Volkswagen Golf R 2021 review – does it have the A35 and M135i beaten?

The new Golf R is more refined and capable than ever, but driven hard exposes a genuinely wild side

Evo rating
  • Pace; usability; power oversteer in a Golf!
  • Hides its talents almost too well; expensive with options

The Volkswagen Golf R has become the everyday hot hatch icon of our times. In a new car market where lease and PCP dominate, its mix of value for monthly expenditure and extreme real-world performance have made it an unstoppable force. 

It’s fair to say that the pressure is then on for this new iteration, taking the latest Mk8 Golf as a base to reinvent the R without messing too much with the proven recipe. Can it maintain the qualities that made the old car such a success, or has the golden age of the Golf R been and gone?

Engine, transmission and 0-60 time

There is no manual gearbox available with the new R, just as there are no three-door Mk8 Golfs full stop, so the range has shrunk from four layout variants to just one. The powertrain is also familiar, with the 2.0-litre EA888 four-cylinder turbo now in its fourth generation, making it cleaner but also slightly more powerful, peaking at 316bhp and 310lb ft of torque.

The twin-clutch DSG transmission features seven gears, and its near instantaneous shifts contribute to a brisk 0-62mph time of 4.7 seconds. The top speed is electronically limited to 155mph, unless you’ve spent a further £2,000 on the Performance Pack, part of which raises the limiter to 168mph. 

Technical highlights

Like the Mk8 GTI, and particularly the new Clubsport, the R features a host of detail improvements to its tried and tested layout of McPherson front struts and a multi-link rear axle, with improved bearings and joints throughout and stiffer spring rates than the old car. 

The standard dampers are passive, but VW’s adaptive units are a £785 option (and a must-have in our view), while the Performance Pack not only includes the raised limiter but also a larger roof spoiler, 19-inch wheels and two extra driver modes – more of which in a bit. An Akrapovič titanium exhaust is a further option. 

The standard wheel size is once again 18-inches, but there’s a new element to the drivetrain that delivers power to them in the form of a torque vectoring rear differential that can send up to 100 percent of drive to the outer rear wheel during cornering. 

The R offers Comfort, Sport, Race and Individual driver modes, accessed via a button on the dash or on the steering wheel. If the Performance Pack is fitted there are two extra modes: ‘Special’, where all the car’s systems are configured for the Nürburgring Nordschleife, and ‘Drift’, with obvious consequences. The front brake discs are larger than the old seventh generation model at 357mm, and gripped by lighter calipers.    

What’s it like to drive?

The new Golf R is a car with an awful lot of software commanding your attention from the moment you slide into its supportive bucket seat (cloth, with blue R logos and blue-black check pattern – leather is extra). It is possible to simply press the start button and drive, as long as you don’t mind the haphazard and unsettling intervention of the Lane Assist function, which has to be switched off every time the ignition is turned on. 

To adjust the ESP setting, you’ll need to delve into the massive central display, look for ‘brakes’ within the assist screen and confirm your choice – an excessively complicated process – and that’s before you’ve considered driver modes. If you really want to set the car up for enthusiast driving, you can be pressing buttons for at least 30 seconds after ignition on. The Mk8’s fully digital cockpit, central infotainment screen and haptic temperature control screens are a taste we’ve yet to acquire…

Anyway, let’s say you’ve disabled the Lane Assist but have selected Comfort driving mode. The Golf R feels more or less like a TSI-engined Golf R-Line. It is completely undemanding: quiet, refined, well-riding even on 19-inch wheels, coasting at times to save fuel, and perfectly setup for local trips or long motorway drives. 

Objectively, these are all good things, qualities that will make the R an effortless companion, especially for those who are only interested in owning the best, most expensive Golf, but aren’t really interested in hot hatchbacks per se. The previous model was always good at covering off this market; something that’s unchanged in the new R. 

The problem occurs if you want your hot Golf to be exciting when the road gets interesting. For all its glossy persona and capability, you can drive for miles and miles and wonder what all the fuss is about.

That is until you dare delve back into the driver modes. Get busy with the different elements in Individual mode and the Golf R’s true persona starts to reveal itself. In this mode, the optional DCC can be finely adjusted for the specific road, setting a template for how the rest of the car might be set up. 

In its more aggressive modes, the steering is heavier, but still feels looser and less precise around the straight ahead than in the GTI Clubsport. But put real loads into the chassis, and crucially, via the brakes, and the R suddenly wakes up, gets up on its tiptoes and finally feels something akin to a hot hatch. It’s still quiet, in spite of the old pop and bang from the exhaust; perhaps that titanium exhaust would be money well spent after all…

Brake very hard into a tight corner and you can get the tail swinging wildly to turn in the nose, and then once in the corner it’s possible to get on the power very, very early – sometimes this simply fires you out of the corner in a satisfying manner. Yet in some circumstances it results in dramatic power oversteer, thanks to the torque-vectoring rear differential. 

An A45 S AMG will do the same, and very occasionally the GR Yaris, but there’s something about the way the R relinquishes grip and then drives forward with all four wheels scrabbling away that feels more natural and even, dare I say it, friendly. The engine responds to the same treatment, too: at lower revs it feels constrained by the car’s weight, but once over 4,500rpm the mass is less of an issue and the R really flies. The larger paddles behind the wheel are a big improvement as well – although they’re still a bit of a stretch.

Driven in such a maximum attack fashion the R resolutely delivers, but finding occasions to drive it thus are few and far between.

Price and rivals

If it’s driver thrills you’re after, the in-house Audi S3 rival doesn’t really figure. Perhaps the R’s direct competitor in spirit is the Mercedes-AMG A35, a car closely modelled on the VW: both offer digital cockpits, 300-or-so bhp and four-wheel drive, although only the Golf will oversteer. 

Broaden your horizons into the wider hot hatch world and there are plenty of other choices, however, whether it’s the dynamism of the Toyota GR Yaris, the great all-rounder that is the Hyundai i30N (about to appear in facelift form), the recently revised Renaultsport Megane RS or the mighty Honda Civic Type R. There’s a hot hatch for everyone, from the Fiesta ST to the Mercedes-AMG A45, with price, performance and driver appeal to suit.

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