Go-fast Golf R wagon reminds our testers of why it’s one of the best all-round performance car buys under $100,000
That pervasive opinion dulled the launch of the eighth-gen Golf, which also looked pedestrian in the everyday grades that landed in Australia first.
The later arrival of the front-drive Golf GTI hot hatch and all-wheel drive Golf R hatch and wagon range helped the Mk 8’s case – to some degree in the former case, and to a substantial degree in the latter case.
Revisiting the pinnacle of the Golf range nearly two years later reveals what was obscured by strong opinions at the Mk 8’s launch: this Volkswagen remains a fundamentally excellent car, especially in go-fast load-lugging R wagon form. This is the Golf at its best – and it should be, at $69,990 (about $75,000 driveaway).
We’ve driven a Golf GTI Mk 8 for 1000km in an extensive review covering plenty of ground, and that $54,990 spec still possesses a pure front-drive dynamic that keen drivers will love to exploit. That was also very true of the Mk 7.5 GTI.
But it’s at the R level where the latest Golf has moved the game forward for this badge. Some buyers complained that the previous Mk 7 Golf R was a bit clinical in stock form – it took a practised hand to get it to shift about in the corners, for instance.
That’s not true of the new Golf R. A combination of new tech and a harder-charging engine tune make this AWD hot hatch more playful and entertaining than ever.
Despite its high price, it seems like good value for the sophistication at hand – if you can even find one. Golf Rs are especially difficult to come by, with long wait times, and specific component shortages affecting early 2023 deliveries.
All of this is true of the smaller and 80kg-lighter Golf R hatch, but the fact that these virtues are also true of the super-practical wagon version makes the estate even more appealing.
That said, while the dynamics have taken a genuine leap over the Mk 7.5, has the Mk 8’s controversially and radically simplified interior grown on us?
Has Volkswagen managed to give the laggy-at-launch tech a shot in the arm? Not especially. So, is the interior deal-breaker? Let’s find out.
For 2023, the Golf R wagon is priced at $69,990 in Australia without options. That’s about $76,000 driveaway in New South Wales, for reference.
Buyers pay a $3000 penalty for choosing the practical wagon body style over the Golf R hatch. It’s also worth noting that the larger and more premium – but less powerful – Volkswagen Passat 206TSI R-Line wagon is cheaper, at $67,790.
You’d also have to consider the newer 228kW Cupra Formentor VZx (from $66,990 driveaway). Sharing the Golf’s platform, this Barcelona-built SUV splits the difference between the Golf R hatch and wagon in size but isn’t quite its match in pace or sophistication.
When it was last sold in 2020, the previous-gen Mk 7.5 Golf R wagon cost $57,990, so the new model is 20 percent dearer. This is notable, though Volkswagen isn’t alone – inflation in the intervening period has resulted in many brutal price increases. Demand remains high.
In fairness, the Mk 8 Golf R also has a number of valuable new features as standard specification that you couldn’t get on the previous-gen version. It’s also 10 percent more powerful.
Standard features for the Golf R in Australia include:
For the extra $3000, the Golf R wagon adds these features atop the hatchback:
Just two options are available, though these can slow down customer orders due to their use of additional semiconductors:
There are only three colours available, and all are included at no cost: the classic Lapiz blue of our test car, plus the solid colour pure white, and deep black pearl.
The Golf R used to have a broader palette that included red and grey, plus exclusive hues like purple or green. These choices have not reappeared as yet.
You’d never call the new Golf R clinical. The Mk 8 a more interesting, sophisticated and driver-focussed car than any previous R-rated Golf.
Wagon versus hatchback will be a question resolved in favour of the latter for most buyers, but for buyers seeking meaningfully more space, the R experience is not diluted in estate format.
In fact, some would argue it’s the best of the lot, not just because its talents are that much more surprising packaged up in a more traditional long-roof format, but also because the wagon gets a higher-output engine tune than the hatch.
The pair produce the same 235kW of power, but the wagon has 420Nm of torque, trumping the hatchback’s 400Nm. This is because the hatchback’s older tune without a petrol particulate filter is not made for the more niche wagon. Make sure to use 98-octane fuel.
