VW Golf R (2016) long-term test review

Published: 08 August 2016

► The 296bhp, 4wd rung above the GTI
► Volkswagen’s uber-hatch on long-term test
► Can families live with it every day?

Month 13 running a VW Golf R: love, theft and scandal

After 17,095 miles, my long-term VW Golf R has left the car park for the final time. It’s been an eventful 13 months during which it’s been stolen, broken by a lead-footed valet parker at Heathrow and its maker’s reputation tarnished by the dieselgate scandal.

Despite all this, I can honestly say the Golf R has proved a near-perfect companion, and I never thought any less of it despite papers devoting more space to VW’s dishonesty than countries invading other countries or blowing up airplanes.

It’s averaged 29.8mpg on a diet of dual-carriageway commutes, some quickish cross-country work and very little urban bumper-to-bumper stuff. It hasn’t cost me a penny in maintenance – with a caveat on tyres – and has proved almost – almost – trouble-free.

Most importantly, I loved driving the R. The old six-cylinder, four-wheel-drive R32s used to have quite a luxurious feel, where the front-drive, four-cylinder GTIs balanced civility with a more agile, feistier temperament. The Mk7 R – now four-cylinder and all-wheel drive – just gave me everything the GTI did, plus a bit more. The engine is significantly keener – 296bhp plays 217bhp – and the Haldex all-wheel drive is now much faster-acting than the recalcitrant system I remember in my old 2006 Audi TT. If you kept your foot planted, the grip was sensational, but if you lifted the throttle mid-bend, the Golf was still keen to tuck its nose in, partly thanks to clever torque-vectoring-by-braking tech. The R estate I tried had more understeer.

Our five-door came in Lapiz Blue with 19-inch alloy wheels (plus top-spec £1765 infotainment system, reversing camera, six-speed manual gearbox and winter pack). The appeal and practicality of that spec, plus barely believable finance deals earlier in the R’s life-cycle means that combination is pretty ubiquitous on UK roads; I now have a good idea how it feels to stroll the red carpet wearing the same dress as Scarlett Johansson.

2016 VW Golf R long-term test

The R caught the eye of some unsavoury characters too: an airport valet parker broke the bolt between the lower gearbox support and subframe with just a few hundred miles on the clock. They never fessed up or even responded to complaints. Worse followed when an uninvited guest got into our house and spirited the R away early one morning. Amazingly, Twitter found it the same day in Peterborough. I was eager for its safe return, but the thought of lowlifes prowling the house at night while my family slept did take the shine off ownership. And while Lincolnshire police seemed to know whodunit, I’ve heard no news of arrests.

VW supplied new keys at great expense and hassle – locks, ignition barrel, programming etc. Usually we’d do that through a dealer, but with this being a theft and the car owned by VW UK, it needed to be done through the press office. And when the R returned, the optional adaptive dampers weren’t working and nor was the reversing camera. I lapped Rockingham race circuit soon after and thoroughly enjoyed myself, but did crave a firmer damper setting. Those few laps took a toll on the tyres; they were far from illegal, but VW fitted a new set when it returned to them to get the faulty diagnostic module replaced, which cured those electrical gremlins. Without track use, I suspect I’d still be on the original Bridgestone Potenzas, but there’s no doubt I’d have had to replace at least the fronts by now thanks to that outing.

I still think the ageing Megane RS is a sharper, more driver-focused steer, and the new Focus RS has teleported the all-wheel-drive hot hatch into another dimension. And yet the Golf R’s appeal endures. It looks far more grown up both inside and out than its rivals, offers more comfort, and is the only one to offer three- and five-door bodies, and manual and dual-clutch transmissions. It spent most of its time sitting at 70mph on dual carriageways or taking the kids to school, not tearing about, so its softer side was often very welcome. But it’ll be the late-night runs over empty B-roads that’ll stick in my mind more than anything now it’s gone. Its replacement, a Peugeot 308 GTI, has an awful lot to live up to.

