The 2019 Volkswagen Golf R represents the quickest, and priciest, version of the German automaker’s long-standing hatchback. Is it worth the considerable price jump as an upgrade over the ever-popular Golf GTI? Here’s a back-to-back look at what the R has to offer, and how it compares to its more affordable sibling.
Subtlety, thy name is Golf R. Parking the R and the GTI side-by-side reveals few easy-to-spot differences between the two conservatively rendered compacts. Keen eyes will detect an inversion of the grille underneath the front bumper, the almost-perfunctory “R” badging on the grille, fenders, and hatch, and the four tailpipes peeking out from under the back bumper. Interior updates are even more under-the-radar, and to the non-enthusiast the two cars are indistinguishable.
The one exception to the above is the availability of the Spektrum colour palette for the Golf R, which adds 40 hues to the order sheet. You can’t get the majority of those with the GTI, so if candy paint is important to you, the R is the obvious choice.
The Volkswagen Golf R requires that you pony up extra cash for extra safety. There is zero advanced equipment included as standard, which is a bit shocking considering the vehicle’s $42K MRSP. The available gear is decent – stop-and-go adaptive cruise control (with DSG – you get regular adaptive cruise with the manual gearbox), blind spot monitoring, parking sensors, automatic forward braking – but things like lane monitoring aren’t on the menu.
It’s a similar story with the GTI, which can be had with all of the above, but also as optional gear.
Dimensionally, the Golf R and the Golf GTI are twins – with an asterisk. Although the GTI enjoys 1,495 litres of total cargo space with the rear seats folded forward, there’s 37 fewer litres in the Golf R in order to accommodate the rear drive components. That’s a two percent difference, so you’re unlikely to notice it. The hatch opening is large enough to easily accommodate almost anything you’d want to schlep back there, giving either Golf a near-crossover levels of utility.
A slight edge in the practicality measure could be awarded to the Golf R if one has to deal with snowy roads on a regular basis, as it does bring standard all-wheel drive to the table. That being said, a good set of rubber on a GTI will have both cars on fairly even footing in all but the worst driving conditions.
User Friendliness: 9/10
At their core, the Volkswagen Golf R and the GTI are both a fairly simple proposition, thanks to its standard Golf roots. This means that almost all of the switchgear inside is basic, and easy to use, with even the upgraded infotainment system sticking to the tried, tested, and true. One small nitpick: I would have liked to have been able to set cruise control increments of a single kilometre per hour using the steering wheel controls, which are stuck in 10 km/h increments. You have to use the gas pedal and then reset the cruise if you want to run at 119 km/h.
Setting aside the safety gear issue, Volkswagen has made a concerted effort to improve the quality of its infotainment offerings in recent years. The end result is impressive, as the touchscreen interface used to interact with the radio, navigation, and vehicle menus is far more responsive than in the past. The gauge cluster display – which provides access to a lap timer in the Golf R, alongside trip information and other useful menus – is similarly simple to use. The only real misstep is the Fender audio system, which cranks up the guilty-pleasure frequencies without delivering what one would call a true “premium” audio experience – lots of bass, but lacking in clarity.
That being said there’s little in the R to differentiate it, equipment-wise, from the GTI. Something as simple as cooled seats, for example, in addition to the provided heating pads, would have helped make a difference, especially considering the price gap between the two, but the feature count between a Golf R and a top-tier Autobahn GTI is a dead-heat.
The 2019 Volkswagen Golf R delivers 288 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque from a 2.0-liter, turbocharged engine that shares its block with the motor found in the GTI, but subs in different pistons and heads, and slaps on a larger turbo.
It won’t melt your face off, but it’s a big step up from the 220 horses offered in the GTI, especially in a straight line where the R displays exceptional highway confidence pulling past triple-digit speeds (beating the lesser Golf by a full second in the sprint to 100 km/h). The Golf R is also significantly smoother in terms of power delivery, thanks to the efforts of its all-wheel drive system which can shuttle half the car’s torque to the rear axles, if necessary, for improved traction.
The Volkswagen Golf R is an exceptional long-distance hauler. Compared to the GTI, its extra heft and all-wheel drive system translate into a smoother ride and more composed personality, especially with its adaptive suspension system set to “Comfort” mode over rough roads. This, in addition to the power differential listed above, is the area where the R argument is the strongest. It’s no stretch to compare the Golf R to luxury models from Audi and BMW in terms of smoothness and plush personality on the highway, which stands in contrast to the more darting nature of the GTI’s suspension tuning.
Driving Feel: 8/10
If you’re planning on using the 2019 Volkswagen Golf R as a highway warrior or muscular daily driver, you’ll be more than pleased by what it has to offer. If you’re seeking a rambunctious occasional track companion, you might not be as impressed. Although competent, there’s little about the R that engages adrenaline at the same level as more hot-blooded rivals like the Hyundai Veloster N. Even when set to “Race” mode, the car feels softer than almost any other hot hatch on the market. This is especially true with the dual-clutch automated seven-speed manual (DSG) gearbox installed as an option, with the three-pedal six-speed model at the very least offering a bit more overall engagement.
The GTI, on the other hand, is somewhat more spirited due to its smidgen-lighter curb weight and front-wheel drive setup. It’s not necessarily quicker around a race track, but it’s more entertaining in terms of feedback. Down on power compared to the current crop of pocket rockets, the GTI’s connected feel gives it a leg up on the Golf R when it comes time to boogie outside the commute.
Fuel Economy: 9/10
The Volkswagen Golf R’s highway rating of 7.9 L/100 km was dead-on with my own experience behind the wheel on one of several extended road trips, while its city numbers of 10.2 L/100 km had little negative impact on my week-long average.
The Golf GTI posts a similar 7.5 L/100 km on the highway and 9.6 L/100 km around town, which considering the power gap and all-wheel drive difference between the two vehicles is a significant checkmark in the Golf R’s favour.
Take a deep breath: the cheapest Golf R ($42,495) is still $6,000 more expensive than the priciest Golf GTI ($36,145). Step down to a stripper model and the GTI pads that with another $6,000, opening up an astonishing $12,000 gap between the two vehicles.
It’s a big chunk of change to pay for a car that’s more cruiser than crusher when it comes to all-out performance, especially when similarly priced rivals trounce the Golf R from a speed and passion standpoint.
At this point, intentions need to be clear for buyers of either vehicle. Looking for a straight-laced, powerful, and sure-footed hatchback with a luxury-level ride? There’s nothing close to the Golf R either at or above its price point. Seeking to set some two-lane on fire, and maybe have fun on a track, too? You’ll want to check out the Golf R’s rivals from Honda, Subaru, and Hyundai first.
As for the GTI, it’s in a tough spot. Not as composed nor as well-sorted as the R, and underpowered compared to a number of other turbocharged hatchbacks on the market, it’s still considerably cheaper than its buffed-up sibling. As a daily driver it has above-average fun on offer, but as a pure performance vehicle, it’s a half-step behind the current crop of hot hatches, making it somewhat of a compromise for compact car fans.
|Peak Horsepower||288 hp @ 5,400 rpm|
|Peak Torque||280 lb-ft @ 1,800 rpm|
|Fuel Economy||7.9/10.2/9.2 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb|
|Cargo Space||682 / 1,458 L seats down|
|Model Tested||2019 Volkswagen Golf R|
|Price as Tested||$50,724|
$5,044 – Ginster Yellow paint, $2,995; Driver Assistance Package, $1,454; Black Styling, $595