The R-badged version of the Volkswagen Golf is turning 20 years old this year, which means they launched the Mk4 R32 way back in 2003! It was always a bit of an odd duck in the VW lineup sitting above the GTI and featuring a bigger engine and AWD. For the 2012 model year the uber-Golf was just dubbed the “Golf R” which honestly makes a bit more sense. Today, the GTI is dubbed the “Golf GTI” and the regular Golf is gone altogether after the 2021 model year. Regardless of what’s in a name, we spent a week with the new 2023 VW Golf R 20th Anniversary Edition. I had many, many things to say about it, apologies for the 2,000+ word count in advance but please, read if think you might be interested in a new Golf R.
2023 Golf R Overview
If you want to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the R-line (not to be confused with the largely cosmetic R-Line trim level VW added in 2010) the anniversary edition doesn’t actually doesn’t add much to the MSRP of a Golf R. For $650 bucks you get a pretty solid roster of upgrades including black 19-inch wheels, 20th anniversary badging, loads of blue “R” logos, some carbon fiber trim, and even some unique puddle lights that project “20R” in…well I guess puddles. You can choose from three exterior colors including Lapiz Blue Metallic (like our tester), Deep Black Pearl, or Pure White. None of the colors add anything to the sticker price. Interior options are limited to one, Titan Black.
Really, the biggest decision you’ll have to make, aside from exterior paint, is which transmission you’ll want. A six-speed manual is standard, while the 7-speed DSG automatic only adds $800 to the bottom line. Our tester had the latter for an out-the-door price of $47,285.
Of note, the Golf R starts at $14,210 more than the GTI for the 2023 model year, more on that in a bit.
2023 Golf R Anniversary Edition Inside & Out
Subjectively, or hell even objectively, the Golf R is a gorgeous car. It builds on the traditional Golf shape with crisp lines and an aggressive, yet classy, stance all-around. While the rear design is pretty simple, basically consisting of some taillights, a tasteful roof spoiler, and four big exhaust pipes, the front has a bit more going on. It’s still all good news though, the headlight design is fantastic, with a sweeping line that goes from light-to-light through the VW badge across the front end. The lower grille kinks up on the sides, almost making the R appear as if it’s grinning at you. And, while I’ve started to tire of black wheels of late, I love the design of the R’s spilt-spoke 19-inchers.
Overall, I would go so far as to say that this is the best looking Golf R ever, and a great use of the new Mk8 Golf that arrived last year.
On the inside, things get a bit more complicated. It presents a great first impression, you slide into the fantastically contoured driver’s seat and are greeted with a great mix of support in all the right spots. During tight cornering, the lateral support is first rate, and it’s a nice-looking seat design featuring blue stitching and “R” embroidered into the back. Then you get your first view of the clean dash design and as you continue to adjust your gaze, you’ll notice it’s perhaps a bit too clean. Actually it’s a bit dirty, the piano black shows everything, but let’s tackle the larger issue.
Like a lot of new VWs, there aren’t really any buttons, save for the engine start/stop and the button to engage park. Sure, owners will likely “get used to it” which was probably part of the rationale that helped get this setup to market. And yes, the haptic feedback function helps you confirm that you did indeed “press” something. However, it’s simply hard to use. For example, a song I like would come on and I’d have to take my eyes off the road to find the “+” button to turn it up. If you aim properly, you can swipe right and jack up the volume, but overall I’m swiping left on this whole damn thing.
Plus, if you were going to make me only use said flat buttons and the options within the touchscreen, at least make them work well. I was scrolling through the infotainment screens and tried to swipe the screen on to the next section and ended up changing the song instead. And it was a song I really liked! I did at least like that I could reach up and grab the touchscreen from behind (I know, that sound dirty) to aim my thumb to the correct place to select the right item. However, trying to select the “X” (no, not the new Twitter) on the left side to close whatever option menu is open is incredibly difficult, but hey maybe I’d get used to it if I owned one.
Like some other VWs, I had a few connectivity issues with Apple CarPlay. Plugging in to the USB-C connection was easy and I got online right away, however saying “yes” to wireless CarPlay meant that if I did plug my phone in to charge it wouldn’t play music via Spotify reliably. I would hit play, it would work for 2-seconds, and then pause itself. I found to have it all work properly, the wireless connection basically also made me use wireless charging, which isn’t a huge deal but it overheats my phone occasionally. Just a little foible that proved to be a nuisance, but at least I figured out how to fix it.
That hatchback though! With the rear seats in place, you get a solid 19.9 cubic feet of space which was more than enough for hockey practice. Though the stick had to go into the back seat. That number bumps up to 34.5 cubes with the 60/40-split rear seats folded down, so the R makes great use of the Golf hatchback DNA. Rear seat room isn’t enormous, but at 35.0 inches it’s adequate for most situations depending on the height of the front seat occupants.
