance and price, fun and function. But what if you had just a bit more buck? Could you get a bit more bang?
Allow me to reintroduce the revised for 2018 Volkswagen Golf R: it's pretty much everything that's great about the GTI with more power, more grip and a much more performance focus. It also packs better tech with a handful of unique safety features and an eye-catching fully-digital instrument cluster. More bang hasn't thrown off the Golf R's balance and it's still a well rounded ride that's very easy to live and it's still a great daily driver for those with slightly more twisty drives.
292-horsepower 4Motion performance
Built on the bones of the GTI, the Volkswagen Golf R is powered by the same 2.0-liter four-banger. However, the R's powerplant has been upgraded with a unique cylinder head, turbocharger, pistons and direct injection system. Basically, everything important save the block has been modified. The result is a boost in power to 292 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque. (That's 72 horsepower and 22 pound-feet of torque over the already lively GTI.)
Come for the power, but stay for the torque. The Golf R's engine pulls nicely at pretty much any speed. Peak torque comes on at a casual 1,800 rpm, which makes for off-the-line performance (especially with launch control), but the broad and flat torque curve also begets very responsive throttle response whether around town or around a fast corner.
New for 2018, is a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission (DSG) option with paddle shifters. I'm sure it's plenty fast -- VW is a brand that has proven to know its way around a dual-clutch box -- but my example was blessedly equipped with the standard six-speed manual transmission. Rowing your own gears is really the best way to experience VW's hottest hatch, and I highly recommend it.
At an EPA estimated 22 city and 29 highway mpg, the automatic does offer a slight in-town fuel economy advantage over the manual which is rated at 21 city mpg. That's partially due to the extra ratio, but mostly because the DSG features a stop-start anti-idling system that the manual does not.
At the business end of the powertrain is the latest-generation Volkswagen 4Motion all-wheel-drive system. It's an on-demand setup that drives the front wheels and decouples the rears under low-load conditions. However, the rear axle can be near-instantly engaged with an electronically controlled center clutch when grip is demanded, continuously varying the split to send up to 50 percent of available torque to the rear axle.
DCC adaptive handling
The ride height is slightly lower even than the GTI, hinting at further handling enhancements for the Golf R. In addition to revising some of the geometry and tweaking the steering rate for better feel and responsiveness, the R comes standard with VW's DCC adaptive dampers that continuously vary the rebound and compression damping of the suspension while cornering.
The active dampers have three settings -- Comfort, Sport and Race -- that allow the driver to quickly adjust the firmness of the DCC suspension. These settings are tied into four driving mode presets -- Comfort, Normal, Eco and Race -- that also adjust the responsiveness of the engine and, if so equipped, the shift program of the DSG. A fifth "Individual" drive mode allowed me to mix and match settings.
The beefier brakes from the GTI's Performance Package find their way behind the Golf R's 19-inch wheels as standard equipment. We're talking 13.4-inch discs up front and 12.2-inchers out back. And the rubber meets the road at the surface of the 235/35 Continental ContiSportContact tires.
Aiding 4Motion is VW's electronic differential lock (EDS) and cross differential lock plus (XDS+) systems that use biased brake pressure to make the R's open differential perform like a limited-slip unit and to enable torque vectoring when cornering. EDS and XDS+ get the job done, but a true clutch-based limited-slip diff would be preferable, particularly for track use where increased brakes use could potentially prove problematic.
Volkswagen Digital Cockpit, Discover Media tech
Dashboard tech is identical to that of the GTI SE and Autobahn trim levels, so you can nip over to our full review for details about that glass-covered 8.0-inch "Discover Media" MIB II infotainment system.
The TL;DR is that it's big, bright and beautiful, but could benefit from improvements to responsiveness and menu organization. The standard (for the R) navigation software gets the job done and there's a healthy selection of media sources, but I preferred to use the also standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connections to bring my own maps and apps the party. (If you're one of the handful of people who prefers to use MirrorLink, the VW supports that too.)
However, the Golf R and the electric e-Golf stand apart from lesser Golfs and GTIs, borrowing the interactive Volkswagen Digital Cockpit instrument cluster from the Atlas and new Tiguan. This 12.3-inch, high-resolution screen replaces the physical dials with digital gauges that can be customized to showcase a wide range of information: from the navigation map to performance and driving information.
Digital Cockpit is basically a less powerful version of Audi's Virtual Cockpit tech. The resolution is a bit lower; you can only display the map in the instrument cluster or on the central display, but not both; and I noticed that the Digital Cockpit lagged a bit when toggling between display modes. However, the benefits of interacting with front and center tech without taking a hand off of the steering wheel outweighed any negatives I noticed.
The full suite of driver aid tech available to the Golf platform is standard equipment on the Golf R. At low speeds, that means a rearview camera, pedestrian monitoring emergency braking, rear cross-traffic alert and rear park distance sensor with automatic braking. At higher speeds, there's adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, lane departure warning and automatic high beams.
VW's hottest hatch is also more premium
Here's where we usually tell you all about trim levels and options, but the 2018 Golf R is simple: It only comes in one trim and it's fully loaded with the adaptive suspension, 8-inch navigation, 4Motion all-wheel drive and the VW Digital Cockpit. That price also rolls in all of the available active and passive safety tech. Beyond that, it's LED headlights are uniquely styled among the Golf family, as is its only slightly more aggressive body work and exhaust. Pricing starts at $40,635 for the six-speed manual or $41,735 with the new seven-speed DSG. (Both prices include an $850 destination charge and VW's new 6-year/72,000-mile bumper-to-bumper People First Warranty.)
The 2018 Golf R almost perfectly bridges the gap between the a fully loaded GTI Autobahn (about $4,000 less) and a base Audi S3 Premium Plus (about $4,000 more), sort of combining the best tech of its VW parentage with the more potent AWD powertrain of the Audi. I think that puts the Golf R in a very sweet spot in the lineup, especially since sticking with the VW badge gets you that sweet hatchback profile.
For most, however, I'd recommend sticking with the GTI. It's lighter and simpler, which makes up for the lower power and lack of AWD. I think the GTI is just as fun on a twisty road and would only really recommend the R to someone planning to autocross or occasionally track their daily driver. Plus, the midtier GTI SE trim level we recommend is about $10,000 cheaper.
However, the Golf R's place in the pecking order among its at-large competitors is a bit difference. The Subaru WRX STI has a more sophisticated all-wheel-drive system. The Focus RS is much more powerful. And the Honda Civic Type R is the true king of the hot hatchbacks with its track-focused performance. However, the Type R and the RS are pretty hard to find and often come with high markups.
Of these vehicles, the Golf R probably has the best balance of price, competitive street and track performance and premium comfort and tech. (Plus, it looks like the sort of car an adult would drive; its styling is sporty without massive intakes and goofy wings.) Like its brother, the GTI, it's not the best at any one thing, but it's really good at everything. That's a bit tougher to sell in this performance enthusiast class where specs and speed are king, but it hits a sweet spot with me.