VW Golf R (2020) review: that’s more like it

Published:17 December 2020

VW Golf R (2020) review: that’s more like it
  • At a glance
  • 5 out of 5
  • 5 out of 5
  • 4 out of 5
  • 5 out of 5
  • 5 out of 5

By Georg Kacher

European editor, secrets uncoverer, futurist, first man behind any wheel

By Georg Kacher

European editor, secrets uncoverer, futurist, first man behind any wheel

► CAR drives the new Golf R
► It’s the most powerful Golf yet
► Has the R model finally got a soul?

This is it – the most powerful Golf yet, the new R. We’ve been waiting a while for Volkswagen to give us a version of its Mk8 Golf with some real life in it.

While the front-driven GTI has delivered that to some degree already, next up is the most powerful Golf ever.

Read our review of the VW Golf GTE hybrid

What are the headlines?

It’s off to a predictable start. A 2.0-litre four-cylinder is under the bonnet making 316bhp and 310lb ft. The rest of the recipe, too, is expected; a seven-speed DSG auto (the US market gets a manual, we don’t) and all-wheel drive.

Read more abour the VW Golf R here

Compared to the old Golf R, though, the ride height is now 20mm lower, front camber increased by a smidgeon, springs and anti-roll bars beefed up 10 per cent, upgraded dampers and bushings, the front subframe is now lightweight aluminium, and the rear transverse links and wheel carriers have been redesigned for a more direct response to steering inputs.

golf r rear static

To improve traction, the R engineers increased the locking ratio of the torque-splitting clutch. Understeer is reduced by sending more oomph to the outer rear wheel while, if need be, decelerating its opposite in a move to speed up the turn-in action. This standard-fit system is called R-Performance Torque Vectoring. There’s a bunch of new software to co-ordinate the various dynamic control systems. And, along with Comfort, Sport an Race, there are new drive modes; the gimmicky-sounding Nürburgring mode and even a drift mode.

Let’s get started…

It could all so easily have ended up feeling artificial, digital and intrusive. But as the miles mount up, it’s obvious this is a car that manages to bind its disparate elements into a slick whole. 

There’s a lot to take in at first. The transmission lever, for instance, has been replaced by a stubby by-wire shifter that lets you select between Drive and Sport, and automatic or manual. Theoretically, you could reach down and change gears by flicking the knuckle-size device up and down, but the enlarged shift paddles are so much more intuitive and rewarding to use.

golf r steering wheel

And it’s worth taking the time to get familiar with the Golf R’s drive modes which, unlike those in many cars, bring out significantly different aspects of the R’s capabilities and ask for different degrees of involvement from the driver. Sport brings a pleasingly quick throttle response, but Race mode – which can be accessed directly by pressing the R button on the left of the steering wheel – is better for avoiding premature upshifts; but then again, this setting punishes you with premature downshifts.

Individual mode offers a wide choice of tweakable parameters, and lets you fine-tune via a 10-step touchslider. So if Comfort is not cushy enough, there are 10 minor increments towards an even more compliant ride. At the other end of the spectrum, Race can be further sharpened until you’d better have the first aid kit handy. Even in Sport with ESC fully active, the seat of the pants can sense that underlying loose-cannon effect the rear axle has in store for us.

golf r wheel

The R Performance Pack is a must-have option. As well as raising the top speed to 168mph (not, in itself, particularly worthwhile), it brings two new driving programmes on top of Comfort, Sport, Race and Individual. While Drift – the dashboard lighting turns fire red – is self-explanatory, Special – the illumination switches to viper green – is also called Nürburgring. This calibration was created after hundreds of laps on the Nordschleife. Don’t dismiss this as marketing nonsense; it’s a mode that really has benefitted from intensive work on a circuit that’s challenging and varied, not least in terms of surfaces. The Nordschleife – like the roads on this trip, and like so many of CAR’s favourite roads in Britain – is all bumps and ridges, ups and downs, banked corners and surface changes.

Does it feel like the most powerful Golf?

Compared to all this, the engine doesn’t offer much to grab the headlines, being yet another evolution of the long-running GTI engine. But the reason this engine is used so widely across the VW Group is because it’s very good, and this is a particularly effective manifestation, propelling the Golf R from zero to 62mph in 4.7sec. It lays down maximum torque between 2100 and 5350rpm, with peak power arriving at 5350rpm, but it’s happy for you to approach the 7000rpm cut-out speed. It’s not an engine that relies on high revs to deliver the goods, but the long legs are helpful on fast autobahn stretches. It’s as if all the black boxes have been programmed to encourage a ‘take it to the limit’ attitude.

golf r front end chase

The gearbox is well-spaced, swift and easily controlled by two large shift paddles, but it can only be coaxed to coast in Comfort and Sport, and it deserves launch control assistance to make the most of the all-wheel drive.

