From its earliest days, the automobile has been a status symbol, where badge has mattered often as much as engineering. There’s a human tendency to pigeonhole, and we infer much about a person simply by knowing what they drive. Occasionally though, something comes along that transcends this class structure: the original Mini, which appealed to the smart set in 1960s Europe, for instance; or the Ford F-150, used as often to commute to an office as to a construction site. The Volkswagen Golf definitely falls into that category.
When it was first launched in Europe in 1974, the Mk1 Golf was utilitarian, a people’s car to replace the Beetle. But the secret of a classless car is that it’s anything but. Peter Sellers might have driven a Mini at the height of stardom, but his was lavishly trimmed by the coachbuilder Radford. Suburban dads can spend as much on a leather-lined F-150 as they could on a big BMW the way their forebears did in the ’90s. And the Golf broke out of being a mere people’s car when it added the GTI to the lineup. VW didn’t invent the hot hatch, but it did execute it probably better than anyone else. The company certainly advertised it better, and the car was as popular with yuppies as it was with middle-class moms.
Take a GTI and turn it up to 11
More recently, VW decided it couldsell even more Golfsif it added a variant above the giant-killing GTI—enter the Golf R. If the idea behind a GTI was to take a front-wheel-drive hatchback and give it more power and better suspension, the R takes it a bit further. Now there’s an even more powerful engine—a 2.0L turbocharged direct-injection four-cylinder with 288hp (215kW) and 280lb-ft (380Nm). To achieve this with VW’s ubiquitous EA888 engine, the R engineers gave it a new cylinder head (plus valves and springs), a new turbocharger, new pistons, and a new injection system.
Since 280hp is a lot to put through just the front wheels, Golf Rs also get all-wheel drive. Up to 50% of the engine’s torque can be sent to the rear wheels, although at low load, a clutch decouples the rear axle for better efficiency. There is a choice of transmissions, which also governs the base price of the Golf R. For $40,395, the car comes with a six-speed manual. The alternative is a seven-speed DSG dual-clutch transmission, which adds $1,100 to the price.
The suspension is also a step further on from the GTI, with different front control arms and a ride height that’s another 0.2 inches (5mm) lower to the ground. Every 2019 Golf R also gets Dynamic Chassis Control as standard. This electronic brain monitors wheel displacement sensors, accelerometers, and other sensors within the car to control each wheel’s damper independently, both for compression and rebound. The Golf R gives you a number of different settings—Comfort, Normal, Eco, Race, and Individual.
As well as the dampers, these also change the throttle mapping, the steering feel, climate control, adaptive cruise control behavior, and shift points for the DSG gearbox (if fitted). Comfort is the softest setting, and if you put the car in Race you get the stiffest ride, fastest shifts, and the most direct map for the accelerator pedal. The car also sounds best in Race, thanks to what VW calls the Soundaktor. I’ll be controversial and say I’m fine with the noise it makes, but then I liked the sound of the BMW i8, too, so many of you may think my tastes suspect.
Warning: Hot takes incoming
I’m going to be even more controversial now—although our test Golf R came with three pedals and six gears, I reckon I’d prefer it with flappy paddles and only two pedals. I don’t know that this isentirelydown to me being lazy or more to do with the smoothness (or lack thereof) of shifts at low speed. Perhaps it’s just a case of needing to become intimately familiar with the bite point of the clutch, which would come with time. But for stop-and-go traffic, DSG is definitely the way to go.
Now that those heretical opinions are out the way, I have to praise the Golf R for the way it handles. Near where I live, there’s an onramp onto I-395 that has about 30 feet of undulating, corrugated tarmac that has become a pretty reliable test of a car’s chassis. The Golf R handled it with aplomb, soaking up the bumps and remaining on course as I accelerated over them. I’m not sure if it understeers or oversteers at the limit because the level of grip was immense and such explorations would require the safety of a racetrack or autocross course before proceeding.
The car is more than fast enough for the street, although if you want to be confident of hitting 60mph in under five seconds after leaving a tollbooth, you’ll definitely want the DSG version. What really impressed me was how it managed to be so fuel-efficient at the same time. The manual version is rated at 24mpg combined (21mpg in the city, 29mpg on the highway); I’d have been thrilled to get those numbers with my old Saab 9-2x, which also had a 2.0L turbocharged four-pot—albeit with much less power—and all-wheel drive. The DSG car does even better at 26mpg combined (23mpg city, 30mpg highway). It’s certainly better on gas than its closest hot-hatch rivals, theFord Focus RSandHonda Civic Type-R.
However, there are a few things I’m not completely mad about when it comes to the Golf R. I’m not actually a huge fan of the car’s styling—the Golf Mk7 has never really pushed my buttons the way a big-bumper Mk2 GTI does, or even a Mk4, particularly when it’s the five-door version. And I could take or leave the interior styling. The ergonomics are fine, and the seats are comfortable and supportive. But the black plastic trim shows every single fingerprint, and in places, you can’t escape the Golf’s humble origins.
That said, it’s still an extremely practical car—it is a Golf, after all. It has a better infotainment system than you’ll find in any competitor, and it comes standard with a decent complement of advanced driver-assistance systems like adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, rear cross-traffic alert, and headlights that know when to dim themselves to avoid blinding oncoming traffic.
In summary, the Golf R makes me feel an apology is warranted. A few weeks ago, when I reviewed the Audi A7, I wrote that it wasall the car anyone needed. What I actually should have said was that it was all theluxurycar anyone needs, because after driving the Golf R, I have to say this really is one car to do it all. You can fold the seats back and fill the cargo area with boxes should the need arise, then take the same car to your local autocross or track day the following weekend knowing it will cope with whatever you throw at it. And because it’s a Golf, it flies under the radar in a way that something with a luxury badge simply can’t.
Listing image by Jonathan Gitlin