The Volkswagen Golf has been the small hatchback and hot-hatch benchmark since its earliest days in the seventies. Challengers have come and gone, taking shots at the King for decades, but the staple from Wolfsburg is still the one to beat. The GTI was the peak of the Golf’s range for the first three generations, offering solid performance in a useable and reliable package. After that, though, VW knew there was something special to be made with their VR6 engine and Haldex Traction-based all-wheel-drive system, so they shoved it into the Mk4 Golf, molded on some big flares, and birthed the first of the Golf R family. It was called the R32 then but has since dropped the narrow-angle V6 to become the all-conquering Golf R.
The biggest changes have come under the hood in the twenty years since the original Golf R32 debuted, while everything else has remained familiar. Haldex-based AWD and the DSG gearbox never left, while the good looks never waned. Now, the newest Mk8 Golf R, and even the previous generation, are relatively inexpensive ways to get around as quickly as anything else on the road. Before searching for one to be your next fun daily driver, read up on how we got here.
Volkswagen/Audi in the late nineties was filled with ambitious projects, futuristic concepts, and emerging technologies that would define the next decade and that very era for the German company. Turbocharging was the go-to for performance machines like the GTI, S4, and S6, while the W8 and W12 engines attempted to push VAG into new markets and segments. Although several models from that era don't have the best reputation these days, the products to leave Germany from around that time are some of the most iconic we’ve seen. Somewhere near the top of that grouping is the Mk4 Golf R32, the first to wear VW’s R badge and an instant success amongst the public and motoring publications.
The Mk4 Golf GTI was a mixed bag, offering plenty of punch from the 1.8t engine but lackluster performance in the corners thanks to an archaic torsion-beam rear suspension. Its negatives never completely bothered the general public, though, as the VW sold as well as ever before. Volkswagen made small improvements over the years with different trim levels coming and going, but massive changes weren’t needed. That didn’t stop them, though, as they put together a Subaru WRX STi and Mitsubishi LanEvo fighter with a much more refined demeanor.
Starting with a bare three-door shell, VW shoehorned in the latest and most potent version of its 3.2-liter VR6. With four valves per cylinder, variable valve timing, and an 11.25:1 compression ratio, the 15-degree-vee six-cylinder produced about 240 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque through a six-speed manual (Europe also got the DSG transmission). From there, VW fitted the defining characteristic of every Golf R, the Haldex-based all-wheel-drive system. It’s essentially the same system as what you find in Volvos of the same era, making for an effective change over the front-wheel-drive GTI. Power was sent through the transmission into a drive shaft connected to the Haldex unit, mounted ahead of the rear differential. When the Haldex controller sensed the need for extra traction, the Haldex coupler activated and distributed torque to the rear wheels. It worked well enough, delivering a noticeable change in handling, but it was far from a true AWD system.
Improvements didn’t stop there, though. Front suspension utilizing Audi TT components prompted Volkswagen to ditch the torsion beam rear suspension architecture for a true independent multi-link design. The suspension was shared with the Seat Leon Cupra and introduced a little more agility into the Mk4 chassis, though not enough to combat the understeer presented by the heavy VR6. No matter, though, because the R32 looked like it would crush anything on the road, especially with its exclusive 18” OZ wheels.
The wheels looked right at home on the GTI body paired with the unique bumpers and side skirts each R32 wore. Colors were limited to four choices: Deep Blue Pearl, Reflex Silver, Black Magic Pearl, and Tornado Red. Inside the cabin, the limited model received a handful of unique bits like a leather-wrapped, three-spoke wheel, sporty Koenig seats, brushed aluminum trim, and a Monsoon audio system. And to never let you forget what you were driving, silver “R” logos were embroidered and embossed all over.
Volkswagen limited the production to just 5000 models for the US market, all appearing in the 2004 model year. Initial expectations had the available examples lasting dealerships for two years, but buyers snatched all of them up after 13 months. Since then, the R32 has gone on to become a modern classic. The ultimate Mk4 Golf is now a frequent face on auction websites where the nicest examples will bring nearly double their original MSRP. Lesser examples compete in price with used Mk7 GTIs. It’s likely a fair price considering it was the R32 that restored faith in VW enthusiasts. The poor handling provided by the Mk4 GTI wasn’t an improvement over the Mk3, another model enthusiasts lambasted and led many to believe the perennial hot-hatch was on its way out. The revisions included in the R32 reversed that narrative and set up for the incoming Mk5, which would be seen as a true return to form for the GTI.