Count the cost

Cost new £35,640 (including £4165 of options) 
Dealer sale price £31,197
Private sale price £29,932
Part-exchange price £28,667
Cost per mile 17p
Cost per mile including depreciation 59p.

Logbook: Volkswagen Golf R

Engine 1984cc 16v turbocharged 4-cyl, 296bhp @ 5500rpm, 280lb ft @ 1800rpm  
Transmission 6-speed manual, all-wheel drive  
Stats 5.3sec 0-62mph, 155mph, 165g/km  
Price £31,475  
As tested £35,640  
Miles this month 1072  
Total miles 17,095  
Our mpg 29.8  
Official mpg 39.8  
Fuel cost overall £2858.82  
Extra costs £150

By Ben Barry

2016 VW Golf R long-term test

Month 12 running a VW Golf R: cracking, in a bad way

The Golf’s windscreen picked up a stone chip recently. Didn’t look too bad, but it spread like a fissure on the San Andreas Fault and after two days it was a foot long.

The windscreen replacement man said he’d never changed a heated VW windscreen, but he thought chips in all VW glass cracked faster than in, say, a BMW.

‘I reckon it’s because they’re making them so thin to save weight,’ he said. With that he popped in the new screen. Two days later a passing lorry flicked up a stone…

By Ben Barry

2016 VW Golf R long-term test


Month 11 running a VW Golf R: hatch or estate?

Volkswagen now offers a Golf R estate, finally gifting headline writers the ‘open wide and say R’ gag. It costs from £33,890 – a £2k premium over a comparable five-door – and comes only with the dual-clutch transmission.

The load-lugger drives much like its small-booted brethren, but I noticed two differences: the ride – on adaptive dampers and 19s, like my long-term R, is choppier; and the R hatch’s adjustability is gone. So rather than the back end dancing through a roundabout, the front end loads up and scrubs speed.

Good car, but unless you really need that extra space, I’d go five-door.

By Ben Barry

Month 10 running a VW Golf R: long-distance legs

This month I took my fast blue Golf to see some really fast blue cars and boats. The Lakeland Motor Museum near Lake Windermere has a great exhibition of Malcolm and Donald Campbell.

You’ll doubtless know that the latter set both water- and land-speed records in 1964 but perished on Lake Coniston in Bluebird during another attempt.

The R didn’t feel quite as rapid after soaking up all those tales, but it did the 450-mile round trip as comfortably and frugally as ever, while still indulging with its playfulness and cross-country pace.

By Ben Barry

2016 VW Golf R long-term test

Month 9 running a VW Golf R: what’s it like as a family car?

Honeymoon period over and nine months in, it’s a good time to take stock of life with the Golf R. Mostly, it’s positive. I like that the VW’s grown-up looks avoid the hot-hatch chav-factor, that its five-door shell easily swallows kids and shopping, that it’s fun to drive fast and usually sticks its head over the magic 30mpg mark too; this month’s 29mpg is an exception, not the rule.

We all worried when the 2.0-litre four replaced the 3.2-litre previous-gen VR6, but I like the – artificially instigated – burbly gurgly sound, and the flexible wodge of boost. Every now and then I’ll feel like the redline cuts too early when I go for a second-gear overtake, and that third would’ve been too tall, but as an all-round solution to burning petrol, going quickly and saving cash, the uprated EA888 engine takes some beating.

I’ve really enjoyed the R’s combination of unflappable traction and adjustable agility, but I do think the Golf’s rounded polish prevents it from being quite as thrilling to drive as the – less rounded – Megane RS. Amazing that nothing has knocked the Renault off its perch after all these years, even though its about to go off-sale.

I had a go in a DSG Golf R recently. The dual-clutch gearbox works fine, but I think it’s very much a comfort option, not something that adds to the driving experience, nice though the pops after each gearchange are. One other thing I noticed too: tip-in can be quite aggressive with the auto, so I think it actually makes the R feel more front-wheel drive: pull out of a junction quickly and that snappy tip-in makes the front wheels briefly spin before torque is re-directed to the rear. I never get that sensation in the manual, which must be something to do with blending the clutch in. I’ll stick with the 40% of customers who go for the manual, thanks.

