R is for speed in the 2023 VW Golf R five-door hatchback
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The VW Golf R is a standard bearer in the hot-hatch segment for its peak horsepower, all-wheel drive, and as a conservator for the three-pedal society.
Volkswagen decided to stop U.S. production last year of its mainstream Golf models, but it has kept the sporty versions of GTI and Golf R, today’s tester. This segment’s fun-driving cars include the Honda Civic Si and Type R, the three-door Hyundai Veloster N, Mazda3, and the Subaru WRX and WRX STI.
Each of these turbocharged, four-cylinder competitors, whether they have three-, four-, or five doors, are engineering hot spots and with distinct personalities. The Golf R hammers out midsize interior space and downplays its high performance with a reserved and revered German obsession for precision. You know it when you feel it when driving just about any Volkswagen model.
There is an RPM dividing line between a mild-mannered Golf R and its visceral alter ego. The difference is how the driver works the accelerator. Hard on the gas, and the Golf R delivers higher-revving shift points that still stitch nicely on the way up to sixth gear. With peak torque at 1,900 rpm, there is ever-ready passing power at 65 to 75 mph. The muscular exhaust note lets drivers know when they are in the sweet spot. It’s a good sound, though electronically generated.
Volkswagen prices the Golf R as one well-equipped version. Other than accessories for roof rack systems, seat covers, and heavy-duty floor mats, the only factory choices are for colors — Lapiz Blue, Deep Black Pearl, or Pure White — and the manual or automatic transmission.
Pricing for the 2023 Golf R with the six-speed manual is $45,385 or $46,185 for the seven-speed DSG. Pricing for 2023 is up just $200 from 2022 and includes the $1,095 freight charge from Wolfsburg, Germany.
Significant Golf R standard equipment includes: KESSY keyless access with push-button start; panoramic power tilt and slide sunroof; Nappa leather sport seats; a 12-way power driver’s seat with three-position memory; heated and ventilated front seats; Volkswagen Car-Net with Wi-Fi (requiring a data-plan subscription); a nine-speaker, 480-watt Harman/Kardon audio system with a 12-channel amplifier and subwoofer; and a head-up display, which is digitally projected onto the windshield.
For comparison, the front-wheel-drive Golf GTI uses a detuned version of the turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder for 241 horsepower. And like the Golf R, there are choices for a six-speed manual transmission or optional seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. Pricing for 2023 starts at about $30,180, and a 40th Anniversary Edition will arrive later.
Find current Volkswagen pricing and offers here.
A limited production Golf R 20th Anniversary Edition will go on sale this fall in tribute to 20 years of high-performance all-wheel-drive Golf models. The legacy began with the release of the Golf R32 (with a 3.2-liter V-6 engine). It debuted in Germany in 2002 and 2004 in the U.S.
The anniversary model is just $650 more than the standard Golf R, and is available with a manual or DSG transmission. Special features include 20th anniversary badging, blue “R” logos inside and out, carbon fiber interior accents, puddle lights at the side mirrors project a “20R” graphic, and gloss black 19-inch wheels. Around 1,800-anniversary models will be sent to the U.S. from Wolfsburg, Germany.
Dynamic Chassis Control. For particularly agile and accurate handling, the electronic DCC system can deliver individual wheel damping 200 times a second.
Ventilated disc brakes: 14.1-inch rotors at the front and 12.2-inch rotors at the rear. The two-piston, floating front calipers are cross-drilled and supported with aluminum hats for a 1.3-pound weight reduction. An electromechanical brake servo helps to sharpen pedal response and shortened braking distances in testing.
Driving Mode Selection. There are six pre-programmed modes of “Comfort,” “Sport,” “Race,” “Drift,” “Special,” and “Custom.” Each mode has a different steering heft and throttle response. Custom mode sets driver preferences for steering and throttle to their liking. The sportier modes have more aggressive shifts on cars with the DSG transmission.
“Drift” mode. In track-only drift mode, the torque vectoring system kicks off the drift by sending all available rear torque to the outside wheel. As a public safety incentive, the infotainment system displays a confirmation prompt that Drift mode will be used only on private roads.