While we were receiving our Mk4 R32, Europeans were already driving around in their Mk5 Golfs. By the time it arrived in the States, the Mk5 GTI had recaptured the joy and fun of the first two generations while improving everyday useability. Americans enthusiastically snapped up the new model, but they would have to wait until 2008 to own another R32.
Like its predecessor, the Mk5 R32 was limited to just 5000 examples in the three-door body style over a single model year. It also received the same 3.2-liter, narrow-angle VR6 with a tweak or two, raising the horsepower by 10. Attached to the VR6 was the DSG gearbox that the US didn’t get with the Mk4. However, the DSG was the only option this time, leaving three-pedal enthusiasts dreaming of European-spec cars. Behind that DSG was the same Haldex-based AWD system as the earlier model. It was very much the same car in some new skin.
That doesn’t make them identical, however. The Mk5 chassis was a clean-sheet design, allowing for better performance right out of the box. In GTI trim, the new model would lap rings around the Mk4 as the much-revised suspension featured a multi-link architecture like the R32. That development obviously carried over to the new R32 and made it more European feeling. Where the old car was rough and raw, the Mk5 has a more refined approach—but that doesn’t mean it was challenging M3s and 911s for agility supremacy.
The Golf’s FWD layout forces the engine to sit ahead of the front wheels, and the VR6’s engine block is cast iron. Although the AWD helps, it isn’t enough to keep the R32 from feeling heavy and numb with a significant amount of understeer through the bends. It was especially noticeable driven back-to-back with a standard GTI, where the lighter 2.0 turbo allowed for better handling and nearly the same punch out of the apex. However, even with the extra weight, the R32 did stop better. With blue calipers clamping over 345mm front and 310mm rear rotors, the R32 stopped as quickly as the Porsche 997 Carrera of the same model year.
VW’s refined approach continued into the interior, where the Mk5 took on a slightly different feel from the Mk4. Instead of completely bespoke seats and a steering wheel with contrasting embroidery and stitching, the Mk5 had slightly more upmarket components found in the regular GTI. Contrasting embroidery and stitching? Mmmm, unfortunately not, though the seats had an embossed R logo.
Externally, the Mk5 R32 exuded far less aggression than its predecessor, too. The brawny fender flares of the Mk4 were updated to a much less aggressive protrusion from the Mk5 chassis, though they are still technically present. A unique front bumper adorned the nose, but its different shape over the GTI is more understated in comparison to the Mk4. However, it did wear an aluminum-look center grille area instead of the black pieces from the GTI to set it apart. Down the side were unique side skirts and R32-exclusive 18” “Omaynt” wheels. At the rear was another R32 exclusive rear bumper that offered a painted lower section and twin exhaust pipes out of the center.
Overall, the Mk5 was a step in the right direction but lacked clear benefits over a tuned GTI. With less weight and better fuel economy, the GTI could corner better while sipping less fuel. Still, the VR6 was a delight and the last of a dying breed. It was never fitted into a golf chassis again and soon relegated to retirement from the entire VW lineup until making an unexpected return in turbocharged form for the Atlas SUV.
Where the Mk5 was a return to form, the Mk6 was a bit of a step back. It was based on the same PQ35 underpinnings as the Mk5, which wasn’t terrible, but it was behind competitors even at debut. Volkswagen was aware but wasn’t worried; they had several new technological advancements that the GTI and Golf R would take advantage of. On top of that, the Mk6 had an all-new look. Sharp angles and edges were aplenty, unlike the soft and round designs of the Mk4 and Mk5. The GTI offering was good, but it only made ten horsepower over its predecessor, putting it at a disadvantage to competitors like the Focus ST and MazdaSpeed3.
It didn’t get better for the hot Golf until the successor to the R32, the Golf R, finally hit our American shores in 2012. Back for the first time in four years was the über-Golf, but without its distinctive engine. The VR6, while iconic, was decades old, underpowered, very heavy, and lacked the emissions requirements of the future, so it was tossed aside for the EA113. It was a familiar engine, the same 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder that powered the Audi S3, the Mk5 GTI, and a handful of other VW/Audi performance vehicles.
Carrying the CRZA engine code, the Mk6 R made six more horsepower and seven more lb-ft of torque than the outgoing R32. Hardly anything to get excited over, but only when looked at in a vacuum. The EA113 and the attached six-speed manual gearbox allowed the Mk6 R to drop 200 lbs from the outgoing R32, boosting straight-line performance and handling characteristics. Oddly enough, the manual transmission, while lighter than the DSG, was also again the only transmission option for the American market.