We weighed this car at 1557 kg for an impressive power to weight ratio just shy of 151kW/tonne. Then, at our test track, the Golf R wagon accelerated from 0-100km/h in 4.64 seconds – beating Volkswagen’s modest claim of 4.9 sec.
The $70K Golf R estate is fast – and powerful. In fact, to buy a more powerful station wagon brand-new in Australia, you have to step up to the Audi S4. That car costs $108,700.
While the basic engine is the same as in the respected Mk 7.5 R, the character of the unit is remarkably different. Some of this can be attributed to the 10 percent power bump, from 213kW to 235kW, but the turbo, tuning and software have all had attention.
Massaging the engine’s character has also made the 2.0-litre unit a more comfortable bedfellow with the seven-speed wet-clutch ‘DSG’ automatic transmission.
The Mk 7.5/seven-speed combination never gelled for us, but smoothness has been improved in the Mk 8 – the DSG will slur ratios when you select more efficient settings; or, it can pop off shifts with alacrity – accompanied by very audible exhaust pops – in sporty drive modes. Cool.
Amusing crackles aside, the exhaust sound still isn’t the most inspiring – it’s no surprise to us that so many buyers fit aftermarket systems to Golf Rs to bring out the best sounds of the EA888 engine and DSG partnership.
But while the engine is very effective, and indeed more energetic in new-gen form, it’s the Golf R’s chassis that is the star of the show here. Volkswagen’s best engineers at R division have struck an immaculate balance between ride comfort, body control and agile handling.
That’s quite a feat to strike from an Australian perspective, given the incredible breadth of road surfaces we have to deal with on this continent, from gravel, to broken rural hotmix and urban potholes, all the way through to slick race-track surfaces.
The shift from the Mk 7.5’s flawed three-stage adaptive dampers to Volkswagen’s new-generation 15-stage dynamic chassis control is determinative. The old car was boaty in comfort profile but far too stiff in sport, let alone the race mode.
This is not just a case of adding more settings to the dampers – we suspect it’s really about letting buyers in vastly different markets find their ‘goldilocks’ damping setting without the need for bespoke, in-country suspension tunes.
As with the Golf GTI, we found that one stage to the ‘sport’ side of comfort – basically one-third hardness – produced a sublime ride/handling balance in the Golf R wagon, being noticeably more controlled than straight ‘comfort’, but not at all sharp.
It is still a firm suspension tune when taken as a whole, but you expect that in a Volkswagen R product.
The point is that in the Mk 8, unlike the Mk 7.5, superb body control can now be retained at a more lax damper setting, giving the car greater bump compliance thanks to extended spring travel.
This is masterful stuff and is a demonstration that despite the bluster and concern that Volkswagen is having a tough time of its EV transition, this is still a car company with an enviable depth of engineering talent – and not one to be counted out.
Then you move to the rear end of the car, where a deliberate hardware selection has elevated the latest Golf R out of its traditional Group partnership with the Audi S3. The S3 and Golf R were once paired – with equal power and very similar chassis tech – but that is no longer the case.
The 235kW Volkswagen eclipses the 228kW Audi marginally in the power stakes, but the Golf R nabs the Audi RS3’s new twin-clutch rear differential that, in effect, allows much more engine power to be distributed to the outside rear wheel while cornering on throttle.
In fact, 50 percent of the EA888’s 420Nm – so, 210Nm – can be directed to one rear tyre. That’s more than enough to induce power oversteer and, faithfully, the Golf R hatch and, outrageously, the wagon, have an easily selectable drift mode.
Given the space of a skid pad, working in drift mode is quite amusing, but the bigger takeaway is how the rear differential influences your ability to drive quickly outside of drift mode – with stability control remaining on, or in the delightfully half-way ESC Sport mode.
Smoothly and liberally add power while steering out of a bend and you’ll notice that the Golf R now behaves more like a rear-biased AWD vehicle, with palpable push from the outside rear tyre helping to nip in your line and get the VW pointing straight quickly.
