It’s been a while, but I remember the Way of the Hot Hatch. Recently I’ve had a good sized chain of press cars to review, and thanks to my near-superhuman procrastination abilities, this is the first one I’ve gotten around to finally writing. The reason why this car, the 2023 Volkswagen Golf R, is the one I started with is pretty simple: it’s the one that’s still parked in my brain. Out of that parade of modern, advanced, luxurious SUVs and crossovers that glided in and out of my driveway, it was the only one that I can say I genuinely reveled in driving. Lots of the others were fine, even pleasant, but it was this Golf R that ignited some gleeful, moronic spark of visceral joy deep in my lizard brain and made me do ill-advised things.
If I sold my middle kidney tomorrow and had the roughly $45,000 needed to buy a Golf R, would I? No. Fuck no. But not because I don’t want one, because I do. I would love it! But it would be a terrible idea, which I learned from the week I had one. The car is intoxicating to drive. It’s so fast and grippy and precise and rewarding to really wring out that I found myself, shamefully, driving like an absolute maniac.
I’m not proud of this. This is a weakness. I have pretty solid control over a lot of aspects of myself – I’m slow to anger, I tend not to panic when things go sideways, I try to be patient – but it seems that if you put me behind the wheel of something quick and fun in just the right way, I become a complete moron. There’s just certain sensations I’ll abandon all rationality to experience, and if a cruel scientist put me in a cage with a switch that could either give me a nutrient pellet or trigger those parts of my brain that gave me those sorts of feelings, I’m pretty certain within a week or so some unfortunate lab assistant will be grimacing as they dump my emaciated body from the cage into a dumpster, a big dumb smile on my face.
There’s a reason I tend to own cars with around 50 hp.
But here’s the thing: you’re not as stupid as I am! You’re better than me, in all sorts of rich and exciting ways, and you can reward yourself with a car like the Golf R! In fact, maybe you should, because do you really want an SUV or a crossover as your next car? If so, why? If not, then great, because you can have something that’s an absolute blast to drive and is somehow practical for daily use, too.
A Dying Breed
The glowing core of the magic of the Golf R is that it’s a hot hatch. In fact, it’s one of the vanishingly few hot hatches you can still buy in America today. Seriously, how many are left? Aside from the Golf R, there’s its slightly tamer, FWD sibling, the Golf GTI, and there’s the Civic Type R, and it’s better-dressed brother, the Acura Integra Type S, there’s the new Toyota GR Corolla, the Mini Cooper JCW, and…what else? That’s pretty much it, I think, and that’s a shame.
The concept of the hot hatch, even after all these years, is hard to beat: a small, practical car with plenty of room for people and stuff, but it’s a blast to drive. Volkswagen has been embracing this simple and glorious idea since 1975 with the original Golf/Rabbit GTI, and then kicked it up a substantial notch with that first Golf R32 in 2002.
Over the years, the Golf GTI and R have undergone some slow and steady evolution, with significant changes in performance and technology, but pretty much no edits to that same basic formula: a useful little economy car, but make it fun. A lot of fun, if possible, even.
It Looks Like That Because That’s What It Is
This simple concept now feels strange, because so much of the modern car landscape are crossovers and SUVs. Even if you’re never intending to drive over anything rougher than some discarded peanut brittle, most of the new cars you’ll end up looking at have huge tires and a high ride height and will be tall, heavy things. The Golf R is not that.
The Golf R is even a bit lower than the regular Golf and a tiny bit lower than the GTI, though it rides on the same MQB platform. It’s certainly bigger than the Rabbit GTIs of the Carter Era, but it’s really not all that big, at all. It’s lean, it’s taut, it feels like the essential parts of a car – four wheels, an engine, a place for about four (maybe five) people to sit and a place to stash all their crap – all smushed together and then smoothed and shaped and carved away until only exactly what was absolutely needed was left.
There’s nothing on this car that you don’t need; the body is a hood and four doors and a hatch, combined and shaped by math and natural forces, like a river stone. It is a bit heavier than you might think, though, at just under 3,500 pounds, but for modern cars that’s not really all that bad. Hell, a base Toyota Corolla weighs about 3,000 pounds now.
The look is still unmistakably a hatchback, and a four-door one at that, since you can’t get the two door (okay, okay, three door, but I never really think of the hatch as a door) Golf at all anymore. VW has distilled this basic design over, holy crap, eight generations and the result is something that feels logical and stylish in a capable way, like a Braun shaver or an Olivetti typewriter. Aside from the very general overall shape, the Golf isn’t too nostalgic about its old design cues, so the front end, for example, feels more derived from 2020s Volkswagen than some Golfian heritage.
