2023 Volkswagen Golf R Review - Running Riot

BY Sean Loo

The Volkswagen Golf R is about as sensible an all-rounder as a 316bhp hot hatch can be, and that’s why it’s absolutely awesome.

Some cars are just meant to get you from point A to B, but a truly exceptional car is the one that makes you want to hit the road again as soon as you arrive. Enter the Volkswagen Golf R – a beast propelled by a 315-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four engine, distributing its spectacular urgency to all four wheels.

This isn't just your run-of-the-mill powerhouse. In the bustling landscape of today's car market, the Volkswagen Golf R emerges as the undisputed everyday hot hatch icon. Its winning formula of value for your monthly investment combined with extreme real-world performance creates an unstoppable force on the asphalt.

Remember the outgoing Mk 7 king? When it first debuted, it was a smash hit, the first 4x4 Golf that brought finesse and balance to the table, not just raw horsepower. Suddenly, Audi's lacklustre S3 and AMG's A45 had serious competition. Purists were over the moon, and forums erupted with applause.

Expect this one to go even quicker than the brochure claims. And that's precisely what makes it an absolute riot.

Shock and awe

This particular Volkswagen Golf R has been kitted with the Performance Pack. So what do you get with more money parted? It's not just about flashy wings and wheels; it's about code. Code that transforms the car, making it even more playful in the corners.

Stab the throttle on the apex, and you can feel the car pivot beautifully, power surging to the rear axle. This boost punches the car forward, helping it rotate as torque is expertly juggled from side to side. No need for traction control meddling with the brakes; it's pure, unadulterated fun.

Once the worst has been dealt with, the electronic front diff takes charge, leading the car out of the corner with immense grip.

And this is thanks to VW's latest microchip mothership – the VDM, or Vehicle Dynamics Manager. It might sound like the title of a questionable strategy game, but in reality, it's the wizard behind the curtain. It listens to steering angle, roll rate, stability control, changing G-forces, and power distribution, harmonizing every system.

The result? A distinct lack of torque-steer, no wheelspin, and a car that elegantly handles every bump and turn. It feels agile, and less lethargic than its predecessor when pushed to the limit. The steering is fast and perfectly weighted. Opt for the adaptive suspension, and you've got a hot hatch that conquers all weather and surfaces.

Some might yearn for a sharper or flashier character. If that's you, consider the AMG A35 or, if badge snobbery isn’t a concern, the Hyundai i30N or Renault Megane RS. But here's the magic of the Golf R – it's one of the only hot hatches that you can drive in total oblivion to its 300bhp+ flagship status. That's its superpower.

And that 2.0-litre turbo unit is still a gem, picking up power robustly. It's essentially the same four-cylinder you got in the last R, and it never suffered from turbo narcolepsy.

Should you want to save fuel, the Golf’s coasting function (saving fuel by decoupling the engine) only works in Comfort mode. But the car defaults to Sport anyway, so don't expect significant fuel savings unless you actively seek them. And why would you want to save fuel, when you could rock up to a petrol station guns blazing and exhaust popping?

But, if you must know, I yielded an average of 6.8km/litre during my media test, and I would still trade fuel for that beautiful melody coming out of the Akrapovič exhaust any day of the week.

Shifts are crisp, upshifts are showstoppers, and the downchange blips are music to your ears. It's a performer on the roads, stealing the spotlight wherever it goes.

Discreet on the streets

It still looks quintessentially Golf, which is a good thing. It’s fair to say that the pressure is on them for this new iteration, taking the latest Mk8 Golf as a base to reinvent the R without messing too much with the proven recipe.

But I believe they’ve managed to do it up nicely. It looks aggressive enough to intimidate other road users, without looking too out of place that it attracts unwanted attention. The carbon fibre bits are spotted around the car in sufficient amounts, and this Performance pack variant adds 19-inch shoes that really complete the overall facade.

This is the car that most delinquents driving “uptuned and modified Golfs” aspire to look like. Except that with this, the R badge is genuine.

I’m blue da ba dee

Hope you like the colour blue. It's on the steering wheel, in the ambient lighting, and generously splattered across seats. Sure, they might look more retro, but they're grippy and more supportive than the old R's chairs. The driving position? Spot on.

Swing open the back doors, and you'll find that rear legroom remains ample; those sports seats do not hinder rear legroom all too much unlike some other hot hatchbacks, so you can still ferry around a couple of friends without much complaint.

Apart from the XXL paddles on the perforated leather wheel and a few R logos on the twin 10-inch screens, it's the regular Mk8 Golf inside. That translates to vast expanses of glossy black plastic, touch-sensitive controls that don't light up at night, and steering wheel controls with haptic feedback that leaves much to be desired. Having a heated steering wheel is fantastic; accidentally switching it on every time you turn left, not so much.

There's a wireless charging mat under a clever anti-distraction cover. Your device can connect to Apple CarPlay and Android Auto without messy cables, and the cover prevents your phone from going on a wild ride during spirited cornering.

As with the regular Golf, you get plenty of storage throughout the cabin, thoughtful carpeting inside the door bins, and build quality that feels like it could outlast a Norman cathedral. The materials might not be as mature as BMW's 1 Series cabin, but they're a far cry from the tinny feel of an A-Class.

And while four-wheel drive does eat into potential under-boot stowage, the 374-litre cargo bay is perfectly adequate for a car this size. So much power, and not much sacrifice in terms of space; I call that a win.

This one’s the real deal

Volkswagen knows a thing or two about building hot hatchbacks, and the Golf R is a testament to that knowledge.

In the grand tradition of Volkswagen's R division, the new Golf R is a stellar evolution over the Mk7. It's one of the very best all-rounders out there. Sure, there are gripes, but they're more about the regular Golf than the 'R' bits.

Those haptic steering wheel buttons might still be horrid, but at least one of them is now a shortcut to the driving mode menu, defaulting to Defcon 'R.'

And you'll be pressing it often because this is one seriously sorted piece of machinery – quick, rewarding, practical, and beautifully rounded. It's a car for all seasons, all surfaces, and all people, a symphony of power, playfulness, and everyday prowess.

Technical Specifications

2023 Volkswagen Golf R

Engine: 1,984cc in-line 4
Drivetrain: All-Wheel Drive
Power: 315 bhp
Torque: 420 Nm
Gearbox: 7-speed DSG
0-100km/h: 4.7 seconds (claimed)
Top Speed: 270 km/h
Fuel Economy: 8.4 km/L (claimed)
Price: S$328,900 (Regular), S$348,900 (Performance Pack) with COE (accurate at the time of this article)
Contact: Volkswagen Singapore

Photo Credits: Sean Loo (@auto.driven)