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Video | The Volkswagen Golf R Is the Best Hot Hatchback

I’ve recently come to the conclusion that the Volkswagen Golf R is the best hot hatchback on the market. I wasn’t expecting to reach this conclusion, as I’ve long extolled the virtues of the Ford Focus RS, which has way too much power for its own good and is just raucously fun to operate.

But the Golf R is better. I reached this decision a few weeks ago after driving a Golf R, when I realized something crucial: No, the Golf R is not as fast as the Focus RS, and it certainly isn’t as powerful. But the Golf R offers a lot of things the Focus RS simply doesn’t.

Before I explain what I mean, a brief overview. The Golf R — effectively the “high performance” version of the already high-performance Volkswagen GTI — essentially debuted back in 2004, though it was then known as the R32. Over time, it’s been refined, the name has been changed, it’s grown to offer a 4-door body style and you can now get it with a dual-clutch automatic. The original R32 had 237 horsepower; today’s Golf R now has 292.

That figure isn’t especially impressive when you compare it with the major rivals: The aforementioned Focus RS (350 hp), the Subaru WRX STI (300 hp) and the Honda Civic Type R (300 hp). And it’s especially not impressive when you consider pricing: The Golf R starts around $41,000 with shipping, to the Focus RS’s $42,000, the STI’s $37,500 and the Civic Type R’s $36,000. That makes the Golf R the worst value when you look at it purely from a horsepower standpoint. I figured I’d drive the Golf R and come to the conclusion that it’s just another overpriced German car that can’t beat out the Japanese and American rivals.


As it turns out, the Golf R offers very nearly the same performance as the Civic Type R and the WRX STI, touting a 0-to-60 time of something like 4.9 seconds, which is actually faster than those rivals — largely due to its quick-shifting dual-clutch transmission. Moreover, the Golf R feels tremendously less skittish on the road: While the WRX STI, Civic Type R and Focus RS feel like the angry, aggressive hot hatchbacks they are, the Golf R almost seems as though it’s part luxury car and part hot hatchback, with an upscale interior and a smooth driving experience until you start pushing it.

And when you start pushing it, you discover the Golf R doesn’t actually give up much to its rivals. Handling is fantastic, with direct, responsive steering and surprisingly minimal body roll. Acceleration is strong — yes, not as strong as the Focus RS, but still strong — and coming out of corners in a Golf R really feels one step behind actual, purpose-built sports cars. All-wheel drive grips, the transmission does what it needs to — very quickly — and power is plentiful, even at lower RPMs where the 200-hp GTI might miss a beat.

In other words, the Golf R is really fun to drive. But as I alluded to earlier, that isn’t all it is. The Golf R is also a nice car, with a nice interior that features top-quality materials on practically every surface. While the Focus RS might be a better car for all-out, high-performance, back-road driving or for track use, the Golf R is the one you’ll actually want to get in after work and cruise along in as you drive down the highway. Ride comfort is better than rivals, cabin noise is quieter than rivals and the Golf R just simply feels nicer overall than its rivals.

Which leads me to this conclusion: In the Golf R’s biggest rivals, you’re paying for performance above all else. In the Golf R, you give up a little performance — really, just a little; basically an undetectable amount versus the Civic Type R and WRX STI — but you add the ability to have a respectable daily driver, a vehicle free of massive wings and cheap interiors, a car that can be both subtle and luxurious when you want it to be and fun and exciting when you want it to be.

It’s a great combination — and unless you’re actually carving up canyons every weekend or using your hot hatchback on the race track (in which case you should get a Focus RS), the Golf R is the best hot hatchback simply because it’s best at doing it all: Being a hatchback, and being hot. I came away pleasantly surprised from my day with the Golf R, and I highly suspect you’ll feel the same way if you test drive one.

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  1. I have 48K on my 2017 and have no regrets.  The fun has not worn off and it is enjoyable in the curves and comfortable for those long drives.  I went for the manual to keep my other arm and leg from getting bored.  

    Got the extended warranty so I don’t have to worry about mechanical issues and there have been a few to deal with that were covered in the standard warranty period of 36k.  A fuel pump/fuel sender/ fuel gauge issue required replacing those parts and the instrument cluster to get it fixed correctly.  A cold start problem was common on these cars and a software update finally fixed that.  There was also a manufacturing problem in the thermostat housing that required replacing. 
  2. VW has been making hot hatches longer than anyone and the reason why is balance. As you mention, they balance the features and manage to keep doing all things well. Others may beat them on a specific feature hear or there, but total package is why VW hot hatches endure…

  3. Steering wheel hexagons! That Lamborghini style is starting to trickle down into the mainstream products.
    I also love the giant circular indent on the right side of the steering column. Looks like VW planned on the Golf having an actual key start ignition at some point.

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Doug Demuro
Doug Demuro
Doug DeMuro writes articles and makes videos, mainly about cars. Doug was born in Denver, Colorado, and received an economics degree from Emory University in Atlanta. After graduation, Doug spent three years working for Porsche Cars North America. Eventually, he quit his job to become a writer, largely because it meant that he no longer had to wear pants. Doug’s work has been featured in a... Read More about Doug Demuro

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