Depending on how liberal you are with the loud pedal, the mode of stability control selected and whether you’re on the public road or at a private facility – this can range from subtle corrective inputs to smokey power oversteer, which is rather novel in a Golf.
If there’s a weak point of the dynamics, it’s not the brakes – the Golf R wagon managed a best stop from 0-100km/h in our testing of 35.55 metres – shorter than the 36.28m we’ve managed in a GTI hatch.
Instead, the weakness is in the steering. Unlike the GTI, Volkswagen has decided to build in artificially heavy electric power steering to the R, perhaps in some effort to make it feel ‘sportier’. There is no real correlation between heaviness and sportiness in steering.
By default, the Golf R starts in the sport drive mode (and not comfort), which is kind of cool, and appropriate – except for the fact that the sport mode’s steering is sillily heavy.
You’ll want to set up an individual mode that keeps the engine in sport, the exhaust in either race or pure (depending on whether you like artificially-enhanced sounds), the dampers in the goldilocks zone, and the steering in comfort.
Multi-stage, adjustable steering is almost always better and more faithful in comfort mode. Awkward, but true! Hopefully Volkswagen chooses to relax the Golf R’s steering in a future update.
Dare we say the Mk 8 Golf’s interior is growing on us?
Alternatively, it might just be that we’ve accepted its foibles and moved with the times. The Mk 7.5 was, in many ways, a high point for Golf usability and quality, though it was not perfect – we tend to put on our rose-coloured spectacles right about now.
Living with our long-term Cupra Formentor VZx afforded us extended time with a very similar interior setup and infotainment system to the Golf R, albeit with a larger touchscreen canvas.
Compared to the old Golf, the new model is just…different inside, with a higher-set central screen and much more limited use of old-school but reliable physical controls.
These are mostly replaced by touch-capacitive sliders and tap-targets below the screen and on the sporty, perforated steering wheel’s spokes. Response time and accuracy from these targets varies, and can be especially poor when the vehicle is still booting up.
Volkswagen’s newly-minted global chief executive has already acknowledged that the company has strayed too far from physical buttons and their return is likely at the Golf’s facelift in 2024.
But that is not happening for a while. Happily, most people will find the Mk 8 Golf’s interior at least liveable, while others will really appreciate its upgrade in seat comfort, good driving position, useful storage and enhanced wireless phone connectivity.
The seats are trimmed in black nappa leather all-round, with blue trimmings and perforations up front, while the front pair are sporty coffin-shape ‘buckets’. Heating remains standard fare, but usefully in an Australian summer, seat cooling is now standard too.
Only the driver is afforded the convenience of power adjustment, though – you get 12 ways of it and two memory positions. This is a good seat, though: it’s possible to find a comfortable and supportive position with a great view out of the car.
The steering wheel might have slight overuse of touch-capacitive buttons but the shape of it is interesting and sporting – plus the leather used to cover it is high-quality and nice to hold. The paddle shifters are plastic but they’re much larger than on a GTI.
Screen-wise, the Mk 8 Golf is already ageing a little: the displays are very crisp with great resolution, but at 10 inches in diameter, the central touchscreen looks small compared to the Formentor’s 12-inch unit. Spy shots reveal that the Golf Mk 8.5 will get a bigger display.
In our testing we found the wireless Apple CarPlay smartphone connection to be rock solid. Using this also negates most of the need to navigate Volkswagen’s own software, which can be laggy, especially when the vehicle is still starting up.
In fact it’s best to minimise interactions entirely, we found. We were happy with our customised digital driver display and wireless phone mirroring, tried our best not to fiddle with the occasionally slow on-screen climate controls, and just enjoyed the drive.
You can also use voice control to operate some functions, like seat cooling.
From the options list, you’ll want to select the $1000, 480-watt Harman-Kardon premium stereo. It’s a cracker, with far greater fidelity and aural comfort than the old Golf R’s harsh Dynaudio system. The surround mode is really impressive for such an affordable addition.
Some people will want to go for the $2000 panoramic opening sunroof and there’s certainly an argument that the Golf R wagon is the kind of car where such a roof is a nice feature.
The front seats are spacious if sportily-fitting, but the back seat is where the Golf R opens up a massive flank between it and the rather compact hatch version.
