I drove a $42,000 VW Golf R to see if the 'performance hatch' is worth the price - here's the verdict

VW Golf RMatthew DeBord/BI

  • The VW Golf R is a performance hatchback that adds premium touches and tech to the VW Golf GTI.
  • The Golf R is a bit expensive, but it's a versatile vehicle that's bliss to drive.
  • The best part is that a driver can access all the power the Golf R's 288-horsepower engine puts out. This is an ideal daily commuter for a grownup who still wants to enjoy the occasional track day - or just likes to carve up winding roads.

The 2018 Volkswagen Golf R might be the most fun I've had behind the wheel thus far this year.

True, I sampled the $41,735 compact four-door in Los Angeles, with access to all my favorite driving roads from the ten years I spent in the City of Angels - not to mention the kind of traffic that tries men's souls, and provide an excellent test of whether an "enthusiast" car can handle everyday commuting duty.

The VW Golf has been a Golf for many years now in the US, but the nameplate, introduced in 1974, was first encountered by many Americans as a Rabbit. The Golf designation came later - VW has also restored the Rabbit moniker from time to time -and the car is now on its seventh generation.

Gen seven has been around since 2012 (refreshed in 2014), so an obvious question is, "Has the Golf gotten long in the tooth?"

Maybe, but the design is sort of automotive perfection, the highest expression of premium European hatchback. And when you add the "R" treatment, upping the horsepower and handling, you aren't going to care if Golf could stand an update. (A new Golf is slated to arrive sometime next year.)

I had a grand time with the Golf R in SoCal. Read on to find out how it went.

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I picked up my 2018 Golf R at LAX, and the weather was completely spectacular. It would hold up for the two days I was in the City of Angels.

I picked up my 2018 Golf R at LAX, and the weather was completely spectacular. It would hold up for the two days I was in the City of Angels.

The car was sharp with a "Lapiz Blue Metallic" exterior and a "Titan Black" leather interior. For s sporty car, the Golf R in this tailoring was downright conservative.

The car was sharp with a "Lapiz Blue Metallic" exterior and a "Titan Black" leather interior. For s sporty car, the Golf R in this tailoring was downright conservative.

I got to test the cargo capacity right away.

I got to test the cargo capacity right away.

The Golf R has about 23 cubic feet without the rear seats dropped. With the rears down, that capacity more than doubles. Such is life with a hatchback! You have ample space for stuff.

The Golf R has about 23 cubic feet without the rear seats dropped. With the rears down, that capacity more than doubles. Such is life with a hatchback! You have ample space for stuff.

I settled in to hit some of my favorite roads.

I settled in to hit some of my favorite roads.

Hello, Malibu!

Hello, Malibu!

The Golf R is a nice looking set of wheels, but it isn't a head-turner.

The Golf R is a nice looking set of wheels, but it isn't a head-turner.

For the sake of comparison, here's a Golf from a couple of generations back. Not a car that's change much!

For the sake of comparison, here's a Golf from a couple of generations back. Not a car that's change much!

But why mess with a good thing?

But why mess with a good thing?

The Golf is, in many respects, the ur-hatchback. If you want a compact hatch, chances are you'll be checking out this VW. Note the integrated spoiler above the backlight.

The Golf is, in many respects, the ur-hatchback. If you want a compact hatch, chances are you'll be checking out this VW. Note the integrated spoiler above the backlight.

The dual exhaust pipes and the modest "R" are among the few indications that this Golf has a bit more oomph under the hood.

The dual exhaust pipes and the modest "R" are among the few indications that this Golf has a bit more oomph under the hood.

My tester came with some cool 19-inch allow wheels and some high-performance summer rubber. It was sunny SoCal after all!

My tester came with some cool 19-inch allow wheels and some high-performance summer rubber. It was sunny SoCal after all!

Yep, it's an R. You could be forgiven for not noticing.

Yep, it's an R. You could be forgiven for not noticing.

The LED headlights frame a VW logo that hasn't changed ... well, ever.

The LED headlights frame a VW logo that hasn't changed ... well, ever.

Why don't we look under the hood?

Why don't we look under the hood?

Here we find an outstanding 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine, making 288 horsepower with 285 pound-feet of torque. The 0-60 mph run is achieved in about six seconds, and fuel economy is fine: 22 mpg city/29 highway/25 combined.

Here we find an outstanding 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine, making 288 horsepower with 285 pound-feet of torque. The 0-60 mph run is achieved in about six seconds, and fuel economy is fine: 22 mpg city/29 highway/25 combined.

My test car came with a seven-speed automatic transmission that sent power smoothly and briskly to the all-wheel-drive system. Automanual mode is available, and a six-speed stick can also be had.