The engine and transmission have a slightly unrefined edge, so you can feel and hear when the powertrain is working hard. Especially when fitted with the extra-cost, reduced-weight, variable-flap Akrapovič exhaust, the four end pipes speak up with a loud and deep-throated voice in Race, but the noise they make in Sport is rather one-dimensional, flat and anonymous. Drift and Nürburgring modes both have very artificial soundtracks.

Let’s get sideways!

It takes a while before I can deploy Drift mode with aplomb. On dry tarmac, it needs a wide yet tightish second-gear kink, clear visibility through the corner and beyond, plus a full day’s build-up of confidence.

What’s the difference between Drift and ESC Off? In ESC Off, there are no rafts or lifebelts. In Drift, the system recognises trouble and steps in before the driver makes a second, potentially graver mistake.

How does the Golf R handle?

Steering is very direct at 2.1 turns from lock to lock, but the variable-rate and variable-effort system actually relays a good range of road-to-palm feedback. Likewise, the brakes (cross-drilled discs up front) maintain a reassuring balance of Herculean stopping power, delicate dosage and seemingly infinite stamina.

golf r front cornering

During the course of our two days together, the Golf R starts to feel like a friend. And like all friends, you’re aware that it has faults – mainly with the cabin that’s obsessed about you swiping, scrolling, zooming and talking to an art form, while all the driver wants is to have his commands converted into a job well done, with no delay and no distraction. We’ve griped about this infotainment system already.

The in-cabin disappointments you can learn to live with. And it’s worth doing so, when the reward is a car that’s so good to drive. Become familiar with what the various drive modes can do and you get to experience the breadth and depth of the Golf R’s abilities. 

Accelerating hard out of third-gear sweepers, the progressive torque transfer loads up the rear wheels, begging them to unhinge. Through second-gear bends tackled at nine-tenths, turn-in instantly alters the balance from near-understeer to near-oversteer, with the emphasis on ‘near’.

Yes, it’s proudly a Golf – the DNA is still there. But it’s very much a Golf R. When you think, see and feel ‘Golf’ your subconscious will automatically prepare you for certain familiar Golf characteristics: early understeer and some steering fight, for instance. But this Golf R moves the game on. Early understeer? Not at all. True, depending on the selected drive mode, one end of the car will eventually cave in to the law of physics. But it ain’t the front.

golf r rear tracking

Late apexing for an early straight-line exit? No need to recap that forgotten geometry lesson. In the R, braking, turning in and accelerating are three scalable stages of the same smooth, uninterrupted curve. That’s what the uprated four-wheel-drive system, the new rear-axle side-to-side diff lock, the adaptive dampers and the software inputs co-ordinated by the Driving Dynamics Manager do for you.

There remain many more economical and less costly Golfs available to choose from. Versions with a plainer exterior, or a clearer focus on comfort and convenience. Not to forget the livelier (if less powerful) GTI, which is front-wheel drive and at least as involving as the R.

VW Golf R: verdict

Quantifiably quicker and more sure-footed, the 316bhp jack-of-all-trades is first and foremost awesome on back roads. The new Golf R is less demanding than the GTI but every bit as fun. And for speed, on every kind of road, it’s on another level.

golf r front static

Read more VW reviews here


Price when new: £39,270
On sale in the UK: Now
Engine: 1984cc 16v turbo four-cylinder, 316bhp @ 5350rpm, 310lb ft @ 2100rpm
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, all-wheel drive
Performance: 4.7sec 0-62mph, 155mph (limited), 35.2mpg, 181g/km
Weight / material:
Dimensions (length/width/height in mm):


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  • VW Golf R (2020) review: that’s more like it
  • VW Golf R (2020) review: that’s more like it
  • VW Golf R (2020) review: that’s more like it
  • VW Golf R (2020) review: that’s more like it
  • VW Golf R (2020) review: that’s more like it
  • VW Golf R (2020) review: that’s more like it
  • VW Golf R (2020) review: that’s more like it
  • VW Golf R (2020) review: that’s more like it
  • VW Golf R (2020) review: that’s more like it
  • VW Golf R (2020) review: that’s more like it
  • VW Golf R (2020) review: that’s more like it

By Georg Kacher

European editor, secrets uncoverer, futurist, first man behind any wheel