Wheels and tires. 19-inch alloy wheels with Hankook Ventus S1evo-3 ultra-high performance summer tires, 235/35. The Hankooks have a very sticky treadwear rating of 340. These tires have no treadwear warranty; enjoy them but expect maybe 15,000 miles before it’s time to re-tire.
4Motion All-Wheel-Drive. Evolutionary improvements to Volkswagen’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive system allow drive power to be transferred between the front and rear axles and the two rear wheels. The system activates before wheelspin occurs. The rear differential with two multi-plate clutches can distribute up to 100 percent of the rear torque to an individual rear wheel. In cornering, more power can be directed in milliseconds to the outside wheel, which tightens cornering and improves stability.
Other Golf R elements include:
- R-specific multifunction sport steering wheel wrapped in leather with perforated inserts and a flat bottom, or “D” shape;
- Golf R grille, bumpers, side skirts;
- 2-piece rear spoiler;
- Chrome-tipped quad exhaust;
- Blue painted front brake calipers with R logo, and blue painted rear brake calipers;
- Stainless steel pedal caps and footrest.
R is for Speed
The aerodynamicists and designers at Volkswagen worked to shape the Golf R in the wind tunnel. Each body panel was designed for unrestricted airflow, from its aero-optimized side mirrors and refined wheel-arch linings to its underbody paneling. Volkswagen says the Golf R displays an optimal combination of confident yet mature performance.
Subtle design elements separate the new Golf R from the Golf GTI. An accent line in “R” blue stretches across the grille, continuing through each headlamp and eventually merging with the fenders on the side of the vehicle. An illuminated crossbar underneath gives the Golf R an unmistakable light signature. It’s a badass image at night.
Car and Driver clocked 0-to-60 acceleration in a Golf R with DSG in 3.9 seconds. But more real-world is the strong pull from 30 to 50 mph and again at 65 and beyond.
Volkswagen considers the Golf R is an altogether different breed of Golf. In addition to being the performance benchmark of the Volkswagen lineup, the current Golf R is the most powerful production Golf ever.
In Golf R specification, the 2.0-liter EA888 evo4 engine produces 315 horsepower (using premium fuel) at 5,600 rpm. Peak torque ratings vary between manual and automatic. DSG models have 295 foot-pounds of torque at 2,000 rpm, and manual-equipped models produce 280 lb.-ft. of torque at 1,900 rpm.
The seven-speed DSG automatic transmission gearbox will stay in manual mode when in “Special” or “Drift” driving mode. And there is launch control.
Fuel economy ratings are based on fun per mile: 20 mpg city, 28 highway, and 23 mpg combined for the manual, and 23/30/26 for the DSG. Premium fuel is recommended. With the manual transmission, I quickly worked up to 30.6 mpg on the highway in Sport mode while enjoying every high-rev shift point around town.
VW engineering adds subtle refinement to how predictably the Golf R handles under pressure. Around town, the performance is school-carpool comfortable. But get down on the accelerator, and the demeanor shrugs off the lambskin for stick-and-stab wailing. Damn, that’s fun.
It is pure pleasure to feel the suspension make transitions in cornering and how the shift points knit under pressure. But upshifts between second and third can be notchy when in a rush. And the height difference between the brake and accelerator was not comfortable for me to make heel-toe shifts. However, the hill-holding clutch is will be of far more use to most enthusiasts.
Road harshness and noise are noticeable at speed, but that’s the nature of any high-performance car.
It is a handsome cabin with the black microsuede headliner and two-tone black and blue upholstery. The quality of materials reinforces the steep MSRP, and the quality of plastics is consistent from front to rear, top to bottom.
Were it not for the confounding 10-inch infotainment touchscreen, I’d give an A-grade for driver-area design. I’ve fumbled my way to a level of comfortable control on dozens of these digital systems. Still, it’s more of a process for the VW to switch from audio selections to
navigation and climate control. It takes just a swipe to move between settings. There are just a few physical buttons, including a slider for volume control. Changing fan speed requires a two-touch method to bring up the screen, either on the display screen or on a separate button just below the screen. Finding settings for temp or fan speed requires a couple of taps or swipes, which take eyes from the road.
Sightlines are open across the hood and fenders and slightly compromised over the shoulder at the wrap of the rear roof pillar.
The 12-way power driver seat has good thigh support with just modest side and bottom bolsters. The fit is secure in aggressive handling but without the scrunch on entry and exit.
