When it comes to cars, I’m a pretty simple guy. I want a car that is a thrill to drive, but also has room for family and friends. Luggage space is required because I like driving long distances. And, in that vein, a kickin’ audio system, heated seats, navigation, and all of that are appreciated. I tend to like four-door hatchbacks with turbocharged engines. I could buy a Volkswagen GTI, and it’s a great car, but the aficionado in me yearns for the Golf R as the ultimate hot hatch.
Specific R Styling
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.
Fortified Turbo Power
The GTI hammers highways with a 2.0-liter turbo-four generating 220 horsepower, but the Golf R goes further with a 2.0-liter turbo-four that delivers 288 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.
The R is a little light in the engine compartment compared to other hot hatches, but it’s still plenty potent 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 and step down at Autobahn speeds, and there’s still plenty left. Rolling through miles of corn fields and hilly two-lanes brought miles of smiles as the torquey engine stepped away enthusiastically. Rip down long Interstates as if slaying a path through the Black Forest. 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.
If there’s a downside to this fly ride, it’s price. The Golf R starts at $40,395, rising to $41,525 as tested. That’s over $10k more than a regular GTI, but that car comes without AWD and the satisfaction of knowing you own an even more special Volkswagen. Competitors include the Audi A3, Honda Civic Si, and Subaru WRX STi – not to mention Camaros and Mustangs with turbocharged four-cylinder engines.
The Golf R is a fantastic drive, but what if your budget is not so robust? Check out a more basic Golf.
The 2019 Volkswagen Golf SE (Doug Jaggers/WFYI)
2019 VW Golf SE Redefines Basic
In the old days, a basic compact car would feature hubcaps, a vinyl bench seat, and if you were lucky, an AM radio. Forget air-conditioning. But those days are distant memories as today’s basic cars usually come with power windows, A/C, alloy wheels, and bucket seats as standard.
Buy a 2019 Volkswagen Golf SE and you’ll get much more than that. To be completely truthful, our Golf is a slightly upscale edition that comes with the standard engine and leatherette seats, but punches above its status as a compact hatchback in driving refinement and interior comforts.
It Looks Like A Golf
I could just call it a Golf and skip the exterior analysis, but that would serve a handsome car short thrift. The Golf’s iconic two- box shape remains, but sleeker lines keep it current. LED running lights and taillights plus 17-inch wheels – a step up from standard 16-inch alloys – add a sense of sportiness. And, nobody creases sheetmetal like Volkswagen. Every line is precisely formed. The rear looks Euro handsome, but the dual exhaust outlets are fake.
Slide inside and slam the tomb-solid doors for a feeling of security not experienced since mom displaced you from her womb. Fwomp! Only the steering wheel is leather-wrapped, but heated leatherette seats are firmly bolstered and all-day supportive in the German tradition. There’s no navigation or Fender audio, but the 6-speaker system with Bluetooth and USB inputs sounds fine. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto allow you to connect devices, making access to your map app super simple.
Manual climate controls conjure an arctic wind in summer and Sahara heat in winter. Got gear? Flip down the seats and throw it through the wide hatch. Open the power sunroof and enjoy. And, what about safety? No car in the old basic era would have come with a full suite of tech that includes adaptive cruise, forward collision warning with auto brake, lane keep assist, and blind spot warning. There’s also a rear view camera, rain-sensing wipers, and rear traffic alert. Times have changed.
Effortless Highway Cruising
I’d have no complaints about the standard 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, which routes 147 horsepower and 184 lb.-ft. of torque to the front wheels through an eight-speed automatic transmission, if I didn’t know better. It’s smooth, peppy, and achieves 29/37-MPG city/highway. I know better because I enjoyed last year’s 1.8-liter four-cylinder with 170 horsepower, which is considerably better – especially when matched with the manual transmission. The current model will cruise effortlessly at highway speeds, but the old engine craved fast left lanes. Taken in balance, the latest edition ticks up the MPGs a few points.
Fortunately, nobody saw a need to dumb down the chassis. The four-wheel independent suspension system is firm in corners, but glides over rough pavement like a much larger and more expensive car. It seemingly streams the road to your nervous system, engaging your inner driver like not other practical commuter car. Out on the highway, it soaks up wide expanses of asphalt like a champ. Steering is light, but direct. I could drive it cross-country with little complaint.
So, what’s the downside to this somewhat basic VW? It’s time for a redesign, which is coming during 2020. Interior materials look upscale, but are mostly rubber and hard plastic (especially the rear doors). And, then there’s the price. The Golf starts at $21,845, but came to $27,435 as-tested. That’s a tad dear, but for all it offers, seems fair against competitors like the Mazda3, Subaru Impreza, Honda Civic, and Toyota Corolla hatches.
2019 VW Golf R
- Five-passenger, awd compact
- Powertrain: 288hp 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: $40,395/41,525
2019 VW Golf SE
- Five-passenger, fwd crossover
- Powertrain: 147hp 1.4-liter T4, 8-spd auto trans
- Suspension f/r: Ind/Ind
- Wheels f/r: 17”/17” alloy
- Brakes f/r: disc/disc
- Must-have features: Comfort, Ride
- Fuel economy: 29/37 mpg city/hwy
- Assembly: Puebla, Mexico
- Base/As-tested price: $21,845/$27,435