There is no question. The Mk8 Volkswagen Golf R is the quickest, best-handling, and daily drivable version of VW’s hottest hatch I’ve ever driven. With more power from its turbo inline-four, a stiffer chassis, and a torque-vectoring AWD system, the Mk8 can tackle a twisty road like a sports car at twice its price point. It’s a truly impressive thing.
However, while the latest R is the most athletic Golf yet, it’s also the most tech-filled and refined, overly so at times. A new focus on interior comfort and noise isolation erects an unintended barrier between car and driver. And while this makes the Mk8 a more practical commuter, it’s subsequently less engaging than its predecessor.
It is, without a doubt, a quicker, more capable car than the Mk7 it replaces, but its plushness makes it an overall less exciting hot hatch.
Structurally, the Golf R rides on a thoroughly updated version of VW’s MQB Evo platform, which, thanks to stronger steel, is thinner and lighter without sacrificing rigidity. The Mk8’s wheelbase is identical to the Mk7’s, although its total length grows slightly thanks to its updated bodywork. Its height and width remain virtually unchanged. The result is a car whose proportions are almost identical to its predecessor, a great thing considering that the outgoing Golf is just about the perfect size. It’s small enough to feel like you’re driving something compact without sacrificing interior passenger or cargo space.
Its styling is aging particularly well two years after its debut. And although a facelifted model is due to arrive soon, I very much enjoy the Mk8’s styling as is. It’s nicely balanced and makes this car instantly recognizable as the range-topping model with its large front air intakes, quad exhaust tips, and upper rear spoiler. Although these are sporty touches, they’re not over-the-top for the sake of drawing attention.
19-inch wheels come standard wrapped in 235/35 summer tires. Their Y-spoke design provides a clear view of the R’s larger calipers and 14.1-inch rotors upfront. The Mk8 evolves from the Mk7’s more rounded design with modernized lighting elements and a new sleekness that doesn’t come at the cost of its identity. It’s still clearly a Golf, just a very good-looking one.
As competitors like the Toyota GR Corolla and Honda Civic Type R step into the ring, the Mk8’s subtleties become its strength. It may not have a massive wing or bulging flared fenders, but what the R lacks in visual drama, it makes up for in versatility. The Mk8’s grown-up approach allows it to fit in anywhere without drawing too much attention to itself, a feat both the Honda and Toyota struggle with.
Although it’s not as flashy as its rivals, the R quickly reminds you that it’s not just quick but competent on a back road. Powered by VW’s now ubiquitous EA888 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four, the Mk8 gets a power bump up to 315 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque. A new Haldex all-wheel drive system sends that power to all four wheels and up to 50 percent to the rear. However, it can now send 100 percent of that power to one individual wheel, allowing the R to perform true torque vectoring.
North American R’s get a six-speed manual transmission as standard, while an eight-speed dual-clutch is an optional extra. However, the German carmaker recently announced it plans to phase out the stick due to poor sales performance, so if you want one, time is running out. And although this announcement is understandable from a corporate perspective, it has me slightly conflicted.
At their core, the Golf R and GTI should always have a manual option. They’ve been the go-to option for decades, and the ability to select your gear with a stick is part of this hot hatch’s identity. That said, the six-speed in the latest R isn’t as engaging as in previous generations. Its shifting action and clutch offer little feedback, leading to an otherwise numb experience. Coupled with long gears, the R doesn’t feel nearly as quick as it does equipped with the dual-clutch.
Despite housing four fairly sizable exhaust tips nestled within its rear diffuser, the R isn’t eager to shout. Sure, there’s a low rumble at slow speeds, but it’s a very quiet hot hatch, requiring maximum revs and its most aggressive drive mode before you hear its buzzing note. Whether it be a muffled exhaust system or its very well-isolated cabin, the Golf R left me wanting more in the sound department, especially given how aggressively it hustles up a canyon road.
The hottest Golf has always been an overachiever in the bends, and the latest Mk8 is no different. Without breaking a sweat, it’ll gladly chase down Corvettes and 911s on a twisty road. The latest R has ten percent stiffer springs, beefed-up anti-roll bars, and a new torque-vectoring all-wheel drive system. Coupled with excellently tuned adaptive shocks, it delivers grip levels I didn’t expect.
It handles its nearly 3,400-pound curb weight well, remaining nicely balanced even in the tightest bends, with its tires being its limiting factor. They’ll squeal and default to understeer well before the its chassis has given up. With a set of semi-slicks, I could see the R making for a great track car.
That said, as capable and quick as this hot hatch is, it doesn’t always translate that speed to its driver’s fingertips. Its steering, for example, offers little feedback and doesn’t weigh up in the bends. It feels wholly disconnected from the wheels it’s piloting. Coupled with a vague shifter, brakes that perform well but offer a soft pedal feel, and a pretty invasive traction control system, you get a hot hatch that’s undeniably quick but lacks genuine driver engagement.
However, what it lacks in excitement, it offers up in practicality. The Mk8 Golf R has to be the quietest, most plush, and genuinely usable iteration to date. Even on Los Angeles’ frankly awful roads, it dealt with road imperfections beautifully and never allowed wind noise to permeate through the cabin. It’s just about the perfect commuter from Monday to Friday, even if it’s not the thriller you’d want on Sunday.
Inside, the Golf R’s cabin’s design layout is quite minimalistic. Exciting little details like its golfball shifter or random pops of color are gone, replaced with mood lighting, screens, and a frustrating infotainment system. Practically all its physical buttons are missing, swapped out for digital ones and touch capacitive sliders. And while the Mk8’s interior may look streamlined and premium, it doesn’t always feel that way.
At the core of its problem is its infotainment system. Although it combines a 10.25-in instrument cluster and a 10-in central display, its lack of almost any physical buttons requires sifting through endless menus to operate the car’s most essential systems. Even after a week behind the wheel, I never managed to get in sync with it. It’s challenging to the point of being distracting and a real letdown in an otherwise quite premium cabin.
Thankfully, Volkswagen CEO Thomas Schäfer spoke of these frustrations in a recent interview, so a fix may be underway for the upcoming facelifted Mk8.5.
Novelties aside, the rest of the Mk8’s cabin is quite nice. Its 12-way adjustable front seats offer plenty of lateral support while remaining plush enough for longer drives. By retaining the Mk7’s basic proportions, the new car offers excellent passenger and cargo space, retaining this hot hatch’s usability intact, even as its performance capabilities soar.
Pricing for the 2023 Volkswagen Golf R is straightforward. Being the range-topping model, it’s offered with all the bells and whistles included. As such, it starts at $45,835, including a $1,095 destination fee, which is precisely my tester’s as-tested price. Opting for the dual-clutch brings the R up to $46,635 with all costs included.
Volkswagen has done a spectacular job in making the Mk8 Golf R drive like the genuine sports car hunter it’s always been. On an empty back road, its limits are surprisingly high, largely thanks to the inclusion of its new torque-vectoring all-wheel drive system. It’s less reminiscent of a GTI and closer in pace to the Audi RS 3, which sits way above it in terms of both horsepower and price.
However, as quick and capable as VW’s hottest hatch, it strays away from its original philosophy of adding greater performance to an all-ready fast Golf for fun. The Mk8 is quite a serious car, mainly focused on outright performance, even at the cost of driver engagement. It distills the driving experience to the point where, as the driver, you don’t feel you’re doing most of the work. While this results in a car that is not only quicker but easier to drive than its predecessor, its restrained and serious persona makes this latest R more of a quick commuter than a thrilling hot hatch.