Test Drive: 2018 Volkswagen Golf R

Changes have been made to the Golf R for 2018, but fans of VW’s all-wheel-drive performance hatchback needn’t worry: it hasn’t sacrificed any of its awesome performance capabilities in the pursuit of improved fuel economy, comfort, and safety.

A performance car that also happens to be a practical hatchback. 

Significant upgrades for 2018 include an optional seven-speed Direct Shift Gearbox (replacing the six-speed DSG); an automatic stop-start system to save fuel when stopped at traffic lights; brighter, energy-saving LED headlights and taillights; and a revised front bumper design with larger air inlets. As well, the Golf R’s standard Front Assist (automatic collision-mitigation braking) now includes a pedestrian detector.

Also new is a high-resolution 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster behind the steering wheel; and a revised 8.0-inch centre touchscreen with better graphics and more touch controls. And thankfully, traditional volume and seek dials remain.

Our 2018 Volkswagen Golf R test car was bedecked in a beautiful deep purple colour called Violet Touch Pearl – it’s one of 30 optional colours you can order for the rather pricey sum of $2,995. Maybe that’s not such a bad price when you consider that you may own the only Violet Touch Pearl Golf R in town. The pearlescent purple hue is complemented by contrasting black trim in the front grille, vent surrounds, lower sills, side mirrors, and rear diffuser.

Adding to our Golf R’s seductive appearance are new-for-2018 optional Spielberg 19-inch alloy rims with low-profile 235/35R19-inch summer performance tires ($250 option). We’re pretty sure this combination of Spielberg rims and purple pearlescent paint were the main reason this Golf R turned more heads than the Harvest Moon Beige Golf R we tested last year.

Inside the 2018 Golf R, the materials quality and attention to detail remains top-notch: standard “Titan Black” Vienna leather sports seats feature grey piping, grey stitching, speckled grey seat inserts, and grey “R” logos embossed in the upper seatbacks (grey appears to have replaced the blue accents in the Golf R while blue has migrated over to the e-Golf). The driver’s seat has 12 power adjustments and prominent thigh and side bolsters to keep you snug in the seats during spirited cornering; however, they make getting in and out a little more challenging.

Behind the R’s leather-wrapped, thick-rimmed, flat-bottom sport steering wheel is a new 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster. It’s brighter than the previous models’ analogue gauges and mimics the traditional-looking analogue tachometer and speedometer with liquid crystal displays. Between them is a central information display with multiple menus and sub-menus to provide the driver with useful information such as fuel economy, distance to empty, digital speedometer, audio selection, navigation map, vehicle safety systems, and more. Toggling between the screens is easy to do with the buttons on the right steering wheel spoke.

The 2018 Golf R’s 8.0-inch centre touchscreen with proximity sensor offers sharper resolution and faster response time. The screen’s main menu gives you access to phone, audio, climate control, navigation, and vehicle info as well real-time traffic reports. And should you venture out onto the track, there’s a handy lap timer and lateral g-force sensor.

New automatic more relaxed

Here is where you can also choose one of the Golf R’s five driving modes: Eco, Comfort, Normal, Race, and Custom. Eco mode maximizes fuel economy while Comfort, Normal and Race modes vary the throttle input, transmission shifting, and shock absorber settings for different levels of comfort and performance. Custom mode allows independent settings for the throttle, suspension, steering, and climate settings.

The Golf R’s 292 hp turbocharged twin-cam, 16-valve four-cylinder engine returns unchanged for 2018 as does the R’s standard six-speed manual transmission. Our car was equipped with the new seven-speed DSG transmission with a top gear ratio that keeps engine revs under 2,000 rpm at a steady 100 km/h (in Eco or Normal mode) thereby enhancing fuel economy and reducing engine noise. In fact, except for some noise from the summer performance tires, the Golf R’s cabin is very quiet on the freeway.

Currently available on autoTRADER.ca

As well, a new automatic stop-start ignition system turns off the motor at stop lights and restarts it without much fuss when the brake pedal is released to save gas. A button on the console can deactivate it if you choose.

