2019 Volkswagen Golf R Review: Hot Hatch Or Sleeper Agent?
It's been five years since Volkswagen began importing the current-generation Golf R, and in that time the landscape for high performance hatchbacks has changed considerably. With new contenders like the Honda Civic Type R and the Hyundai Veloster N making their debut, and the too-short-a-season Ford Focus RS withdrawing from battle, the R's shock-and-awe turbo power and practical all-wheel drive have been attenuated by a fresh set of expectations from fans and frenemies alike.
Everyone assumes, of course, that the current Volkswagen Golf R was intended as the ultimate expression of VW's long-standing hot hatch formula. But what if the actual plan wasn't to court the 'schnell und wütend' crowd at all? What if, instead, Volkswagen's intentions were to play the long game by creating a compact Q-ship, an executive car experience in hatchback form that defied the expectations of what was possible at the peak of the entry-level?
A re-evaluation of the Golf R's place in the world seems in order, and after spending a considerable amount of time behind the wheel of a 2019 model (which will be the last sold in America until the next-generation Golf arrives two years hence), I've come to a startling realization that VW may have accidentally-on-purpose introduced an entirely new class of automobile.
Similar, But Different
Before you write me off, hear me out. The Volkswagen Golf R, despite its performance credentials, has long been lauded for its refinement rather than any raucous character. Indeed, tap any auto scribe or owner for their opinion on the R and you'll find no end to flowery descriptions of how easy it is to drive on a daily basis. In many ways, it's a performance car that lives between track days, rather than 'for' track days.
There are several engineering decisions that have helped to shape the Golf R's personality in this mold. The first is the availability of its DSG transmission, a self-shifting, dual-clutch manual that is absent from each of the barn-burners mentioned above. Next up is all-wheel drive, an urgency-muting addition that, unlike the system offered in the aging Subaru WRX STI (not a hatch, but still cross-shopped in this crowd) is more about smoothing out power delivery than delivering showy snow-slides.
Finally, there's the car's weight. Hovering at just over 3,300 lbs, it's like the Golf R is carrying a respectably large adult passenger at all times when compared against the Civic Type R (and you can add an 8th grader in the back when lining up against the Veloster N). It's an extra load that's easily dispatched by the Volkswagen's turbocharged engine in a straight line, but which makes itself much more apparent when approaching a corner.
Bright Yellow Mile-Eater
Having previously flogged the Volkswagen Golf R along mountainous two-lane roads and the occasional closed course, this time my experience with the car would tackles a different sort of adventure: that of the extended road trip. Typically, logging hour after hour behind the wheel of an econo-based pocket rocket would reveals far more weaknesses in the vehicle's formula than strengths, but as time went on in the Golf R the exact opposite began to manifest.
I began to appreciate the confident, yet still pleasingly soft stylings of the VW's adaptive suspension system when set to 'Comfort,' which presented a welcome contrast from the more jarring 'Race' mode. Then there was the power delivery. Although I am not a fan of the DSG setup in spirited driving (I prefer the engagement of the Golf R's available six-speed manual gearbox) on the highway it was the perfect foil for the 2.0-liter four-cylinder's 280 turbocharged horsepower.
Passing on the highway was as easy as rolling my ankle and letting the car's computer brain pick the right ratio for optimizing the boost required for my maneuver. In a city environment, a shift to 'Race' was required in order to sharpen shifts to the point where I could reliably surge ahead of traffic (there's no 'Sport' mode in between the two, only the puzzlingly-named 'Normal'), a decision that was paired with unfortunate balkiness on the part of an engine-and-gearbox primed to pounce.
Its Own Standard
It was during perhaps the second hour of my trip in the Golf R that I began to realize just how different Volkswagen's approach to its apex hatch truly was. As compared to the 'dare you to try' attitudes espoused by Honda, Hyundai, and Ford's entries, the Golf R's comportment was far more luxury than loud (no tailpipe crackles here), and definitely smoother than any of its rivals could claim to be when faced with open asphalt.
Further strengthening this impression was the difference between the R and its more affordable sibling in a similar environment. Having recently munched a similar number of miles while piloting the 2019 Volkswagen Golf GTI, I can attest to the all-wheel drive car's much more civilized manners at speed over distance. Although the GTI is certainly a compelling package on its own, it's harder edges aren't nearly as well-rounded as those of the Golf R.
Far more than merely a mightier GTI, the R has transcended its roots to become something else entirely—and it walks a line that no other hatch near its price point has come close to approaching. It's clear to me that Volkswagen's intention with the Golf R wasn't to woo the autocross crowd or take FTD at the local road course, but rather refine the hatchback experience to a level of comfort and performance that places it on par with premium fare punching well above its weight.
Stealth luxury hasn't always been a winner for Volkswagen—witness the failure of the Phaeton—but the Golf R is truly a singular beacon for anyone who wants the power and performance of a class-above car, but who isn't willing to pay all that much extra for the prestige of the badge on the hood. This is the sleeper highway star you've been waiting for, and thanks to VW's final-year Spektrum custom paint program, you can probably even get it in Deep Purple.
Want to get to know one of the VW Golf R's newest competitors? Check out our review of the 2019 Hyundai Veloster N.