VW’s Golf GTI is far more than just a hot hatch. As any enthusiast will tell you those three capitalised magic letters represent the progenitor of the hot-hatch genre, an icon, and an automotive phenomenon.
So what then is a Golf R and where does it sit in the VW world? VW gave birth to the ‘R’ sub-brand in 2002 to create a flagship sport or high-performance range that takes things a step further down the evolutionary road than the GTI. The R designation was then extended across the other model ranges like the Passat, T-Roc and Touareg.
The Golf R “20 Years” edition that we tested recently has slightly more than the standard 320 PS despite the OPF filter. The new big number is 333 PS, underpinned by 420 Nm of torque, and this delivered to the road through the customary 4Motion all-wheel-drive that even features a Drift mode. Dressed in unique paint colours and interior trim this is also the most expensive production Golf ever, with our test car at a whisker short of 60,000 EUR.
What makes the VW Golf R
The black-painted 8J x 19-inch ‘Estoril’ alloy wheels wrapped in low profile 235/35R19 Goodyear tyres contributes to a firm secondary ride at town speeds that borders on harsh if the surface is very bad.
Pick up speed however, and the suspension begins to breathe properly, delivering a masterclass combination of eloquent ride and iron-fisted body control that only gets better as you lean on it in the bends. Indeed it is when pushing on that the brilliance of the engineers who set-up this chassis really shines. Then, everything from steering weight and feedback to the lack of unwelcome pitch and yaw over undulations taken at speed really stands out.
As good as a Golf GTI is on challenging bends, the distribution of power to the tarmac through all four rubber contact patches puts the latest R into a different league when the going gets tough. Add rain to the equation, as we experienced on a day when the weatherman slipped up, and the case for all-wheel-drive becomes a cast-iron one.
The 4Motion system also proved supremely effective at dispensing the power and torque to the road during standing starts. This and the relentlessly smooth DSG twin-clutch gearbox help to deliver consistently rapid departures away from the traffic lights, corners, or whatever situation where traction is at a premium.
No Limits: The anniversary Golf really takes off
The 4.6 sec 0-100km/h time we recorded and 270km/h (electronic limiter open) top speed are good considering the R32’s portly 1,476 kg kerb weight. To put things in perspective the Golf GTI Mk 1 of 1981 tipped the scales at just 810kg, with a Porsche 911SC weighing 1,160kg. In parenthesis the Mk 8 Golf R is nearly double the weight of its spiritual ancestor and just 39kg lighter than a Porsche 992 Carrera S.
Although the switch to a forced aspirated four-cylinder engine with the R32 Mk 6 brought with it superior power, torque and even fuel economy, the loss of the melodic singing voice of the naturally-aspirated V6-engine that powered the Mk 4 and Mk 5 R32 models, will always be much lamented.
Sound upgrade for the engine
Even with the expensive optional Akrapovic four-pipe sports exhaust fitted to our Golf R test car the four-cylinder motor’s soundtrack is best described as sportingly effective rather than spine-tinglingly inspirational.
The one tangible upside to the departure of the V6 was the paring away of the R32’s slightly nose-heavy bias that represented the one line of red ink on its balance sheet in parenthesis with its front-driven GTI cousin. The latest car takes this handing finesse to a new high.
Despite its relative heft the Golf R can set a blistering cross-country pace underpinned by a great feeling of confidence in its handling. The counterpoint is the seven-forward ratios that allow restful cruising on long motorway journeys.
Wants to be revved up: TSI four-cylinder in the VW Gold R with 420 Nm
If the Golf R’s chassis is accomplished, the transversely-mounted turbocharged and intercooled 1,984cc DOHC 16-valve inline TSI four is no slouch either. With 420 Nm of torque peaking between 2,100 and 5,500rpm, strong pull is on tap in every gear, and turbo lag minimal to absent in that zone. Thus high revs are only required when overtaking, joining a fast-moving autobahn, or when having fun on a twisty road.
So much for the excellent driving dynamics. What about the continuing evolution of infotainment systems with each generation of Golf? For me personally three of the most useful driver aids to have come about through ever improving electronics are active LED Matrix headlights, active satellite-navigation systems, and a good reversing camera. And a decent audio system is always a welcome bonus.