There’s more than adequate space back here to install two child seats – we tested this with our rearward-facing infant item and forwards-facing toddler chair. No problems – and six-foot adults also fit here with comfort.
However, you’ll have little doubt that the Golf still sits well under the Passat in Volkswagen’s model hierarchy thanks to hard plastic rear door skins, where the more upmarket (but cheaper) Passat 206TSI covers more stuff in supple materials.
Still, the 611-litre boot is really great, with heaps of space for prams, golf clubs or other bulky items. You can remotely drop the rear seatbacks (only 60/40, mind: 40/20/40 would be better), while there is a ski pass-through and pockets to stop small items from rolling around.
We wouldn’t mind seeing some clever storage solutions with the boot floor, though – and you won’t find a spare wheel in here despite the wheel well appearing to be able to accommodate one.
Plus, the lack of a ‘close-and-lock-the-car’ button on the power tailgate is a small frustration when walking away with bags.
The eighth-generation Volkswagen Golf was tested by Euro NCAP in 2019. Its results in that test were converted by Australia’s new car crash and safety assessment body ANCAP, and the Golf received a 2019 five-star safety rating.
This rating applies to all Mk 8 Golf models, both hatch and wagon – including the Golf R wagon. ANCAP’s rating will expire in December 2025.
In crash and safety testing, the Golf received the following scores:
The Golf R includes the following safety features as standard:
For our review, we tested many of the the Golf R’s safety systems, which are bundled under IQ Assist branding.
More than most rivals, the tuning of these technologies is good. In particular, the lane-centring technology is smooth and subtle, making you less likely to switch it off in frustration.
The Golf R is a complicated compact performance car and its servicing costs are commensurately premium – but it isn’t too expensive to maintain, given its performance.
Some money can be saved by adding a Volkswagen care plan when purchasing the car. Priced at $3000, this includes the first five years/75,000km of servicing, averaging out to $600 per year.
It does look a little expensive in light of the Skoda Octavia RS’s $2800 seven year/105,000km pack, but that wagon doesn’t have AWD or the tricky rear-end diff requiring periodic servicing.
Fuel consumption can really differ depending on the alacrity with which you drive the Golf R. With a penchant for 98-octane fuel – and this really is required, given the wagon uses a sensitive petrol particulate filter (PPF), the costs need to be assessed.
Driving for sport we saw low double-digit numbers, settling to about 10.0L/100km for urban duties – but at least on the highway the reasonable 7.0L/100km unlocks a reasonable range of 714 km. That said, the fuel tank is on the small side, at 50 litres.
Buyers doing a lot of highway miles would probably be better served by Volkswagen’s larger and more refined Passat 206TSI wagon, which is a little less powerful (206kW) but has a big 66 litre tank, taking highway range to nearly 1000 km.
Like other Volkswagen models, the Golf R is sold in Australia with a five year, unlimited kilometre new car warranty – this sort of cover is pretty standard these days. Cousin brand Skoda has adopted a seven year warranty that bests VW’s plan.
Much has been written about the Mk 8 Volkswagen Golf, but a week with the pinnacle grade – the 235kW R estate – reminded our testers of why this is one of the best all-round performance car buys under $100,000.
The upgraded engine and chassis have elevated the latest Golf R to a dizzying level of dynamic sophistication, and there is an argument that the price is fair – even if it jumped 20 percent over the old version.
Some buyers seem to think so, because wait lists remain stubbornly long for the Golf R, and especially this highly desirable wagon version.
If you’ve outgrown your hot hatch or other compact sports car and now need room for the family or other bulky, style-cramping things, the Golf R wagon proves that you can go bigger without having to dull your driving experience right down.
The Golf R wagon might get even better in 18-24 months when a facelift arrives to correct some of the cabin tech overreach.
Still, we like this wagon as it is, could live with it, and in fact recommend it.
The Skoda Octavia RS is a cult favourite in Australia, blending Golf GTI mechanicals with more space and a premium cabin. The new version doesn’t vary that formula, though it is more costly this time around.
Key specs (as tested)
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