After a minute or so, the fast-moving Mercedes-Benz E-Class eases to the right, and I punch the gas hard. The curiously syncopated exhaust note booms louder as speed builds with remarkable linearity. The tach needle swings into the red zone as I grab sixth gear. I glance down at the speedo and laugh out loud. I’ve just changed into top gear at 140 mph. In a Volkswagen Golf!
Of course, the 2018 Volkswagen Golf R isn’t just any Golf. With all-wheel drive and a 306-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged four cylinder engine under the hood (in this European-spec car I’m driving; U.S.-spec Rs make do with a mere 292 hp) it’s top dog of the Golf lineup. The front-drive Golf GTI, now in its seventh generation and the direct descendent of the original hot hatch created by VW more than 40 years ago, is still the purer, sharper driver’s car. The Golf R is something else entirely.
That much was clear after more than 1,600 miles across Europe in three days’ driving—from London to Geneva for the auto show, up through Switzerland to Munich for a sneak peek at a new Audi, and back across Germany, Holland, Belgium, and France to London.
First, this is a seriously quick car. Volkswagen claims the R will sprint from 0 to 62 mph in 5.1 seconds en route to 155 mph, or 166 mph if you order the optional Performance Pack (not available in the U.S.) that, in addition to adding bigger brakes and a spoiler, deactivates the speed limiter. Germany’s autobahns gave an opportunity to put those claims to the test. I saw an indicated 160 mph on a clear stretch one point, and the car would cruise happily at 130 mph when traffic allowed.
But the Golf R’s appeal runs deeper, much deeper, than the adrenalin rush of raw speed. Rapid cruising through pouring rain in southern France? Effortless. Hustling along winding back roads over the snow-covered Jura Mountains? Fun. A 700-mile, single-day dash from Munich to London? No problem. The Golf R is confident, capable, and comfortable, a $42,000 pocket-rocket that can crush continents with the aplomb of a premium sedan or coupe costing twice as much. And best of all, it’s stealthy with it. To most people the R looks like just another Golf.
For the 2018 model year refresh, the Golf R gets mild exterior cosmetic upgrades, including a new front bumper with bigger air intakes, a new grille, gloss black trim, and new wheels. VW designers like to say the Golf R should strike a balance between respectability and sportiness, and for the most part, it does. Until you walk around the rear of the car and spot the four bazooka-sized tailpipes peeking out from under the bumper. Those into Golf arcana can tell right away this thing’s loaded for bear…
There are more instantly noticeable changes inside. VW Group’s excellent Digital Cockpit, which replaces the traditional analogue instrument panel with a 12.3-inch, high-def, configurable display screen is now standard. And there’s a new 8.0-inch infotainment touchscreen in the center stack that features crisper graphics, as well as Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility.
Our Lapiz Blue tester came equipped the standard six-speed manual transmission (the seven-speed dual-clutch trans, which cuts the 0-62 mph time to a manufacturer-estimated 4.6 seconds, is a $1,100 option) and was fitted with optional black painted 19-inch alloy wheels. Other options included the Akrapovič titanium sports exhaust (also not available in the U.S.). As expected, you get more sturm und drang when you play with the throttle, but it’s not all for show, saving just over 15 pounds compared with the standard exhaust.
A broad swathe of mid-range torque—the engine pumps out 280 lb-ft from 1,800 rpm to 5,500 rpm—combined with the slick stick-shift and a decent ride, mean the Golf R is smooth and refined to drive. Drivers can choose between Comfort, Normal, and Race modes, to tweak steering and throttle response, and shock rates. But even in Race mode the Golf R never drops its mature demeanor. It feels a little more alert, and there’s a little more vertical body motion and a little more noise from the exhaust, but that’s about it.
A Civic Type R is more surgically precise on a winding road, but what the Golf R lacks in terms of accuracy at the limit, it makes up for in terms of all-wheel-drive traction out of corners. A well-driven Type R would be faster, but there wouldn’t be much in it. The uber-Golf comes into its own on fast, flowing roads and freeways. The power delivery is smooth and linear, and that mid-range torque means there’s always an answer when your right foot asks the question. The engine’s redline is only 6,500 rpm, but the power keeps right on coming until it nudges the rev-limiter. You’ll notice a slight surge at about 3,000 rpm, but in many ways the Golf R engine feels most un-turbo like.
At triple digit autobahn speeds—above 120 mph—body motions make you aware you’re in a smallish car with a shortish wheelbase. Even so, the Golf R doesn’t feel out of its depth charging hard in the left lane. The biggest problem is drivers of bigger Benzes and BMWs who refuse to believe the Golf looming up behind them is traveling so much faster than they are. And that they can’t shake off the pesky little Volkswagen when they mat the gas pedal.
Hustling the Golf R across Germany saw fuel consumption drop to 19.1 mpg. But cruising through radar-infested Switzerland at a relaxed 70-75 mph returned 31.5 mpg, giving an effective cruising range of well over 400 miles. That range, plus supportive and comfortable seats that leave you feeling fresh and free of aches and pains, even after more than nine hours at the wheel, make the Golf R a surprisingly long-legged grand tourer.
The Golf R eschews the wings, the pumped fenders, the gaudy decals, and the boy racer attitude you’d expect of a hatch this hot. Instead, it delivers sheer speed, a capable chassis, and a well-equipped interior wrapped in discreetly honed sheet metal. The Golf R flies under the radar. It is a stealth supercar.