2023 Volkswagen Golf R new car review

The latest all-wheel-drive Golf R is an endlessly capable hot hatch but it’s so popular that VW has paused taking orders until it can clear its backlog. Here are five things you should know.

This is the Daddy of all Volkswagen Golfs

When VW’s Golf launched 50 years ago, this little hatchback was the Beetle-replacing ‘people’s car’. In 1976, Volkswagen fitted an 81kW/140Nm 1.6-litre four-cylinder, added a GTI badge and birthed a hot hatch legend. Its leisurely 0-100km/h time of 9.2 seconds shows how times have changed. The all-wheel-drive Golf R’s the Daddy now, sitting atop VW’s performance tree and brimming with smart go-faster tech and a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder. Numbers are 235kW/400Nm – 22kW/20Nm over the old R and triple those of a Mk1 Golf GTI – while 0-100km/h’s dispatched in under five seconds.

It’s devastatingly quick with a Nürburgring mode

Different driving modes are your friend. Select Comfort and the Golf R’s a pussycat. Its adaptive suspension tries its best to mop up bumps (but remains stiffly sprung) and the turbo engine hums along in fuel saving fashion. Sport mode wakens the beast, then a blue ‘R’ button on the steering wheel engages maniacal Race setting. Turbo lag’s barely a thing, you rip forward in a tsunami of performance and engine boom, and the quite brilliant dual-clutch seven-speed gearbox goes full Matrix with impossibly fast shifts. ‘Special’ mode’s primed for Nürburgring use, but works grin-giving wonders on Aussie country roads too. The exhaust gets angrier, popping and crackling on downshifts, while responses and steering become razor sharp.

The grip is mega but is it too clever to be good fun?

In the push to make performance cars quicker in a straight line and easier to keep pinned through fast corners, some driver engagement’s been lost. Public road driving? The Golf R finds it all too easy. With torque vectoring rear differential choosing which wheel gets what power, launch control, all-wheel-drive and no clutch or manual gear shifter offered, the driver can feel stuck in the audience rather than part of the performance. It’s a victim of its competence, sitting so flat in turns and gripping so hard – even in the wet – you barely bother braking. Massive paddle shifters return some control, but you need a racetrack to explore the incredible abilities here. There’s Drift mode when you do, sending 100 per cent of rear torque to one wheel for easy, smokey fun.

The cabin brims with tech and luxe, but infuriates

There’s understated blue-hued sportiness inside. Nappa leather coats the cosseting seats, there’s alloy pedals, fake carbon trim, a digital driver display, wireless connectivity and charging, ambient lighting and lengthy driver assist. The dashboard’s overdone the minimalism, so hit-and-miss control’s through a 10-inch touchscreen, voice control or infuriating steering wheel touch buttons. While the amount of customisability’s excellent, too many sub-menus buried in sub-menus make quick climate changes and the like too challenging. Prodding screens and brushing steering buttons isn’t ideal when trying to concentrate on the drive. It feels unnecessarily complicated.

You have to pay for the R privilege

Price is $66,990, or around $73,000 drive-away: some $10k above the old Golf R. This is prestige rival territory – the Audi S3’s $71,800 and BMW M135i’s $75,300 – but on a par with the incoming new Honda Civic Type R. Running costs sting: it drinks 98RON fuel at 7.8L/100km in sensible circumstances (our average was over 9L/100km) while five years of services are $3000. All that talent helps justify the entry fee, while it’s a spectacular thing to behold with its quad exhausts, Lapiz blue paint, 19-inch Estoril rims, blue calipers and roof spoiler. A pricier practical Golf R wagon’s there for $69,990, or the front-drive Golf GTI lives on for a more humble $55,490.

Originally published as 2023 Volkswagen Golf R new car review

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