The upper grille has become vestigial, now relegated to just carrying that full-width DRL light bar, and all of the air intake has been moved south of the bumper bar. A couple of peculiar body-colored fangs wraps around the lower edges to divide the grille into three parts.
Around back we have, incredibly, four functional exhaust pipes and an admirable lack of unnecessary ornament. The taillights resemble stylized ray guns engaged in a perpetual showdown, and the whole rear end is visored with that wing on the trailing edge of the roof.
The VW logo in the center there is impressive in that it does three distinct jobs: proudly conveys the logo of our pals in Wolfsburg that built the car, as well as hiding the rear-view camera:
…and, via some likely eye-wateringly complex bit of mechanics, is also the handle and latch for the tailgate:
It’s pretty cool, but I can’t help but think if anything does wrong with this motorized, electronics-heavy handle/camera/logo, it’s going to be expensive as hell to replace. Still, it’s a cool party trick and it does keep things like rain droplets off the rear view camera.
What’s It Like To Drive?
The Golf R is an absolute blast to drive. It’s an enabler of fun driving, no matter how mundane the errand you’re taking it on may be. Part of the reason why is the power, sure – the EA888 2-liter turbocharged, intercooled, direct-injection inline four that seems to lack a goofy engine cover makes 315 hp and 310 pound-feet of torque (some sources say 295?), good enough to kick you from a dead stop to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds (a full second slower for the manual one, sadly, according to Car And Driver). That quickness is fun, sure, but it’s really not what this car is all about.
This isn’t some muscle car with gobs of power that launches you from place to place like some kind of cannon-based public transportation system, it’s an agile, quick little brute that grips the road and really collaborates with you on your shared project of tearing ass.
Unlike many other fast cars I’ve driven, the Golf R always feels controllable and precise. The AWD system helps, as it allows for torque vectoring to each rear wheel, and I would be lying to you if I said I have any clue of exactly what it’s doing or that I could somehow feel the nuance of that torque being split amongst the quartet of wheels, but what I did feel was a car that was solid and incredibly fun to wring out and throw around in pretty much any situation.
Plus, I think this is the first car I’ve driven where I’ve actually used and enjoyed using the paddle shifters. Sure, when I first got the car, I was hoping for the six-speed manual, because I’m not some sort of filthy animal. Instead, I found it was the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, causing me to grip my tangelo-sized fists and scream CR*P! out into the uncaring night.
But then I actually gave it a chance, and, more importantly, actually used the paddle shifters, which I have previously only viewed with derision. But, on the Golf R, they’re a hell of a lot of fun. Once you get used to playing with them, a quick finger-triggered downshift and all of the accompanying sounds and vibrations and torque becomes a wildly satisfying act.
I’m just about positive that letting the computer handle the shifts gives better performance and, very likely, better fuel economy. But who gives a shit? I’m not going to set any speed records, anyway, and gas station owners have families to feed, too, so why the hell not.
I had a blast during every drive of this unhinged and yet quite hinged indeed machine. Well, more so when I was alone, as this is a very easy car to wear out your passengers in, who don’t get to experience the satisfying feedback and planted feeling and sense of control, instead just getting whipped around in their seats as the asshole behind the wheel (you know, me) indulges their basest velocity desires.
Comfort, Practicality, All That Crap
Well, fundamentally, it’s still a Golf. That. means it’s quite roomy inside, with plenty of readily-accessible cargo room and a good amount of comfort. People with more maturity than myself can drive this in an entirely reasonably way and have a terribly comfortable car with good, supportive seats, great visibility, and an interior that looks and feels great, in an understated way.
The dash and instruments are all full-color LCD displays, and the center stack UX is VW’s standard, not-so-great one, but I managed to avoid nearly all interactions with it by using CarPlay. The volume control is still a silly touch slider under the screen, and I found some of the haptic buttons on the steering wheel to be a a bot oversensitive, but do you want to know the absolute truth?
I barely paid attention to the center screen or the controls or any of that because I was having too much fun driving this thing. Maybe that’s not fantastic car review behavior, but at the same time, it’s absolutely telling about what is important about this car and what isn’t.
