Car Review: 2019 Volkswagen Golf R

Volkswagen's Golf R is an understated sophisticate equally happy on the boulevard as it is tearing up back roads

Canadians love the Volkswagen Golf R. In fact, according to Volkswagen, in the global picture our take rate for this uber-Golf is off the charts. So, what makes the R so Canadian?

By Peter Bleakney for

Canadians love the Volkswagen Golf R. In fact, according to Volkswagen, in the global picture our take rate for this uber-Golf is off the charts. So, what makes the R so Canadian? Is it because we are so hatchback-obsessed, we’ll spend upwards of $45,000 for a fancy Golf with all-wheel-drive? Or do we, as the strong and silent nation, relate to this car’s understated presence, giant-killer performance, supreme build quality and surprising usability and comfort? I’m going with the latter.

The Golf R differentiates itself from the front-drive Golf GTI with its lower stance, standard 19-inch wheels, more aggressive front fascia and quad exhaust tips. Still, unless you go for one of the available in-your-face colours like this fabulous blue hue — $2,995 thank you — you’ll likely be motoring about in relative anonymity. Which is kind of cool, because the Golf R truly is a formidable performance weapon and privy only to those in-the-know.

The 2019 Golf R starts at $42,495 with a six-speed manual, and VW’s seven-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic adds $1,400. It runs with essentially the same 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder found in the regular GTI, but thanks to a new head, pistons and a larger turbo, it makes 288 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque, up from the GTI’s 220 horses and 258 lb.-ft. of torque. The 4Motion all-wheel-drive can send up to 50 percent of torque to the rear wheels, giving the ability to scoot the R from rest to 100 km/h in a tick under five seconds. So yeah, this pricey Golf is quick, but it’s more than just about the numbers.

The Golf R’s bandwidth of talent is mighty broad. Sit in the supremely comfortable and supportive leather sport seats, and you’ll view a high-quality interior dominated by an eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system and digital gauge cluster behind the lovely three-spoke flat-bottom steering wheel. Standard kit includes GPS navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, a decent Fender-badged audio system, and illuminated blue streaks on the kick plates and front door panels. The touchscreen interface is logically laid out and easy to negotiate.

Unfortunately, ventilated front seats, a sunroof, or a heated steering wheel aren’t on the menu. This tester’s $1,565 Driver Assistant package adds adaptive cruise control, blind-spot warning, lane-keep assist, rear cross-traffic alert, and front collision mitigation. New for 2019 is this tester’s $595 Black Styling Package that ramps up the ‘tude with black 19-inch wheels and carbon-fibre mirror caps.

Setting out in Comfort mode has the transmission upshifting early and the adaptive Dynamic Chassis Control in its most butt-friendly setting. Despite the Golf R’s lowered ride height and big 19-inch wheels, the ride is surprisingly good — sporty firm, but quiet and compliant. In this mode, the Golf R does a fine impersonation of a small luxury car.

Toggle between Comfort, Normal, and Race modes, and the suspension firms up, the transmission drops down a gear, and throttle response sharpens. Yes, there’s a bit of turbo lag, but once up on its toes, this Golf R dances, lunging ahead on a tide of revs and torque. The dual-clutch transmission bangs off up-shifts, each with a charming whumf from the exhaust. Downshifting, however, doesn’t have the immediacy of some of the better dual-clutch gearboxes out there — Porsche’s benchmark PDK comes to mind.

The R’s steering is quick and accurate, grip is tenacious, and it corners with a point-and-shoot neutrality, helped in no small part by electronic brake-induced torque-vectoring. The brakes are strong with excellent pedal feel as well. For all it’s a ability, however, the Golf R is not a track rat like the Honda Civic Type R or raucous like the Ford Focus RS. Conversely, the Golf R doesn’t feel like hot-rodded economy hatchback, either, as its interior appointments, build quality, and overall refinement eclipses that of those admittedly more scrappy and exciting offerings.

Volkswagen also gives the experience more urgency by piping a low, growly engine note into the cabin. Personally, I’d prefer my Golf to not sound like a Subaru, but that’s just me. Is there a way to turn it off?

With all the options — and this Golf R has everything that’s offered — its sticker is just shy of $50,000 as-tested. Yes, that’s a lot of money for a Golf, and considering you can get into a nicely equipped, front-drive GTI for about $10,000 less, that presents a bit of a conundrum. But here’s the deal: The R is a different animal — it’s an understated sophisticate that is equally happy on the boulevard as it is tearing up a back road. If you can stretch for this R-rated Golf, you won’t feel like you paid too much.