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2018 Volkswagen Golf R: The Best Premium Hot Hatch You Can Buy In North America?

You would think that a car like the Volkswagen Golf R (which, TL;DR I liked a lot), would lend itself to an easy review.  But it does not.  In fact, this is something like the sixth go at crafting something I’m willing to let see the light of day.

The reason for this is the fact that in the premium hot hatch market there are some great choices; Golf R, Ford Focus RS, and the Honda Civic Type R. It’s not that one car is better than the other, it really boils down to what fit’s your personality best.

Hear me out.

Having driven these various choices, some speak to me more than others. I genuinely like driving the Civic Type R. The interior is excellent, it’s a Honda so you’ll be able to thrash the snot out of it for a quarter million miles and never worry about it. As good as the Honda drives, however, it lacks some emotional engagement. It’s a bit clinical.

There’s also the styling.  As I approach the end of my 40’s, I find this one to be far too boy racer. If you’re under the age of 35 though, it may be fine to excellent in your eyes.

The Focus RS is a great car with crappy suspension. Crappy in that the spring rate needs to be dropped about 30% to be livable as a daily, and it would also make the car lap a track more quickly. The interior is okay, the styling is handsome, and the engine is fantastic, minus the Mustang head gaskets going on some motors.

The Golf R is the car that calls to me in this category. The styling is a little too understated but I can give that a pass. You don’t stick out to the Five-Oh in the Golf R and I enjoy having no points on my license. The interior is well done, though I do wish we could get the cloth tartan seats in the U.S. like they do in Europe. The new eight-inch head unit looks and works great and it has REAL KNOBS AND BUTTONS! The suspension can be firmed up with the TCC, but even in it’s the firmest setting, the wife/partner who couldn’t care less about cars won’t object. Put it in standard or comfort and you are ready for the worst roads that LA or Detroit can throw at you.

If there is one thing lacking it’s the engine. Now 292 horsepower isn’t bad. It’s just down on everyone else. You could always call up APR and drop a little over a grand and bump that power number to 370 if you are willing to run premium gas. Having recently spent a week with the Audi TT RS with 400hp and AWD, I will tell you that an APR tuned Golf R will be fast enough for you to call your doctor for …persistant, err, problem. As it sits stock, it’s still a ton of fun to drive and plenty quick.

The overall package and balance of the Golf R makes it a great daily, as well as something you can take to a track day or autocross. Will it be the best at those? Not likely, but you will have fun, have a competent and confident car that you can enjoy and then drive to work on Monday, and all you did was put gas in it and reset the tire pressures.

Because of the Golf and GTI lineage behind this Mk 7.5 version of the Golf R, the package has been refined over the last 40 years. All of the ergonomics are good to excellent, the use of interior space is well done, with four doors and plenty of rear legroom you can actually take friends places. Fold the rear seat down and you have plenty of cargo room for runs to your preferred big box store.

If at this point you are wondering why I’m not going into details about performance numbers or how it handles on a back road, it’s because your mind was made up before you clicked the “READ MORE” button on what you would think of the Golf R, and that goes back to my main point. If this car fits your personality you are going to like it. If it doesn’t, you will find a litany of faults with it real or imagined.

What I will say after a week and just shy of 300 miles in the Golf R is this, I would spend my own money on this before any of the others. Sure, $40,000 for the Golf R is a tough pill to swallow, but the other cars in the category will cost about the same. But wait you say the Type R is five grand less! That’s if you can get a dealer to sell you one at sticker.

Now here is the interesting data point about all these cars, the demographic that most want these cars can’t really afford them. For the early twenties to mid-thirties person these cars most appeal to, how many of them can afford to buy one new?

Let’s go on pretty established market data about how people buy cars, they finance 90-95% of the purchase price. So if we use $40,000 as our purchase price, we’ll say you put 10% down, your note is $36,000. Now we’ll do the note over 72 months at 4.9%, your monthly payment is a touch over $578/month.

Let’s round up and say $600/month, toss in another $200/mo for insurance, you are paying almost your monthly rent payment just to have the car and be able to drive it. If you make $50,000, which would be good, not great money in most of the U.S. for someone in their early 30’s your take home would be about $2,500/month. So between your car and your rent, you are about tapped. But I could lease one of these you say. Yeah, good luck with that. You aren’t going to be getting a $300/mo lease on anything here.

If you can afford it, any of these cars are a great choice, especially if you can have only one car in your life. Even if you have a young family with one or two kids, there is no real need to ditch these for a crossover or SUV. These will hall your kids, their car seats, and all the crap you have to bring along when you have kids just fine thank you.

Side note, if you are in Canada for $2,500 you can choose from one of 30 custom colors.  It’s rumored that most if not all of these colors will be coming to the U.S. for the 2019 model year.

This is a fantastic time in the U.S. if you want a premium hot hatch. Drive them all and buy the one you like best. For me, my tastes and my personality, I’d choose the Golf R and not have to think twice about it.

  • I think the Golf R sits in a weird spot. Dealers heavily discount GTIs but ask list for Rs which means in the real world there’s a $12k difference between a loaded GTI and an R. Furthermore, if I’m truly looking at R priced vehicles the Audi badge on the S3 starts to look pretty attractive. The R is a fantastic car, but they need to make more of them, put in a moonroof and discount them the same way they discount GTIs.