The things I don’t like about the R can be dealt with pretty quickly. I like both the support and comfort of the fabric and alcantara seats, but the seat itself is positioned too high; even now I crank at the seat adjuster to try to drop it another inch, and when it won’t, I’m still convinced there’s something stuck underneath the mechanism. It’s my biggest bugbear. If the seat did drop lower, I’d feel happier, and my hands would slot more easily into a quarter-to-three position on the steering wheel. As it is, I have the wheel at its maximum rake, and still feel more natural gripping it at ten-to-two which, as Mark Walton pointed out recently, is just wrong.

Blue instrument dials on our VW Golf R: not the easiest to read

Nit-picky stuff? The blue instrument needles (above) make it harder to spot at a glance if you’ve got full beam on, because the blue light on the dash no longer jumps out at you, and the volume control on the multi-function wheel is compromised into an awkward position by the cruise-control settings, which I very rarely use.

But mostly the R is pretty much perfect for a family type like me, where the better-to-drive Megane RS would be more of a compromise. I do wonder if the recently launched Golf R estate would prove an even better fit, a mini RS4 on a budget; I’ll be trying one soon for a back-to-back test.

By Ben Barry

2016 VW Golf R long-term test

Month 8 running a VW Golf R: what’s it like on track?

I felt like I’d been scratching at the Golf’s abilities on the road, so I booked onto a Gold Track trackday at Silverstone, and arrived full of anticipation.

Gold Trackers don’t muck about: there were several Porsche 911 GT3 RSs in attendance, a Cayman GT4, a brace of Ferrari Speciales… Naturally, I had unrealistic fantasies of overtaking them on the outside at Club, nipping up the inside at Becketts. Sadly, it wasn’t to be… a veil of fog had descended over Silverstone, and after we’d hung around until midday waiting for race control’s all-clear, Gold Track decided it wiser to cancel the event and let everyone re-book.

A handful of laps at Rockingham during a recent photo shoot helped make up for the disappointment. It was dry, I had the track to myself, perfect… except one thing: when the Golf was reprogrammed to work with new keys after being briefly pinched a short while back, it returned stuck in what feels like the middle adaptive-damper setting. It rides acceptably if firmer than I remember, and the steering has less assistance too.

Still, it was an enjoyable few laps. The Golf is quick, agile and sure-footed on track. You can feel the ESP-based torque vectoring subtly tweaking the nose into bends. The all-wheel drive is quick to act and prevents the kind of front-tyre bonfires I suffered in my last long-termer – the slightly less powerful Leon 280 Cupra – at this very circuit. It won’t drift on the power like we’ve heard a Focus RS will, but it’s happy to dance if you throw it at a fast corner fast enough.

But I do think it needs that firmest damper setting: it just felt too soft through tricky direction changes. The brakes, too, were smoking like a Filipino school kid. I’d need an upgrade to sort that, but hopefully unlocking those dampers will make it much more engaging on track.

I’ll be getting that sorted soon, after which I’m planning another track outing… 

By Ben Barry

Month 7 running a Volkswagen Golf R: traffic updates cry wolf

Two moans this month, much as I’m enjoying the R. Firstly, the sat-nav. I don’t know what it’s smoking, but it seems to imagine upcoming travel problems; I regularly travel through what it thinks is gridlock at 70mph, so I can’t trust its traffic updates.

The sat-nav in our Golf R: not its finest moment

Secondly, the metallic blue paint has a gorgeous deep lustre, but get up close and it’s spectacularly orange-peely; surrounded by exotics at Silverstone, a man actually laughed at it.

By Ben Barry

Month 6 running a Golf R: this or an Audi S3?

All sorts of hot hatches are vying for your cash, but at ballpark £30k Golf R territory, many skew the balance more towards hardcore thrills – Civic Type R, Renaultsport Megane, Astra VXR – than the more grown-up Golf. What’s keeping those rivals honest, though, is that the R manages to balance its maturity with a bit of top-button-loosening tomfoolery.