My test car came with a seven-speed automatic transmission that sent power smoothly and briskly to the all-wheel-drive system. Automanual mode is available, and a six-speed stick can also be had.

Driving modes are Eco, Comfort, Normal, Race, and Custom (the last allows you to configure steering, suspension, throttle and so on, to your liking).

Driving modes are Eco, Comfort, Normal, Race, and Custom (the last allows you to configure steering, suspension, throttle and so on, to your liking).

The inside is as unassuming as the outside.

The inside is as unassuming as the outside.

The back seat is ... not large.

The back seat is ... not large.

I'm 5'-7" and I struggled to squeeze my legs in.

I'm 5'-7" and I struggled to squeeze my legs in.

The "R" branding and the cream piping is about all the heat you get inside this hot hatch.

The "R" branding and the cream piping is about all the heat you get inside this hot hatch.

No fooln' around with the basic, analog-digital instrument cluster, either. VW calls it a "digital cockpit."

No fooln' around with the basic, analog-digital instrument cluster, either. VW calls it a "digital cockpit."

That's a teeny R logo on the steering wheel. The front seats, by the way, are heated. They're also comfortable for commuting, but also supportive enough the deal with spirited driving.

That's a teeny R logo on the steering wheel. The front seats, by the way, are heated. They're also comfortable for commuting, but also supportive enough the deal with spirited driving.

The Golf R's infotainment system isn't anything fancy, but it gets the job done. I used GPS navigation to deal with the complicated orienteering challenge that is the LA area, and there are USB/AUX ports to connect devices, as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

The Golf R's infotainment system isn't anything fancy, but it gets the job done. I used GPS navigation to deal with the complicated orienteering challenge that is the LA area, and there are USB/AUX ports to connect devices, as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

There's a small suite of apps, and the eight-inch touchscreen is responsive. There's also a working CD player!

There's a small suite of apps, and the eight-inch touchscreen is responsive. There's also a working CD player!

The Golf R's secret weapon: a fantastic Fender Premium audio system.

The Golf R's secret weapon: a fantastic Fender Premium audio system.

So what's the verdict?

So what's the verdict?

The 2018 VW Golf R is perhaps a tad pricey at almost $42,ooo, but my tester was loaded. The only extra on the whole car was ... well, there wasn't one. The $40,885 MSRP closed in on 42 grand thanks only to an $850 destination charge. (The base Golf, by the way, is about $21,000.)

You're paying for European build quality, a semi-premium interior, a superb sport suspension system, and of course that oomphy turbo four and its nearly 300 horsepower. OK, you're also paying for a bunch of driver-assist features (forward collision warning, autonomous emergency braking, lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring), all of which are helpful. But it's the performance that raises the cost.

Is it worth it? It's so worth it!

The Golf R is fun, while not calling much attention to itself. The analogy might be to a outwardly conservative individual who plays it cool much of the time, but who can flip a switch and become a champion sprinter and really show his or her stuff. Under what is after a familiar exterior, the Golf R harbors if not a rampaging beast, then an athlete that isn't afraid to cut lose.

The best thing about the Golf R is that its 288 ponies are highly accessible on the public roads. I've driven this car on a race track, and in my view, it's among the best weekend racers around. But even without competitive tarmac under the wheels, you can hit the freeway or, as I did, the canyon roads above Malibu and gobble just about everything the 2.0-liter turbo four has to offer.

The front disc brakes are sufficiently grabby to manage that pep, and while the steering isn't heavy, it isn't disconnected. Some more serious sports cars can deliver point-and-shoot steering, but the Golf R can drop back to poke-around-town mode and not exert excessive demands on the driver.

I mean, the whole setup is sort of perfect. If you get bored sitting on the freeway, you hop off an take on some twisty roads for a while and returned to everyday life invigorates, but without a car that has a giant rear spoiler or that makes obnoxious snarly engine noises. The Golf R, as many reviewers have noted, says, "grownup."

As performance cars go, the Golf — in its performance guises, which includes the more extroverted GTI — is almost invisible. But when you dive into a corner and call in the torquey motor and crisp seven-speed to snick down a few gears and power you out, the Golf R doesn't biff the challenge.

The suspension isn't even that stiff. The engineering is sort of magical. How can a car this versatile also be this solid when ridden hard?

VW calls the Golf R a "performance hatch," to distinguish it from the more overtly sporty GTI "hot hatch." The additional dollars on the sticker might make you think twice, but the Golf R is a vehicle that an owner can live with well into their thirties, forties, and beyond.

It's a car I'd buy, without thinking twice about the sticker price.

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