Our Golf R test car came equipped with the IQ.Light LED Matrix headlights, while the “Discover Media’ Navigation system that includes Streaming and Internet also incorporates a reversing camera. The LED lights and reversing camera were both appreciated daily, but the telematics system that most on the Golf Mk 8 press launch in 2019 marked down for its annoying ergonomic interface has not grown better with age.
Volume buttons complicate control of the Harman Kardon sound system
An example of this is the horizontal ‘piano key’ + and – controls for the audio volume. Bracketed by the left and right ‘cold’ and ‘hot’ buttons for the HVAC temperature controls, none of the buttons on this long thin panel is illuminated at night, which makes finding, much less successfully operating them for the desired result in a moving vehicle well-nigh impossible.
The slew of features and opaque menus seems to be the product of ”because we can” syndrome, with little regard for the practical ability of the average customer to discover and then wade through it all. In fact, exploring the menus and their subsets occupies so much of your attention to operate that it is the exact antithesis of the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) mindset. And with many control functions also accessible via buttons on the steering wheel spokes we found it is all too easy to switch screen functions inadvertently while manoeuvring in a car park or on a twisty road.
On the plus side of the ledger, once you can somehow find your way into the audio system on the 10-inch touchscreen, the versatility of the system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as well as USB inputs is as good as it gets.
The thing with the USB interface
The increasing rise of the USB-C fitment in recent European premium car brands is a questionable one. I brought a high-quality USB-A to USB-C adaptor for my USB-A test stick loaded with high-res test music files, but the system failed to recognise that the device was plugged in at all!
I find USB-C in a car to be particularly pointless as the interface occupies the same amount of real estate as the legacy USB-A for a less robust connection. And with most people having their music on a USB-A stick with millions of computers out there, this is a further waste of the planet’s resources!
Editor Stefan had a more favourable interface result with his phone’s Bluetooth connection, and we were able to evaluate a broad spectrum of jazz, pop and classical music on the nine-speaker Harman Kardon system.
Extensive sound settings
Harman Kardon’s digital sound processor allows the user to direct the sound focus to the driver, passenger or all, which works very well. Balance, Fader and Surround are the other settings. Next is a control screen that offers pre-made music settings like Pure, Relax, Speech, and Vibrant.
For connoisseurs, the 480-watt Harman Kardon system in the VW Golf R features a graphic equalizer with five bands plus a control for the subwoofer housed in the trunk that allows users to boost or cut certain frequency bands. However, we found it strange that the subwoofer control is placed on the Treble side of the five bands!
All this makes a recognizable and for friends of lush beats worthwhile difference. Following old tester virtue, we listened with the controls in the home position, which delivers very good tonal balance across a wide range of music. For a moderate premium, Harman Kardon delivers a car hi-fi system that is as well-balanced as it is entertaining, with a multi-channel amplifier and nine speakers plus a subwoofer for true music lovers that has enough power, punch and clean low-frequency reproduction. Natural timbres, clear, impulsive highs and stable, wide stage imaging make the Harman Kardon a desirable option even for all weaker-engined VW Golf.
Conclusion on the VW Golf R after the road trip across Germany
Two weeks of driving the Golf R from Hamburg all the way down to Munich, with many destinations in between only reinforced the fact that it is a brilliant car in so many ways, particularly in the engine and chassis departments. And the sound system from Harman Kardon can even increase the fun factor.
However, a telematics interface should be intuitive and a help not a hinderance to operate. Neither is achieved by this over-thought, opaque menu driven system that stands out as the most frustrating I have encountered since the original BMW iDrive system of 2001.
- Price VW Golf R “20 Years”: from around 60,000 euros
- Price Harman/Kardon Premium Sound System: 680 euros
- Further information: volkswagen.com
STEREO GUIDE verdict
+ balanced sound tuning
+ rich, clean bass reproduction
+ extensive sound control options
- Volume control not illuminated and difficult to operate while driving
- No USB-A port for music playback from common memory sticks
Price/Performance sound system9.4