Interesting to note that there was no sunroof or moonroof, a little odd in a nearly $50,000 car. However, those track rats out there will enjoy the extra headroom for helmeted driving.
2023 Golf R Anniversary Edition On The Road
So, the exterior looks great, the UI is borderline unusable, but it’s got hatchback practicality. A mixed bag at this point, but I guess if you are willing to invest another $14,000 over a GTI you are really looking to enhance the driving experience, so let’s get at it. Depress the start/stop button and Golf R doesn’t necessarily bark to life, but it’s no shrinking violet either, producing a nice engine and exhaust noise on startup. As you reach down to the bit between the front seats to put the R into gear (wait, you might need to blow off the dust so you can read the selector) it’s a simple pull-back motion towards you on the gear-toggley-thing to get things moving.
The R is quick, and interestingly the 315 horsepower 2.0L turbocharged inline-four actually gets 295 lb-ft. of torque with the DSG transmission, while the six-speed only gets 280 lb-ft. Sixty mph will arrive in 4.2 seconds which makes the R the quickest version of the Golf that VW has ever produced. There are loads of driver settings as well, go ahead and press the “R” button on the wheel (if you can find it) and you’ll find pedestrian choices ranging from Comfort to performance modes like Sport, Race, Drift, and “Special”.
What is “Special you ask”, great question, well it’s the Nürburgring mode. You can clicky-click on the image above on the right to read the description, but basically it’s “set up for optimal performance on the on the North Loop of the Nürburgring” according to VW. What it does is set things just about perfect for daily hooning. The exhaust gets progressively louder from Sport to Race, but in my opinion it sounds even better in Special. Naturally, there is a Custom option as well, which allows you to go for the comfy suspension and make the fun bits noisy. Old man mode, engaged! Sadly I did not take advantage of Drift mode, maybe next time.
It’s a lovely car to drive, but so is the regular GTI if I’m honest, a topic I will return to in the last section. The steering wheel is very chunky and has great grip points at the top and bottom to allow you to adjust steering angles easier during tight cornering. In normal driving situations it feels like it has just about infinite grip. There is a touch of body roll, but it just scrambles around every turn without drama or even any substantial tire squeal. Turbo lag is fairly evident off the line, but a bit less pronounced while on the go. Sort of strange in such a modern car, it reminded me a bit of my 944 Turbo, you stomp on the gas and…there’s a pause before it gets going.
I hate to get back to this soapbox, but on the go there are still some foibles from the user interface that directly impacted the driving experience during my week with the Golf R. At low speeds, in stop and go traffic around D.C., it transitioned into parking sensor mode which takes over the entire screen and shows me what is ahead and behind. Not particularly helpful as I wasn’t parking, I’d rather have Waze back on the screen to see upcoming turns and how far my ETA has risen since I left. However, the more I attempted to press the X to cancel the cameras and sensors, the less it seemed to matter. Infuriating!
The shifter was derided by some commentors on social media (I was just complaining about piano black) but it is reasonably intuitive, however the flat “park” and engine start/stop buttons take a second to get used to. Even though they are different colors, I found myself not really remembering which one I just pressed. It doesn’t help that when you press “park” the engine automatically turns off, which usually made me think maybe I hit the start/stop button. Not something you really want to get confused, is it in park, is it on, is it off?
2023 VW Golf R 20th Anniversary Edition Summary
Overall though, the biggest issue with the Golf R is the Golf GTI. Remember that $14,210 price difference, yeah that’s substantial, and while the Golf R is certainly better than the GTI, I’m not sure it’s that much better. Sure, it’s a couple seconds slower to 60, but in the twisty bits it’s just as engaging and fun. I was lucky enough to hustle a previous generation Mk7 GTI around Dominion Raceway and it was marvelous. Even in stock guise, it was a treat to drive fast and is every bit as practical as the Golf R and I have to imagine the latest GTI is just as good or better. Plus, at an EPA-estimated 28 mpg combined, it gets 5 more mpg than the R, helping to elevate it’s daily driver status.
I suppose that’s what the R delivers, “status”, as it’s certainly towards the top of the “comfy pocket rocket” leaderboard. For those discerning VW fans who have the better part of $50,000 to spend in a fun hatchback, it will be a no-brainer. With the fairly subtle “R” badging, it doesn’t really stand out in the hot hatch crowd (almost made it without saying that, sorry) and you spec a GTI to look pretty similar. You can even have the plaid seats, which might just be worth it alone. And that’s not even comparing it to the new 2023 Honda Civic Type R, which starts at a couple grand less.
For buyers who can live with the user interface, and I do believe it’s possible after some time, it’s a great car to drive. It looks great, sounds great, drives great, it’s comfortable, and practical. I just couldn’t get past the buttons, or lack thereof. Your results may vary!