As with its predecessors, the Golf R received a stiffened and lowered suspension to match handling performance with engine performance. European-spec examples benefitted from VW’s Dynamic Chassis Control suspension: an adjustable set of dampers for which drivers could choose firmness. Volkswagen kept those dampers from us, though our suspension was supposedly comparable. However, the largest handling improvements were provided by the revised Haldex system. Combined with the much lighter curb weight, the Mk6 cornered and changed direction more willingly than either R32.
Elsewhere, it was more of the same from VW. The exterior received an R-specific body kit consisting of new front and rear bumpers, side skirts, and exclusive 18” “Talladega” wheels. Inside the car, leather-clad GTI seats were the only choice as we missed out on the Europe-only Recaros. An R-specific steering wheel returned, but Piano Black accents replaced the bright aluminum-look pieces. Key to its improvement over the Mk5 is the inclusion of many switches, buttons, and screens from Audi, lending a slightly more luxurious feel.
With the change to the Mk7 generation of Golf and GTI came an all-new platform that Volkswagen calls MQB. Roughly translated, MQB is the modular platform for VW’s transverse layout models like the Golf, A3, TT, Tiguan, and so on. Utilizing a singular platform and architecture to pull from, VW was able to maximize efficiency and improve its engineering to deliver a competent, comfortable, and well-performing set of parts that can underpin the most basic model to the hard-core performance machines.
The GTI was the first of the performance Golfs to benefit from the package, but the Golf R reappeared soon after. Where the Mk6 was a semi-facelift over the Mk5, the Mk7 was a complete reinvention of the platform. In GTI form, it was a smash hit, with journalists raving about its engine, handling, and looks—all miles ahead of the previous generation. In R form, the Mk7 Golf has become a go-to for efficient, everyday performance as it’s roomy, comfortable, and exceedingly quick.
Improvements over the Mk6 are everywhere, though the engine compartment is where the fun is. Gone was the EA113 engine from the previous-gen, and in its place was the EA888 Gen.3. On paper, they’re both turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinders, but the more modern engine was capable of much more performance. An IHI IS38 twin-scroll turbocharger, better internal components, and advancements in engine controls were all a factor in the Golf R’s peak power output of 292 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque. Coupled with that was a buyer’s choice of a manual or DSG gearbox with six forward gears. While less involved, the paddle-shifter wrung the maximum out of the EA888 and the fifth-generation Haldex AWD system to give the Golf a healthy sub-five second 0-60 time.
The suspension featured a MacPherson strut up front and a multi-link at the rear that positioned the chassis 24mm lower than the standard GTI. It’s a tried and true design that keeps the Golf R competitive without breaking the bank. The American-spec Golf R also benefitted from VW’s DCC adjustable dampers, although it was an optional extra. We Americans were also given the XDS+ system on the front and rear axle.
While not a true LSD, the system uses the inside wheel brakes to restore traction. It’s simply an advanced automatic braking differential system, but one that works incredibly well on the Golf R. Between the Haldex improvements, DCC, and XDS+; understeer is hard to come by. Speaking of the brakes, sitting behind the R exclusive wheels are just about the same brakes fitted to the Mk6. With 345mm rotors up front and 310 in the rear, they offer plenty of performance for stock and modified machines.
Externally, the Mk7 received the same unique bumper, skirt, and wheel treatment that every other model in the lineage was privy to. Larger and more aggressive intakes in the front bumper gave away a bit of the Golf R’s edge, but it was a small change. The lights and other bits remained the same as the GTI, although the LED treatment made them look as aggressive as ever. Inside the cabin, GTI owners would feel familiar as the layout and features are nearly identical, save for the better quality materials in the R. Leather trim with accenting blue stitching makes up the seats, steering wheel, and a few other spots. At the same time, soft-touch plastics do the rest of the heavy lifting. Distinguishing accents and badging are present but less frequently than in other R models.
Volkswagen sold the Golf R between 2015 and 2017 before giving it a facelift. The updates were largely cosmetic though a few performance improvements made the cut. Distinguishing the Mk7 from the updated Mk7.5 are the revised LED headlights, taillights, and front bumper. A new 19” wheel design also made its debut with the updates. Interior updates were similar: small design changes with more advanced electrical components. The instrument cluster became customizable to driver preferences, while the new infotainment system featured a better operating system and a much larger screen, growing from 5.8” to 8”. Must be nice. But perhaps the expanded paint options were the best of all the improvements made to the Mk7.5. The earlier car had five options; Deep Black Pearl, Lapiz Blue, Tornado Red, Limestone Grey, and Oryx White Pearl. Facelifted models had those same options, but buyers could also special order one through VW Spektrum in one of 40 colors from Volkswagen’s vast color palette. Classics like Irish Green, Mars Red, Caribbean Green, and Ginster Yellow were just a few on that list.