So where else do you look if you don’t want something that doesn’t scream boy racer, but promises to deliver on a good road? There’s the BMW 135i and – much pricier – Merc A45 AMG, but the R’s closest rival lives in-house. The Audi S3 starts from £30,980 as a three-door, just £100 less than the Golf. It also uses the same 2.0-litre 296bhp/280lb ft turbo engine, same Haldex all-wheel drive. You can have both with three- or five-door bodies, manual or dual-clutch gearboxes. You’d have the Audi, wouldn’t you?

This month I tried both to find out, and I reckon I’d still buy the Golf. I liked the Audi a lot, and it’s a lovely thing to live with: beautiful build, great refinement, easy performance. But I prefer the Golf’s design – to me there’s something particularly satisfying about its chunky D-pillar – and when you drive both quickly, the Golf feels more interactive; the way the ESP subtly tweaks the brakes to tuck you into a corner and combines with the fast-acting all-wheel drive really heightens its agility. There’s a nicer texture to the steering too, I reckon.

VW Golf R or Audi S3?

CAR reader and pal Phil Short disagrees though, and we should probably listen when he speaks because he used to tell rally drivers like Walter Röhrl which way to turn the steering wheel. 

‘My Audi S3 is just brilliant,’ he writes. ‘It’s an S-Tronic with Magnetic Ride and it’s a surprise to me that this model isn’t more widely appreciated. I think the Audi looks nicer inside and out, and it holds its value better. Okay, it’s mechanically identical to the excellent Golf R that another friend has, and with very little price difference, but I can’t see that the Golf is better.’

Want to pitch in with your take on these two mega hatches? Drop me a line.

By Ben Barry

Month 5 running a 2015 Volkswagen Golf R: do we miss the old R32’s V6?

How much more efficient is the R’s 2.0-litre turbo than the previous R32’s 3.2 V6? I don’t have the definitive answer, but I once ran a 3.2-litre Mk2 Audi TT, a pretty similar thing. The Audi (DSG) made 250bhp, achieved 30mpg on the combined cycle and returned 26.9mpg with me driving. The Golf makes 296bhp, claims 39.8mpg and averages 30mpg. Interesting how much closer the V6 got to the lab figures, but I prefer the lighter, punchier, more frugal four. No downsizing blues here.

By Ben Barry

In action: our VW Golf R doing its thing

Month 4 running a Golf R: it’s recovered after being stolen

Regular readers will know the Golf R was stolen last month following a house break-in. Twitter found the car, but the keys were never recovered, so we had to get locks, keys and ignition barrel changed; no easy process.

Damage? A deep scratch on the boot – possibly caused when it was hoisted onto the recovery truck? – and a kerbed alloy, both of which have now been fixed.

Still no arrests, but I’m very glad to have the Golf back; I’d nick it if I had no scruples too.

By Ben Barry

Month 3 running a VW Golf R: stolen!

The Golf R has been attracting the wrong kind of attention. I was still running it in when a valet parking service had custody of it during a family holiday. When we returned, fuzzy after a 10-hour flight, something was obviously wrong, as if the brakes were seized.

Two minutes later we were on the M25 and the whole car was shuddering at 50mph, cars whizzing past. My wife called the parking company to say, ‘hey, like, WTF?’ (she’s American), and later I emailed their complaints department; they asked for the engineer’s report.

VW discovered that the bolt connecting the lower gearbox support to the subframe was missing. They’d never seen anything like it, and could only surmise – but not prove – it was down to heavy abuse, which is hard to achieve below 3000rpm during your first 600 miles… We sent the info to the parking peeps, but they have yet to reply, despite nudges to offer their side of the story before publication (that offer remains open, by the way, if they fancy responding). 