In theory, the stop-start system and extra transmission gear should reduce overall fuel consumption, but a comparison of the 2017 Golf R’s NRCan fuel economy numbers equipped with the six-speed DSG and the 2018 Golf R with seven-speed DSG shows that the 2017 Golf R is clearly more fuel efficient on the highway (7.4 L/100 km versus 8.0 L/100 km) and slightly more efficient in the city (10.4 vs 10.6). However, the combined figures are pretty close: 9.3 vs 9.4 L/100 km. We averaged 10.3 L/100 km during our week with the Golf R using the required premium unleaded gas.

Still, who buys a Golf R to save fuel? The Golf R is basically a performance car that also happens to be a practical hatchback. Snap the shift lever back into Sport mode and select Race drive mode on the touchscreen, and it’s easy to pretend you’re Lewis Hamilton all day long. With performance attributes like 280 lb-ft of torque from 1,500 to 5,500 rpm, standard 4Motion all-wheel drive, and XDS cross differential system, super-quick speed-dependent progressive variable-assist steering, powerful disc brakes, Dynamic Chassis Control with variable shock damping, the Golf R is simply a thrill to drive in all kinds of weather.

Still a thrill

Of course, with a ground clearance of just 122 mm, the all-wheel drive Golf R is not meant for off-roading or driving on unploughed snow-covered roads – it’s strictly a pavement driver. The Golf R provides tenacious grip on wet or icy roads (assuming it’s equipped with the appropriate winter or all-season tires). As we found out while thrashing various examples of VW’s 4Motion system.

Though there are three driver-selectable suspension settings, we didn’t find a huge difference in the ride between all three, however, engaging Sport mode (by tapping back on the shift lever) does provide notably quicker acceleration, higher revs, and faster shifts.

Our only criticism of the Golf R’s performance is the transmission’s sometimes hesitant and jerky shifts into and out of first gear at slow speeds. The Golf R’s Direct Shift Gearbox, which has a dual clutch which pre-selects gears, creates super-fast shifts at higher speeds, but seems more reluctant to shift into first when coming to a stop or starting out, particularly when compared to a traditional automatic transmission. It’s not something that would stop us recommending a Golf R, but buyers should be aware of the difference.

We’d opt for the optional Driver Assistance Package ($1,550): it includes autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, blind-spot detection, rear traffic alert, lane assist, automatic high-beams, adaptive cruise control, and front and rear parking sensors. Any one of these could prevent a costly collision.

The really great thing about the Golf R is that when the driving fun is over and it’s time to pick up the kids from school or load up with a week’s groceries at Safeway, you can revert to Normal drive mode and take advantage of the Golf R’s practical side: tall roof, wide rear door openings, generous rear headroom, rear child seat anchors and tethers, a cavernous hatch opening and spacious cargo area to move people and goods with ease and comfort.

The Golf R is expensive, yes. But we can’t think of another car that combines this much performance, practicality and good looks in one car – regardless of price.

2018 Volkswagen Golf R
Engine Displacement: 2.0L
Engine Cylinders: I4
Peak Horsepower: 292 hp @ 5,500 rpm
Peak Torque: 280 lb-ft @ 1,800–5,500 rpm
Fuel Economy: 10.6/8.0/9.4 L/100 km city/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space: 646 / 1,492 L seats down
2018 Volkswagen Golf R
Base Price $42,065
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,645
Price as Tested $50,005
Optional Equipment $6,195 – Seven-speed automatic DSG transmission $1,400; 19-inch Spielberg alloy wheel package with 235/35R19-inch summer performance tires $250; Driver Assistance Package (Adaptive Cruise Control, Blind Spot Detection with Rear Traffic Alert, Front Assist Autonomous Emergency Braking with Pedestrian Monitoring, Lane Assist, Light Assist, Park Distance Control) $1,550; Custom paint colour $2,995
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 8.6
9 Styling
9 Powertrain
9 Quality
8 Comfort
9 Practicality
9 Drivability
9 Usability/Ergonomics
7 Fuel Economy
9 Features
8 Value