Drivetrain and performance options remained the same, but the DSG was changed. The old DQ250 six-speed was nearing the limits of its performance and service life, so the Mk7.5 featured the DQ381, a seven-speed unit with a higher torque limit. For many owners, the seven-speed box has come in handy as they push the EA888 well beyond its original power figures. It isn’t uncommon to see a Mk7.5 Golf R with a slightly modified stock turbocharger and full bolt-ons producing over 500 horsepower on a stock bottom end.
Mk8 Golf R
Without a doubt, the Mk7 and Mk7.5 Golf R were the best the company had ever produced. The fun-killing understeer that had plagued the famed model for so long had been ironed out. The Haldex AWD was at its best alongside a handful of advanced driver assistance systems, and the engine was a bulletproof powerhouse. A monster of a car built upon the best Golf platform to date was surely a recipe for success, right? Well, yes and no. The performance variants sold enough for VW’s liking, but the standard Golf wasn’t selling enough, leading Volkswagen to discontinue the model in the US altogether. Thankfully, we didn’t get completely thrown aside as VW was gracious enough to bring over the GTI and Golf R. Both are improved over their predecessors, but through incremental change.
Under the Mk8’s hood is the familiar EA888, a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four; however, it’s a new spec. The “evo4,” as VW calls it, is a further development of the mill found in the Mk7. With a new turbocharger, improved direct fuel injection, and updates to the variable valve timing and the exhaust’s variable valve lift, the newest EA888 is more powerful than ever in a Golf. It pumps out 315 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque while still returning up to 30mpg if you can stop yourself from pinning the big pedal every time you have an opening. However, that fuel figure is dependent on transmission. Returning from the Mk7.5 are the same offerings: a six-speed manual and a seven-speed DSG. The latter will get you the best fuel mileage, but the manual isn’t far behind. If you stick with that DSG, you’ll also be able to snap off sub-four-second 0-60 times! The manual is a bit slower and returns less mpg, but there is no comparison between driver engagement and fun.
The Haldex AWD once again returns with a revised automatic braking differential. This time, the Golf R features a special button on the steering wheel, allowing drivers to change the engine, suspension, and AWD characteristics. One of those, Drift mode, uses the rear calipers to drag the brakes on one of the rear wheels to induce more oversteer, though it’s hardly a donut-making machine. Combined with the adjustable suspension, new 19” wheels with standard summer tires, and the 12mm larger front brakes, the Mk8 Golf R laid down a 7:51 time around the ring. That’s 19 seconds quicker than its predecessor. By all means, the Mk8 is the fastest Golf ever to leave Wolfsburg.
Of course, the Golf R has more to offer than performance. Inside the cabin is an interior with sporting touches everywhere. Leather-clad surfaces with contrasting blue stitching cover most surfaces, while the seats are the best looking the US has gotten. Deep bolsters and the blue “R” logo mean all business. Elsewhere, it’s all about the tech. Standard safety features include forward collision warning, rear cross-traffic alert, blind-spot monitoring, and adaptive cruise control. In front of the driver is a configurable 10.25” screen that acts as the Mk8’s instrument cluster, while a touchscreen 10” display functions as the main infotainment center. Surrounding the displays and covering the steering wheel are touch-sensitive controls instead of physical buttons. The only toggle switches in the interior are the window controls.
On the outside, there aren’t any touch-sensitive controls, just a few door handles. However, there is plenty of style. The Golf has always been a more reserved option in the boy-racer world of hot hatches and sub-compacts, and that remains true today, though the goalposts have moved a bit. The curvacious flares found on earlier models aren’t there, but the aggressive looks still are. Standard LED headlights wear sharp, angled lines that accentuate the gaping intakes in the front bumper. A body line at its trailing edge continues down the side skirts and to the rear bumper that houses the sports exhaust’s quad exhaust tips. There's even a pretty big wing, but it's designed in a way that you don't truly notice it. Driving by, you might never realize what it is.
For now, the Mk8 is the latest generation. Whether or not we see a new Mk9 GTI with a gasoline-powered engine is still up for debate, though it’s looking like we won’t. With that in mind, the Mk8 could be the last hurrah for the progenitor of practical speed and usability.
Car and motorsports-obsessed writer/editor for FCP Euro's DIY Blog. Constantly dreaming of competing behind the wheel or searching for another project. Owner of a turbo Subaru Forester and a ratty Porsche 914, neither of which are running.