Worse was to come for the Golf, allowing the errant valets to get away with just 200 words of my ire in this issue. On a recent Sunday I went to retrieve my keys. Not there. Weird. Not in pockets either. Weirder. Long search ensued. And, erm, the Golf wasn’t outside. I calmly thought through every scenario bar theft – surely I’d left the car in town… – then it dawned that someone had been in our house as we slept, pinched the keys, and driven away. Awful feeling.

I called the police and the VW press office (sorry ’bout that on your Sunday, folks), then hit Twitter. The police soon arrived, followed by CID, and the house was dusted for prints. Trying to explain why this is happening to two little kids without alarming them is quite tricky.

There wasn’t a lot to go on, but it was notable that the crooks had been light-footed as well as fingered: we didn’t know we’d been done over when we first got downstairs, and only the open kitchen door – usually shut to prevent wandering cats – was odd. Interesting, though, that they’d found the keys in the cutlery drawer. Plod thought this very random, CID less so. Suffice to say, literate crims, we don’t keep keys there now.

CID said they’d drive around to see if the Golf was parked somewhere. Like me, you’re probably thinking this is madness, but no: if you nick a car, lock it away and a Tracker locates it, you’re going to jail. So the crims park up and leave. If the car’s there later, they’ll return, probably switch the plates, and do whatever they do.

I got a call later that day to say cameras had captured the Golf convoying into Peterborough with a stolen Mondeo at 5.04am. Makes sense: you’d nick a car on a summer weekend after taxis stop transporting drunks, and before sunrise, so they were probably in my kitchen 4-4.30am.

In the police compound after being recovered: our VW Golf R looking sorry for itself

By this point we realised my wife’s handbag had been snatched, which contained her tablet (access to Amazon etc), cards, our house keys and our BMW keys, which was, thankfully, still outside. That’s when you realise you’ve got more on your plate than ‘just’ a stolen car: it was £200 to change the front-door lock, BMW quoted £800 to change locks and replace keys, and then all the calls. Oh, and the kids’ Recaros were still Isofix’d in the Golf. Ball. Ache.

By now my Twitter timeline had gone berserk, so thanks to all those who chipped in with retweets. I spent the day scrolling through my phone and clearing a room’s worth of stuff from the garage so we could hide our remaining car.

Then, amazingly – amazingly! – someone who’d been following the whole affair emailed me with the Golf’s location. They’d called the police, and soon after they were guarding my car. I didn’t have a spare key, so the Golf had to be hoisted on a truck and taken 40 minutes into deepest Lincolnshire. But I was unbelievably happy to know it was coming back.

It was set to be dusted for prints the next day before being released, so I went along and saw ‘my’ gorgeous Golf R sitting jewel-like among stolen motorbikes and a Subaru Forester that appeared to have been dragged through a field by a tractor, its interior littered with water bottles to hydrate the drugged-up occupants. The Golf was covered in that silvery dust to check for fingerprints, but other than a kerbed alloy, it was just as I’d parked it. Seat in the same position for 6ft 1in me, too. Tall chap, are you?

I just had to get my elimination fingerprints done – though not the wife or kids, not sure how that works… – and get the £150 release fee dealt with and the Golf could hit the road.

Because of my job, I’m incredibly lucky that I don’t face further hassle: VW’s press office has taken the car back and will change the locks and supply new keys, otherwise I’d have two cars at my address that bad people can just drive away.

At the time of writing, I’m still without the Golf R, but excited about getting it back. Arrests? Not yet…

By Ben Barry

Month 2 running a Volkswagen Golf R: run-in over, we can test it fully

With the 1000-mile marker broken, I’ve allowed myself to stretch the Golf R’s legs for the first time. And, honestly, I love it. Key is the all-wheel-drive system, a massive leap over the old Haldex set-ups that added weight and brought very little to the driving experience. This system responds much faster, adding much-needed interactivity – accelerate through a corner and you can really feel the back getting out of bed and lending a hand. But, crucially, there’s also some clever stability-control-based tuning going on, too; chuck the R into a bend and you can sense the front inside brakes being subtly applied, tucking the car into the corner. It’s not only sharper than the old R32s, but sharper than the previous-generation Mk6 Golf R too – drive that car hard and you could feel the front tyres heating up and starting to spin.

