by Frank A. Aukofer

You could argue that the 2018 Volkswagen Golf R is superfluous, or at least a bit of overkill. It is the pinnacle of the Golf lineup, which also includes the best-selling GTI, for many years the darling of so-called “hot hatch” enthusiasts.

In full-blown Autobahn trim, the GTI comes with a sticker price of $37,020. The tested Golf R — the initial likely refers to “racing” but the preference here is to think of it as “randy” — jumps up to $40,635. With all-wheel drive, 292 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque from its 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, it eclipses the front-drive GTI’s 220 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque.

2018_Golf_R--7564So, it’s fair to say that Volkswagen’s Golf overall is more of a high-performance machine than a pedestrian runabout, though lower-priced and less powerful Golfs exhibit much of that famed “German feel” as well.

Sales statistics bear that out. Between them, the R and GTI outsell the economy-oriented Golf models. In 2017, for example, they accounted for 55,426 U.S. sales, compared to 13,552 for the other Golf versions.

In the first half of 2018, GTI sales totaled 9,189 and the standard Golf had 4,036. The R’s sales, likely reflecting its higher price, totaled 2,240.

2018_Golf_R--7566The tested Golf R — it comes only as a four-door hatchback — arrived with a six-speed manual gearbox. For an additional $1,100 you can order the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, which actually gets you up to speed quicker than the manual, computer controls being superior to the human right hand on the shifter and left foot punching the clutch pedal.

For 2018, there’s only one version, down from two, which now incorporates VW’s Dynamic Chassis Control as well as a navigation system. The DCC includes adaptive shock absorbers, which with precise steering helps deliver outstanding handling and a good ride for a hatchback that measures just 14 feet bumper to bumper.

So, while the Golf R easily handled bumps in the road, the manual shifter sustained bumps in the throws. This was the one disappointment in the entire R package. While it was easy to smoothly upshift at low rpm — much like expert European taxi drivers maximizing fuel economy — at other times the shift linkage felt clunky.

2018_Golf_R--7567Also new for 2018 are an idle stop-start system to enhance fuel economy, rated at 21/29/24 mpg on the EPA’s city/highway/combined cycle. Exterior touches are refreshed front and rear styling with LED headlights and taillights, as well as newly designed 19-inch alloy wheels. Inside, there’s a new eight-inch center touchscreen, up from 6.5 inches on the previous model.

Leather sport seats hold the torso snugly during spirited cornering on twisty roads while the driver looks through a flat-bottom steering wheel at the R’s Digital Cockpit, a 12.5-inch configurable information screen that displays different vehicle functions.

One annoyance is a display that reminds the driver when to upshift the manual gearbox, mainly to enhance fuel economy. Experienced drivers usually shift by feel and likely won’t look at it much anyway.

2017_Golf_R--5366The center touchscreen incorporates controls for the navigation system, SXM satellite and HD radio, and a JPEG viewer. A Bluetooth system can pair two smart phones simultaneously and the system has the capability to send and receive text messages. There are three USB ports.

Interior comfort is first rate, with supportive bolstering on the front seats. In back, the outboard seats have plenty of headroom and adequate knee room. The center-rear position is compromised by a big floor hump and a hard cushion. There’s 23 cubic feet for cargo.

A full suite of state-of-the art technology and safety equipment includes forward collision warning and braking with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist, blind-spot warning with rear traffic alert, park distance control front and rear, automatic headlight high beams and a rear-view camera.

2018_Golf_R--6684On the road, depending on how you drive, the Golf R’s personality is as soft as a velvet cushion or as raucous as a race car. Throttle response is quick, though sometimes there’s a slight lag. It’s a good idea to turn off the stop-start system to avoid hesitation off the line.

In a test drive of both the manual-transmission R and GTI at the Road America road racing course near Elkhart Lake, Wis., both Golfs showed capable racetrack manners. With an all-wheel drive system that can send up to 50 percent of the engine’s power to the rear wheels, the R felt more composed in the corners.

2018_Golf_R--7563Specifications

  • Model: 2018 Volkswagen R 2.0T four-door hatchback.
  • Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder, turbocharged; 292 hp, 280 lb-ft torque.
  • Transmission: Six-speed manual with all-wheel drive.
  • Overall length: 14 feet.
  • EPA passenger/cargo volume: 93/23 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 3,300 pounds.
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 21/29/24 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $40,635.
  • Price as tested: $40,635.

Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.

2018_Golf_R--6683Photos (c) Volkswagen