In the sport mode instrument cluster up there, I do kind of like that linear tach; that’s not a design you see too often, but it works well.
The electronic stuff is, you know, fine. If you use Android Auto or Apple Car Play and can avoid the native crap for most stuff, I say do that. The controls that you’ll be caring about here are the steering wheel, pedals, and paddles (or shifter). That’s it, really. Some cars are about amenities and gadgets, some are about driving, and this one is definitely in the latter camp.
That said, the sunroof was nice, even if it’s about half the length of most modern car sunroofs. The rear seat actually has plenty of room, too, and I see no reason why this couldn’t be a perfectly fine family car, as long as you’re okay with your kids seeing that mom or dad is sometimes not the most rational adult behind the wheel. I know that’s not for everybody.
There’s also HVAC vents and controls in the back seat, always a welcome touch, and even a pair of USB charging ports. Details like this are important.
It does have the good kind of baby seat attachment latches, not the shit kind that requires you to dig your fingers into the crack between the rear seat back and the lower cushion, like you’re trying to apply hemorrhoid medication to a baby rhino.
Cargo room is pretty great, as I mentioned, and with the rear seat down you could shove some good-sized stuff in there. A lawnmower. A potter’s wheel. Two big-ass dogs. An entire air-cooled VW drivetrain. A card table and a Commodore Pet and seven bags of peat moss. You don’t need a crossover or an SUV to have a rich, complicated life that involves hauling crap all around. A hatchback can do it just as well.
This would be a great car to road trip in; not all the driving in this thing needs to be you pretending you’re winning a rally. If you want to take it easy, it can do that pretty well, though to be honest, I only tried this approach a few times, and you can refer back to the parts of this review where I remind you what an idiot I am to understand why. Fuel economy is only okay – 23 in the city and 30 on the highway – but if you do actually take it easy, you may be able to do even better.
Too bad I don’t think you’ll be able to take it easy, though. Because that’s really not the point of this car. The point of this car is to check all the boxes life is demanding you check for certain practicality needs: seats up to 5, holds a bunch of crap, can ferry children safely, acceptable fuel economy, doesn’t make you look like a moron, that sort of thing, and yet can also really indulge your baser, want-to-go-fast-and-get-really-into-the-feeling-of-driving-so-my-passengers-get-concerned-for-my-well-being urges.
How Much Is It And Some Sort Of Conclusion
The problem with the Golf R is that it’s not cheap: the manual starts at $44,740 and the DSG paddle-shift one is $45,540. This is one of the very rare cases where I also don’t necessarily think you absolutely need the manual one, too. But that’s a lot of money. You do get an awful lot for that money, but are you getting about $15,000 worth, which is the difference between the Golf R and the Golf GTI? That’s what I’m not entirely sure of.
The GTI, in its favor, has plaid seats. The R has AWD with torque vectoring and 74 more horsepower, both pretty damn significant things. But, I’m pretty certain you could still have a blast with the FWD GTI. Is it as remarkably responsive and engaging as the R is to drive? I mean, maybe not exactly, but unless you’re tracking it all the time, maybe that doesn’t matter?
One day I’d love to drive the R and the GTI back-to-back, because I think that’s the only way I could really decide. If money is no object, then, hell, get the R and get some custom plaid seats made, and that’d be the ideal. But money is very much an object for most of us, as it’s what we use to purchase every object we own. My gut says that you can likely get most of the same enjoyment from the GTI, but it’s probably worth at least trying out the R, just to be sure.
Here’s the bigger point, though: hot hatches are, and always were, fantastic. There’s not too many left on the market here in America, but if you need a car to do any of the expected car-related jobs, and you’re only looking at SUVs or crossovers, slap yourself. Make it hurt a little. Then go and try, just try some of the few hot hatch options out there.
The VW Golf R or the GTI are great examples, but there’s the Civic Type R or the GR Corolla, point is, you owe it to yourself to be reminded there are Other Ways. Ways that are practical and fun and even exhilarating, if you let it.
The Way of the Hot Hatch is not yet dead. And neither are you.
- I May Have Trapped Jason In An Incidental ‘Cask of Amontillado’ Type Deal – Tales From The Slack
- The BMW M240ixDrive Is A Junior 6 Series That Doesn’t Need An M Badge To Be Great
- The Autopian Announces A New Membership Tier For The Cheap Bastards Among You: Cloth
- The Second-Generation Buick LaCrosse Marked A Rebirth For Buick: GM Hit Or Miss