Volkswagen Golf R — Long live the internal combustion engine

By Jim Meachen Editor

(May 28, 2023) While the Golf GTI is Volkswagen's long-running hot hatch, the Golf R is the brand's over-the-top hotter version equipped with a 315-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and an all-wheel-drive system that can distribute power in a number of different ways. The 2023 Volkswagen Golf R is a four-door hatchback and may be the last of a dying breed.

As Volkswagen runs at break-neck speed to convert its entire lineup to electric vehicles, we bemoan the loss of affordable internal combustion engine (ICE) driver’s cars such as the Golf R that just can’t by replaced by electric-motor-driven skateboards regardless of electric's potential of huge horsepower and great gobs of torque.

Having the opportunity to drive another R is a privilege as we plug more and more test vehicles into our 220 volt garage receptacle. Manufacturers are building some fine EVs, but they can’t match such fun machines as the R.

The Golf R proved easy to drive and very forgiving when it gets out of sorts while cornering at unholy speeds in such places as our favorite stretch of winding rural blacktop "test track." Throw in slot-car-like handling and a new drift mode — for those of drifting persuasion — and the Golf R is the 21st Century poster boy for the hot hatch.

It's a bit pricey, however, selling for $46,635 including destination charge. Then again very few vehicles we've driven over the years have handled our five-mile twisting and turning road "test track" in a more entertaining fashion.

The Golf R was reintroduced in 2022 with a 315 horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that makes 310 pound-feet of torque, can hit 60 mph in around 4.0 seconds and climb to 100 mph in 10 seconds. All-wheel drive is standard equipment.

An R button on the steering wheel pulls up a driving-mode-selection screen on the central display. All U.S. cars come standard with the R-Performance package. It readies the R to tackle a vicious mountain road livening up the transmission, and dialing in the 15-position electronically controlled dampers. Drive modes include Comfort, Sport, Race, Drift, Special, and Custom. Comfort for normal driving and Sport for spirited runs were the only modes we used.

While we negotiated our first 15 years of driving life with manual transmissions, our fondness for shifting for yourself has waned in later years. But for those that enjoy a good manual the Golf R can be ordered with a 6-speed. Our test car, however, came with an outstanding seven-speed dual-clutch automatic that can go through the gears faster than even the most accomplished driver with the manual.

Inside the Golf R comes with standard leather seating, R-specific steering wheel, carbon fiber-like trim, blue accents, ambient interior lighting with 30 color selections, heated steering wheel and 10-inch touchscreen with navigation.

Unfortunately, the R has one of the most confounding packages of controls that we've ever encountered. It takes time — and some owners manual reading — to learn the ins and outs of the controls, with many of them creating driver distraction. VW digitized most of the Golf R's switchgear, removing the physical knobs and switches for things like audio volume and tuning, climate control, and lights.

Here's a case where Volkswagen took a big step backward to modernize controls. Fortunately, redundant buttons on the steering wheel are a life-saver for a few of the functions.

The new Golf R offers more driver-assistance technology than its predecessor, including blind-spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control, and lane-keeping assist. Other key safety features include standard forward-collision warning and automated emergency braking, pedestrian detection and road sign detection.

The Golf R has a good-sized cargo area, with 19.9 cubic feet of space with the seats up and 34.5 cubic feet with the 60/40-split rear seats folded down. The cargo floor is low and wide, and the rear seats fold nearly flat. The upright rear window helps with taller items, as does the height-adjustable rear load floor.

Storage in the front of the cabin is equally impressive, with large door pockets, adjustable (if somewhat awkward) front cupholders, and a bin in front of the shifter for phones or sunglasses. The rear door pockets are sizable, too.

We enjoyed our seven days and 325 miles with the new R. But if this hot hatch didn't offer so much driving enjoyment, the confounding new digital controls would probably be a deal-killer for us.

Ted Biderman contributed to this review

2023 Volkswagen Golf R


Base price: $45,440; as driven, $45,440

Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder

Horsepower: 315 @ 5,900 rpm

Torque: 310 pound-feet @ 1,900 rpm

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Drive: all-wheel

Wheelbase: 103.5 inches

Length: 168.9 inches

Curb weight: 3,360 pounds

Turning circle: 39.3 feet

Luggage capacity: 20 cubic feet

Fuel capacity: 14.5 gallons (premium recommended)

EPA rating: 23 city, 30 highway, 26 combined

0-60: 4.0 seconds (Car and Driver)

Also consider: Honda Civic Type R, Hyundai Veloster N

The Good

• Potent powertrain

• A handling beast

• Fun to drive

The Bad

• Commands a big price

The Ugly 

• Maddening touch controls