Expert Reviews

2023 Volkswagen Golf R 20th Anniversary Edition Review

AutoTrader SCORE
This score is awarded by our team of expert reviewers after extensive testing of the car
  • Safety

Like proverbial hotcakes, the limited number of 2023 Volkswagen Golf R 20th Anniversary Edition hatchbacks are going to sell out fast.

The automaker announced it’s only making “about 500” of these pocket rockets available for the Canadian market as it celebrates 20 years of this high-performance all-wheel drive Golf, which first launched as the Golf R32 in Europe in 2002.

Mechanically, the Anniversary Edition is identical to the regular Golf R. The only differences are cosmetic: unique 19-inch wheels, decorative door mirrors, a panoramic sunroof, carbon fibre inserts on the dash and front doors, unique badging, and puddle lights that project “20R” on the pavement below.

Whether those little extras are worth the $2,500 premium VW is asking for is something each or us has to decide for ourselves. Either way, the Golf R delivers a thrilling driving experience with or without those extras.

Styling: 10/10

The Golf R is a good-looking car, and the anniversary pack only makes it better. The little cosmetic extras add up, and they’re well thought out and tastefully executed. The 19-inch gloss black wheels, for example, look great, especially with the massive brake callipers peeking out from behind them.

The 20th Anniversary Edition is available in three colours: Lapiz Blue Metallic, Deep Black Pearl, and Pure White, with a limited number of each. The mirror caps are finished in blue on white and black cars, and gloss black on blue ones.

Safety: 9/10

The Golf R comes with a full array of airbags, and a long list of standard safety technologies: autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, automatic high-beam headlights, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, adaptive cruise control, and lane-keep assist. It will even keep an eye on speed limit signs and remind you of how fast you should be going. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives it a Top Safety Pick+ rating – the highest possible.

Features: 9/10

The Golf R Anniversary Edition comes fully loaded, aside from a handful of negligible options like a trunk tray, tire bag, licence plate frame with the R logo, and add-ons like a cargo box carrier. Everything else is standard.

That includes niceties like leather seats (with the R logo, of course), heated and ventilated front seats, heated outer rear seats, a heated steering wheel, head-up display, and a fabulous sound system. The only notable missing feature is a 12-way power-adjustable seat for the front passenger; only the driver gets that, and it has a memory function.

User-Friendliness: 8/10

You should be able to get into the Golf R, start the engine, drive away and enjoy all the amenities and features without ever cracking open the owner’s manual. Entry/exit is effortless, and thanks to the 8-way power-adjustable driver’s seat and tilt/telescoping steering wheel, the ideal seating position is achievable, even for those without ideal body proportions.

The 10-inch touchscreen infotainment system is easy to navigate and intuitive to use, and the wireless Apple CarPlay system works as promised. All graphics are crisp and easy to read.

Practicality: 8/10

You won’t be helping any of your friends move apartments with the Golf R, but then again, that’s not what this car was designed to do. Technically, there’s room for five, but the middle seat in the back is only comfy for short trips.

There’s plenty of room in the cargo area for groceries and the luggage you’d need for a short weekend away, but you won’t be making any trips to the local hardware store for lumber or other building materials. Again, that’s not what the R is for. The rear seats fold flat, adding extra cargo space when you need it.

Comfort: 8/10

With supportive leather seats and generous side bolster for the driver, front passenger, and the two rear outboard seating positions, the Golf R coddles occupants, assuring comfort for four on longer trips, while keeping everyone secure in their seats on tighter turns. Although the rear seats don’t offer much legroom, they’re rather deep, which makes up for any lack in knee room. The ride, overall, is on the firm side, but that’s just because of the R’s athletic DNA.

Power: 10/10

Available with either six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmissions, the Golf R is blessed with an eager 315-hp turbocharged 2L four-cylinder engine. Max torque is 280 lb-ft (1,900–4,900 rpm) for Golf R’s that come with the manual gearbox, and 295 lb-ft (2,000–5,600 rpm) for those with the automatic.

This much output in a little hatchback makes for an exhilarating drive. Thanks to the fact that the Golf R comes with all-wheel drive, all that low-end torque is transferred to all four wheels, which means not a single pound of it is wasted, and that acceleration is oh-so satisfying. According to VW, the R goes from zero to 100 km/hr in 4.7 seconds.

Driving Feel: 10/10

The R has three distinct personalities: athletic, aggressive, and downright angry. In comfort mode, you get a firm ride with decent performance. Switch into sport and the suspension and steering firm up a bit, and the engine becomes more responsive. Finally, race mode wakes up a glorious beast, with the suspension set to hard, the steering more responsive, the engine snarling aggressively, and the onboard computer keeping engine speed high enough to optimize power and torque. If that’s not enough, race mode can be dialled in even further to special and drift modes where oversteering and fishtailing are made possible by limiting interference from the electronic stability control system and sending more torque to the rear wheels.

Fuel Economy: 8/10

According to Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), the 2023 Golf R is rated at 10.3 L/100 km in the city, 7.7 on the highway, and 9.1 combined for models equipped with the automatic transmission and 11.8 around town, 8.3 on the highway, and 10.2 combined for those with the manual To our delight, we averaged 8.3 L/100 km with our automatic-equipped tester, despite the fact that we spent most of our time in the thrill zone, pushing the Golf R to legal limits in race mode where the engine was locked into higher revs almost all the time. The only downside is that the Golf R requires premium fuel.

Value: 10/10

Performance junkies will not regret sinking $50,395 (plus taxes and $1,900 for freight) into a 2023 Volkswagen Golf R 20th Anniversary with the manual transmission, or $52,395 into the automatic version. The thrills are well worth the investment.

However, there’s lots of competition in this segment. For $51,961 (plus taxes) you can get a Honda Civic Type R, which boasts 316 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque, but only comes with front-wheel drive and a manual transmission. Also offered only with front-wheel drive is the Hyundai Elantra N, available with either manual or automatic transmissions at a starting price of $37,699 (plus freight and taxes). Another option is the Toyota GR Corolla, which comes with all-wheel drive, a six-speed manual transmission, starts at $45,490 (plus freight and taxes), and boasts 300 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque.

The Verdict

The 2023 Volkswagen Golf R 20th Anniversary is a delight to drive. The engine is powerful and eager, but VW doesn’t force you to stay in fight or flight mode 24/7. On days when you don’t want all the excitement, you can dial it down with the flip of a switch, all the way to the docile comfort mode where adrenaline levels are muted. And it’ll look no matter what you’re doing with it thanks to the anniversary extras.

Should that extra kit not appeal to you, there’s no need to rush out to the dealership to get one of the 500 or so units coming to Canada. The non-anniversary Golf R is just as exciting and satisfying to drive, and it’ll save you $2,500, too.

Engine Displacement 2.0L
Engine Cylinders Turbo I4
Peak Horsepower 315 hp @ 5,600–6,500 rpm
Peak Torque 295 lb-ft @ 2,000–5,600 rpm
Fuel Economy 10.3 / 7.7 / 9.1 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space 564 / 977 L seats down
Model Tested 2023 Volkswagen Golf R 20th Anniversary Edition
Base Price $50,395
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,900
Price as Tested $52,395
Optional Equipment