Volkswagen Golf R 20 Years Review

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Two decades of Volkswagen R is celebrated with the most powerful Golf ever, and we’ve had the first drive of the model overseas ahead of its arrival in Australia.

When you’ve been in the game of producing hot hatches for as long as Volkswagen’s R performance division, and it’s coming on 20 years, you’re duly expected to deliver.

The latest Golf R is arguably one of the best examples of the genre yet – an expensive but nevertheless alluring combination of all-round performance and dynamic ability that’s made even better through the availability of an optional Performance Package, which extends the car’s remit with extra driving modes without detracting from its excellent everyday driveability.

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Now, Volkswagen R is seeking to build on the solid foundations of its best-selling model with this – the R20. Arriving in Australia next year with an expected price premium that will take it into the $70k range, the anniversary special aims to ratchet up the excitement of the Golf R even further with a series of subtle changes, including an added 10kW from its engine – a move that makes it the most powerful road-going Golf yet.

Not that you’d immediately notice. Like all R models down through the years, this new one doesn’t go out of its way to signal its added potential. What you get is the same restrained exterior styling treatment brought to the standard Golf R, albeit with blue coloured R badges, an anniversary logo on the B-pillars, a “20 R” puddle light projection and a combination of three exterior colours: Lapiz Blue Metallic, Pure White and Deep Black Pearl Effect.

One key differentiation to regular Golf models is the lowered ride height. It gives the R20 a pleasing hunkered-down stance that’s enhanced by the same 19-inch wheel and tyres as those worn by the standard Golf R.

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Inside, the R20 is the first ever Volkswagen model to receive trim elements made from carbon fibre. Otherwise, it offers the same understated driving environment as its marginally less powerful sibling on sale since 2019.

The fundamentals are excellent, though a lack of physical buttons means you spend a lot of time searching through digital menus for seemingly simple commands and perceived quality is spoiled somewhat by the shiny black plastic around the displays and centre console.

Much of the interior design is shared with the Golf GTI, but with unique R accents and logos within the upholstery of the sport seats and Alcantara. There’s also a nicely proportioned flat bottom multi-function steering wheel featuring an R-button that allows you to instantly call up Race mode, a series of unique R graphics for the 10-in instruments display, a standard 10-in touch screen infotainment display with Volkswagen’s Discover navigation system, USB-charging ports and a wireless smartphone charging pad.

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The key task Volkswagen R set itself in the development of the R20 was to retain the core elements of the standard Golf R model while building on its performance.

The latest evolution of the Golf R’s 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol unit receives an updated software package that allows its wastegate to open and the turbocharger to keep spinning during periods of trailing throttle. This added inertia is claimed to provide it with greater response, as the turbocharger doesn’t need to be set spinning again when you get back on the throttle.

As a result, boost builds more rapidly, allowing the EA888 designated engine to hit its peak with greater punch and accelerative force than before. The 10kW increase takes its reserves up to 245kW, while torque remains the same as the standard Golf R at 420Nm.

Further changes are focused on the seven-speed dual-shift gearbox, which provides both automatic and manual shifting. It has been recalibrated to provide a more aggressive shift action in Sport mode.

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The R20 includes the Performance Package offered on the standard Golf R as standard. Alongside Comfort, Sport and Race, it brings additional Drift and Special driving modes – the latter tuned specifically for track driving and developed at the Nürburgring circuit in Germany.

I don’t remember the sound of the latest Golf R’s engine ever being disappointing, but a new Emotional Start function, which fleetingly extends the revs to 2500rpm upon start-up, certainly makes sure it is a lot more present when you hit the start button.

Initial impressions reveal there is not a great deal to differentiate the driving experience of the R20 from the standard Golf R around town. Its reworked engine is outstandingly flexible in Comfort mode, with crisp response and an agreeably smooth action that urges you to use the steering wheel mounted paddles of the transmission in manual mode whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Switching into Sport alters the character and sound to a more playful level, though it is not until you call up Race that it begins to reveal its ultimate potential. Here, the full effect of the changes Volkswagen R has made to the R20’s engine is more apparent.

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The reworked operation of the turbocharger brings added determination to the acceleration out on the open road. The overall response of the engine is quite striking and very much central to its appeal. My sense is the R20 is smoother, sweeter and altogether more accommodating the standard Golf R when pushed hard. Revs build rapidly on a loaded throttle.

The fully variable properties of the 4Motion four-wheel drive system allow the limited-run R model to deploy its power with great effect. The electro-hydraulic system reacts quickly, apportioning drive between the front and rear axles and, with a so-called R Performance Torque vectoring function, between each individual rear wheel. Traction is never in doubt.

Volkswagen R claims a 0-100km/h time of 4.6sec, which is 0.1sec inside the time quoted for the standard Golf R. Top speed, as with the Golf R with Performance Package, is limited to 270km/h.

Like the standard Golf R, the R20 offers plenty of adaptability in terms of ride and handling. There’s a general tautness to its on-road character even in Comfort, which is what you’d expect from a car with such sporting aspirations. However, it is rarely harsh.

The electro-mechanical steering is light and quite direct. The suspension, a combination of MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link arrangement at the rear with adaptive damping provides the R20 with great body control. There is impressive poise to the handling. Stability is also a real strong suit at higher speeds.

Formidable grip, even on the 235/35 R19 Pirelli Sottozero winter tyres worn by our test car, makes for impressively neutral cornering traits. The clever operation of the all-wheel drive system quickly curtails any tendency towards understeer by sending the power back to the rear wheels. Keep your foot planted, and it will even entertain a fleeting moment of oversteer in Race mode. For those seeking more, the Drift and Special modes reduce the dependency on the electronic stability program (ESP), allowing lurid slides on command.

It will be the price in Australia that decides if the premium is really worth it. The R20 serves up great pace and engaging dynamics, but it’s going to be a lot of money to drop on a hot hatch, even one that is expected to rise in value in future years owing to its exclusivity.

Not that I suspect Volkswagen will have any trouble shifting the limited number of right-hand drive examples planned for sale in Australia, mind you. The Golf R has always proven popular, and I don’t see why this 20th-anniversary model would be any different. You’ll need to get in early though. Production is only planned to run for the next 12 months.

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Two decades of Volkswagen R is celebrated with the most powerful Golf ever, and we've had the first drive of the model overseas ahead of its arrival in Australia. When you’ve been in the game of producing hot hatches for as long as Volkswagen’s R...Volkswagen Golf R 20 Years Review