  • outback_ute

    Very interesting Eric and I would have to agree with you. The overall package of the Golf is tough to beat although here in Australia the BMW M140i is available for not a huge amount more. Audi S3 is slightly more than the BMW but doesn’t seem very good value against the Golf.

  • Zentropy

    If only the Toyobaru twins were made as a hatch rather than a coupe. The argument would be settled.

    • crank_case

      Nah, people still wouldn’t buy it. The Toybaru is what enthusiasts claim to want – purity, slow car fast, back, balance etc. …the Golf R is what a lot actually spend their own money on, at least here in Ireland where it’s not a lot more than a GTI, purist ideals tend to go out the door quickly in favour of overtaking shove (I know the article says the engine is “lacking”, but that’s relative, it’s fast as is usable on public roads), comfort, autobox for city driving, refinement and cross country pace.

      I like to think given the cash, my money would be down on the Toybaru, but I can totally understand why someone would want the Golf R. Probably the biggest cliche when talking about cars, but it really is all the car you’d ever need really.

      It’d be a lovely daily driver, but I can’t help but wonder if I’d lose my license pretty rapidly in something that’s so real world quick. It really isn’t hard to imagine myself rapidly getting up to three figure speeds (in metric or imperial) even on some country roads if I didn’t keep an eye on the speedo.

      • Zentropy

        Yeah, you’re probably right. But at least, the argument would be settled for me.

        Don’t get me wrong, I’ve liked power as much as the next guy. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate those “claimed enthusiast wants” that you mentioned. Honestly, the most driving enjoyment I’ve experienced was in a BMW E30 325e 5-speed, which maybe had 120hp at my point of ownership. Before that car, I thought driving was all about nailing the throttle and not swapping ends in corners. The modest little Bimmer taught me how to truly drive, and when I mastered driving it quickly, the feeling was more euphoric than any burnout I’d ever done in my high-school muscle cars.

        The Golf R is nice, no question. But despite the AWD, it still feels like a FWD, which to me means unbalanced and disconnected. I’d love to change my brain to expand my options, given that the RWD options are shrinking, but I still prefer a traditional manual with RWD. Other than styling (generically Japanese) and lack of a few doors, the Toyobaru twins fit my desired criteria perfectly.

        • crank_case

          Preaching to the choir 🙂 …I still own a 1st Gen Eunos Roadster (Miata), so yeah, we’re coming from the same place here.

          I’d see the difference between the Toybaru and Golf R as this:

          The Toybaru is a fun car that’s just about mean made practical enough to be a daily driver. It shines in that 1% percent absolute magic driving where you’ve the space to rev it out, and is acceptable the rest of the time in mundane life.

          The Golf R is a really pleasant, effortless daily you can have a bit of fun in should the opportunity arise. It also provides pace pretty much anywhere without having to work for it, so you don’t have to make excuses when you’ve lost the traffic light GP to a middling crossover that “it’s not a straight line car” while trailing off into mumbling something about “touge” and “purity”.

          The reality is a lot of people are going to go for the latter, and you really have to stick to your purist guns to buy the Toybaru, especially in countries like Ireland where it’s price relative to the Golf R is actually quite high.

          • Zentropy

            Classic line: “while trailing off into mumbling something about ‘touge’ and ‘purity’.” Haha, love it.

  • wunno sev

    the big problem with these very-hot hatches is the Mustang and Camaro. as much as i want to want this, the Civic Type R, and the Focus RS, i could have a ~450hp V8 Mustang for the same or less money. practicality, blah blah blah. practicality is not why people buy hot hatches.

    • Papa Van Twee

      I would take a FoRS over a Mustang. I’m on the fence on the Civic, although if it were restyled to look better, it would be an obvious choice. I don’t hate the Mustang/Camaro, I just like the nimbleness of the hatches more.

  • tonyola

    Interestingly enough, Motor Trend (for what it’s worth) did a four-car hot hatch comparison, but they gave pretty heavy weighting to track performance. The Honda Type Rcame out on top. The Golf R was third because it was a “little soft” on the track. I’m sure the Golf is a great highway cruiser, but I’d be inclined to take the Civic at a saving of nearly $6,000. It’s just a shame that the Honda isn’t more “adult” looking.

    • Zentropy

      It’s more than a shame– it’s just too ugly to drive. The lack of peripheral vision would be dangerous, given the paper bag I’d have to wear over my head. No way I’d want to be seen driving that train wreck.

      • tonyola

        I don’t mind the basic lines of the car, but all the boy-racer-looking stuff is just over the top, no matter how much Honda says that they’re necessary.

        • Zentropy

          I don’t think the LX sedan is bad looking– bordering on good. The hatchback, though, isn’t nearly as attractive given those garish fake vents front and rear and ungainly Crosstour proportions. The Type R is simply ridiculous with its cartoon origami samurai look.
          If I was interested in a wrong-wheel-drive Honda, I think the Accord 2.0T Sport with the 6-speed manual would be my only consideration.

    • outback_ute

      Australian site Caradvice did the same, and came to the same results. They had the Peugeot 308 GTi and Hyundai i30N in play as well. The Peugeot did well with less power and weight, faster than the STi on track but ultra wierd ergonomics. The Hyundai was outgunned but scored high on the fun factor and was ranked 2nd overall ahead of the Focus, because of how the Focus is too stiff for the road.

      The Civic is only AUD$5k cheaper than the Golf here (the M140 is $4k more).

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