Technically a midsize car, the Golf R has plenty of cabin width (almost 56 inches door to door) for comfortable shoulder and elbow room. But headroom of 38.5 inches with the pano sunroof might be a consideration for tall drivers.
Legroom of 35 inches in the back seat will be acceptable for the carpool. But the cargo space transforms the Golf R from weekend warrior to weekend workhorse.
Fold the 60/40 split rear seatback for an almost flat cargo area of 34.5 cubic feet. But the big Harmon Kardon subwoofer in the cargo underfloor cancels the ability to drop the floor by a few inches.
The Golf R is an impressive collection of engineering. The body has much high-strength steel and solidity, adding to a sense of security and control.
All-wheel drive makes the Golf R feel heavier than its front-drive competitors. But the added lift of 315 horsepower lightens the effect. The turning circle of 39.3 feet is relatively wide, but such is the cost of high-performance greatness with AWD, a wheelbase of 103.5 inches, and 19-inch tires.
Like its German driving DNA, Golf performance is not trigger-happy but balanced and determined.
Body style: midsize, 5-seat, 5-door, AWD sport hatchback
Engine: 315-hp, turbocharged and intercooled, 16-valve 2.0-liter 4-cylinder; 280 lb.-ft. torque at 1,900 rpm (or 290 lb.-ft. at 2,000 rpm with automatic transmission
Transmission: 6-speed manual (optional seven-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic)
Fuel economy: 20/28/23 mpg city/hwy/combined (23/30/26 mpg automatic; premium fuel recommended
0-60 mph acceleration: 3.9 seconds per Car and Driver for the DSG model
BY THE NUMBERS
Fuel tank: 14.5 gallons
Cargo space: 19.9 to 34.5 cubic feet
Front head/leg room: 38.5/41.2 inches
Rear head/leg room: 38.1/35 inches
Length/wheelbase: 168.9/103.5 inches
Curb weight: 3,404 pounds (3,481 automatic)
Turning circle: 39.3 feet
Exterior standard equipment includes: power tilt-slide panoramic sunroof; 19-inch alloy wheels with summer performance tires; automatic LED headlights-taillights-running lights; fog lights; integrated light bar in grille; side mirror puddle lights; illuminated door handle recesses; power (folding) side mirrors; rear window wiper and washer.
Golf R specific features: Golf R grille, side skirts, and trim, two-piece rear spoiler, chrome-tipped quad exhaust, blue-painted front brake calipers with R logo, blue-painted rear calipers
Interior standard equipment includes: Nappa-leather trimmed upholstery with blue accents and Golf R logo, leather-wrapped Golf R sport steering wheel with touch controls, Golf R interior with black microsuede headliner, heated steering wheel, heated and ventilated front sport seats, power driver’s seat, manually adjusted front passenger seat with power recline, rearview camera with guidance lines, USB data and charging ports, 3-zone automatic climate control with advanced air filter, rear seat climate control panel, adjustable back seat air vents, 60/40 split-folding back seat with ski pass-through, heated rear seats, lighted cargo area with an adjustable floor, multicolor ambient lighting, stainless-steel pedal covers and footrest, carpeted floor mats front and rear.
Technology and Convenience features: Volkswagen Digital Cockpit with 10.25-inch configurable display, adaptive cruise control, head-up display, dynamic road sign recognition, keyless access with push-button ignition, Discover Pro 10-inch touchscreen navigation and audio controls, Harmon Kardon audio system with center speaker and subwoofer, App-Connect smartphone integration via wireless and USB, Bluetooth phone and audio, wireless charging, electric parking brake.
Safety features include: 6 air bags, anti-slip regulation, engine-brake assist, hydraulic brake assist and brake-force distribution, stability and traction controls, automatic post-crash braking, park assist and park distance control front and rear, hill-hold control, high-beam control, Travel Assist semi-autonomous driving assist, lane assist lane keeping, forward collision warning, autonomous emergency braking, blind-spot monitor, rear traffic alert.
Golf R manual base price: $45,185, including $1,095 freight charge
Options on test vehicle: none
Where assembled: Wolfsburg, Germany
Warranty: 4-years/50,000-miles; 3-years/36,000-miles roadside assistance, 2-years/20,000-miles free scheduled maintenance