I’ve had a pretty good summer with compact Volkswagens. Over Memorial Day Weekend, I drove a base Golf from Indianapolis to Illinois, back to Indy, to Northern Indiana, and back again. Then, in July, I drove the GTI and took the 2019 Jetta on a round-trip jaunt from Indianapolis to Pennsylvania and back. Now, I’m off to Lexington, Kentucky in a Golf R. Let’s see how it stands up.
Distinguished Sporty R-style
While the body shell is shared with other Golfs, it’s distinguished with sportier R-specific grille, front facia, lower body sills, rear spoiler, and quad exhausts. Adaptive LED headlamps bring the sun to dark roadways. Check the custom 19-inch alloy wheels and low profile tires. The body is surprisingly sleek and sculpted for a wedgy box and enables a roomy cabin. It’s a car for adults -- looks purposeful, but skips big wings and wide splitters. Open the hatch, flip down the rear seats, and throw in your gear.
Up in the front seats, passengers enjoy deeply sculpted heated leather seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, and crisp Fender audio system. The 8-inch touchscreen-based interface is so easy to use by touch, swipe, voice, or proper volume and tuning knobs. VW’s Digital Cockpit puts a reconfigurable flatscreen in the instrument binnacle. iThings connect with USBs and Bluetooth.
As with the other compact VWs, I find driving the Golf R very easy. The cabin seems basic at first, but controls and information are easy to access. It’s a car focused on the business of getting down the road expeditiously. Put your hands on the wheel and drive. Enhancing safety are blind-spot warning, lane keep assist, adaptive cruise control, forward collision mitigation, and rearview camera.
Torquey Turbo Power
Base Golfs come with a 170 horsepower 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and the GTI hammers highways with a 2.0-liter turbo-four generating 220 horsepower. The Golf R goes further with a 2.0-liter turbo-four that delivers 292 horsepower and 280 lb.-ft. of torque. It’s best exercised with the six-speed manual transmission and light clutch. Fuel economy is rated 21/29-MPG city/highway.
It’s a little light in the engine compartment compared to the Ford Focus RS or Subaru WRX STi, but it’s still plenty potent in the compact Golf, especially given all of the power is put down with 4Motion all-wheel-drive. Rev it up when hitting the on-ramp and it will set you in your seat. Shift down and step down at Autobahn speeds, and there’s still plenty left. Rolling through Kentucky hills brought miles of smiles as the torquey engine stepped away enthusiastically. Complementing the engine are drive modes that adjust the suspension compliance, throttle sensitivity, and steering heft through a range of Comfort, Normal, Race, and Custom settings.
I’m a little conflicted over the Golf R because the base Golf and GTI are so good for less money. But, there’s no denying the joy in revving the more powerful engine and flipping it through corners as all-wheel-drive claws its way around. It does whatever you want whenever you want it. Any of these cars are accomplished long-distance instruments of travel, but I took a cue from the young guy at the valet stand. As he handed me the keys he said, “Nice car – glad you want all out for the R.” I definitely agree.
2018 VW Golf R
- Five-passenger, awd compact
- Powertrain: 292hp 2.0-liter T4, 6-spd man trans
- Suspension f/r: elect Ind/Ind
- Wheels f/r: 19”/19” alloy
- Brakes f/r: disc/disc
- Must-have features: Style, Powertrain
- 0-60 mph: Under 5s
- Fuel economy: 21/29 mpg city/hwy
- Assembly: Wolfsburg, Germany
- Base/As-tested price: $40,635