Inside the cabin of our VW Golf R

The 2.0-litre engine also helps the handling magic. Not long ago, Golf R32s had a heavyweight six-cylinder over the nose. Now the R gets a four. Okay, so you don’t get that creamy soundtrack, but the lower weight helps agility, and synthetic sound effects give the 2.0-litre turbo an almost flat-four-like thrum, which differentiates it from the same – less powerful – unit in the GTI. I like it.

For the first time, I’m convinced that this R is better than the GTI. Before, it was a choice between a GT lux feel (R32) or hot-hatch playfulness. Now, the R’s just better.

By Ben Barry

Month 1 running a VW Golf R: the introduction

Volkswagen tried to improve on its iconic Golf GTI for well over two decades, but every time it made a faster, more more luxurious hot hatch, press reception was always lukewarm. Mk2 Rallye, Mk3 VR6, all-wheel-drive R32s… all were good, none could eclipse the GTI.

Then, last year, Wolfsburg finally cracked it when CAR anointed the new Golf R our surprise hot-hatch king. Now I’ve got one to run long-term, to see if that glow endures as much on the daily grind as it does on a magazine track test.

You’ve probably seen a few Rs about, which might be surprising given the minimum £30,850 list, some £3350 more than the GTI. But it’s the Personal Contract Hire deals that were grabbing the headlines: not long ago you could pay around £6500 in total over two years and 20k miles.

A quick re-cap of the basic spec: the R sticks with the GTI’s 2.0-litre turbocharged engine, but ups the ante from a maximum of 227bhp/258lb ft on the GTI’s optional Performance Pack, to 296bhp/280lb ft. It’ll get to 62mph in 5.1sec, hit a limited 155mph yet still offers 39.8mpg/165g/km (GTI PP: 6.5sec, 153mph, 47.1mpg/139g/km). Brakes are the same 340mm front discs and sliding calipers you’ll find on a Golf GTI PP.

The key difference is the Haldex-based all-wheel-drive system. Previous Golf Rs never felt rear-biased, but here it’s obvious the system is sharper-witted. The propshaft, rear diff and driveshafts are also the reason why the Golf R weighs 125kg more than the fwd GTI, and sacrifices 37 litres of luggage space.

I didn’t spec this car, but I’d have gone for something similar if I did. ‘My’ car is a gorgeous Lapiz Blue (a £540 option) five-door (a £655 premium over the three-door), and sticks with the manual transmission (almost 60% of owners spec the dual-clutch DSG, which drops the 62mph dash below 5sec). I’ve also got the 19-inch alloys (a £896 upgrade over the 18s) combined with the adaptive chassis (£815) – I haven’t tried an R on passive dampers, but having slimmer-sidewalled 19s probably means the smoother-riding suspension is a good idea. Counterpoints from owners are always fascinating, so get in touch.

Inside, I’ve got the stock fabric trim, which I think looks great – seat centres with the kind of honeycomb technical feel you’d get on expensive trainers, and alcantara bolsters for a motorsport feel. It’s only the seatbacks that look a bit cheap. 

Then we get into the nitty gritty. The Golf is an easy car to park and see out of, so I’d have skipped the –admittedly excellent, and high definition – rear camera (£165) that pops out from beneath the rear VW badge. I’ve also got top-spec navigation system at £1765, which I’d have struggled to justify but is very welcome. Finally there’s heated seats and washer jets (£360), and a climate windscreen (£295 for easy defrosting and reduced heat transfer in summer).

All in, that tickles the price to £35,640. Spending my own money, I might have ended up around £34k.

I’m going gently until I crack 1000 miles, mostly keeping it to 3000rpm, with only occasional forays into 4000 and 5000rpm territory. It’s part of the bonding process with a new car, but it isn’t half frustrating.

By Ben Barry

CAR magazine's long-term VW Golf R