12 Nov 2018

Volkswagen MY19 Golf GTI and R 2018 review

Reduced range gets special-edition flagship, no more manuals
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Volkswagen has simplified its iconic hot hatch offering before a generational update late-2019. It sees extra performance for the Golf GTI and a sweeter Golf R, but without the option for a manual transmission.

If you want the most accomplished small hatchback that money can buy, full stop, then these hot Golfs nail the brief. Class-leading space, quality, technology, and all-round driver appeal elevate the Golf GTI and R right to the top of the hot-hatch category.

1/10

Overview

With the former MY18 Golf GTI Original price leader currently going for $38,990 drive-away, it’s quite a step up to the MY19 Golf GTI. A standard dual-clutch transmission accounts for some of the price hike, but you’re now looking at a $45,490 GTI entry ticket, with two optional packages ($2300 Sound and Style pack; $3900 Luxury pack) ready to lift the loaded GTI to an R-rivalling $51,690.

The MY19 R comes in either hatch ($56,490) or wagon ($58,490) bodystyles, each dual-clutch only and heavily stocked with kit. Just two options are available – a panoramic sunroof for $1900 and a 400-watt Dynaudio sound system for $1000.

The Golf R Special Edition cops a $5500 premium over the normal R hatchback, though it justifies that sticker with a host of unique R Performance Options previously only available in Europe.

At $61,990, that’s a lot of coin for a Golf (and $1900 more again if you want a sunroof) but the R Special Edition is a proper premium hatchback, with the finish and class to support its steep price tag.

 Overview

The 2019 GTI DSG has packed on some equipment bulk, while maintaining its trademark tartan-cloth interior trim. It now gets an Active Info Display instrument pack, a Driver Assistance Package (adaptive cruise control, lane assist with active lane guidance, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, traffic-jam assist and emergency assist), an electro-mechanical front differential lock, the Golf R’s larger ventilated front and rear disc brakes, and a more powerful 180kW/370Nm engine tune.

The MY19 GTI also boasts 18-inch alloy wheels, adaptive chassis control, an 8.0-inch multimedia touchscreen with sat-nav and Apple CarPlay, LED headlights, auto-folding rear-view mirrors, a rear-view camera with auto-park, and keyless entry and start.

 Overview

The R goes a step further by adding the stuff available in the GTI’s Sound/Style and Luxury packs as standard. All-wheel drive, leather upholstery, an electric driver’s seat with memory, dynamic cornering lights, 19-inch alloy wheels, an upgraded 9.2-inch multimedia system with gesture control and voice control, rear privacy-tint windows, metallic/pearl effect paint, memory-function exterior mirrors and, on the wagon, roof rails and a luggage tie-down net, are all standard.

The R Special Edition gains a titanium Akrapovic exhaust system (saving 7kg), lighter cross-drilled front brakes (by 2kg) with high-performance pads and silver calipers, lighter gloss-black 19-inch alloys, gloss-black mirrors, a 400-watt Dynaudio stereo, an ‘R Performance Options’ tailgate badge and a unique paint colour (Tumeric Yellow metallic, which looks uncannily like the gold colour offered on the Golf Mk4 of 20 years ago).

What's it like inside?

Since the 1998 Golf Mk4, Volkswagen has lead the pack when it comes to small-car build quality, and the current Mk7.5 continues that trend. Superb interior plastics tactility with soft-feel surfacing is true premium stuff, and so is the Golf’s upholstery and panel fit. It’s one of those rare cars that maintains an aura of expense no matter where you look.  

The Golf’s ‘premium mainstream’ positioning means it combines the relative affordability of an everyperson’s brand with the establishment-rattling finish and refinement of a genuine premium vehicle.

In fact, the Golf is better than an equivalent BMW or Mercedes-Benz – even an entry-level variant – when it comes to build quality and luxury feel, and that’s what makes it stand out.

It’s also an incredibly well-packaged vehicle – still the best in its class six years after launch – and such a great all-rounder.

Incredibly so for a 4.2m-long hatchback, squeezing a tonne of space and comfort into its modest form. And the Golf R wagon is even more so, proving that a traditional station wagon beats an equivalent SUV every time – especially when there’s so much grunt to play with.

For overall seat support and an ability to fit three average-sized people across its back seat, the Golf is unparalleled for a car its size. It’s a holistic design that feels completely all-of-a-piece, like each part was designed to perfectly complement the next.

That said, the suspension firmness of the Golf GTI and R puts them some way from the sublime ride comfort of an entry-level Golf.

Even with adaptive dampers, the GTI and R are quite disciplined in their wheel control, though with the drive-mode system set to Comfort, a 19-inch-wheeled Golf can pull off plushness surprisingly well. It’s quite a bit firmer in the Normal setting, though, which is the one best suited to the Golf GTI and R’s dynamic personality.

One of the Golf’s greatest achievements is its packaging efficiency, and the excellence of its five-seat interior. It’s one of the only cars in its class that can seat three in the rear in something approaching comfort.

Then there’s its height-adjustable centre-front armrest, which is one of the best in the world, and the carpet-lined extravagance of its cavernous door bins, each housing a 1.5-litre water bottle among other junk. No small car does it better.

And let’s not forget the Golf’s fantastic boot. Due to its rear driveshafts, the Golf R hatch foregoes a small amount of cargo space, but its 343-litre boot is almost best-in-class. The front-drive GTI takes that even further by offering 380 litres thanks to its dual-height floor. When it’s raised to the dead-flat level position (same as the R’s), you can actually store its rear luggage cover underneath. Genius!

Finally, the Golf R wagon. Now that the Holden Commodore SS-V Redline Sportwagon is dead, the Golf R wagon has the mega-fast, mega-practical niche almost all to itself (apart from the GTI’s Skoda Octavia RS245 cousin). With 605 litres of space below the luggage cover and a massive 1620 litres with the rear seat backrests dropped, it’s about as spacious and versatile as anyone could want.

What's it like to drive?

The bones of the GTI and R engines are the same – an EA888-series 2.0-litre turbo-petrol four-cylinder, tied to a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.

The MY19 GTI gets the uprated tune of the Golf GTI 40 Years and GTI Performance Edition 1 (and Skoda Octavia RS245) – namely 180kW at 5000-6200rpm and 370Nm from 1600-4300rpm – while the MY19 Golf R continues with 213kW/380Nm. Volkswagen doesn’t specify any output changes for the R Special Edition with Akrapovic exhaust.

The EA888 2.0-litre is a superb engine – both tractable and torquey, yet brimming with all-round muscle – and its well-earned reputation for not punishing keen drivers at the fuel bowser deserves particular praise. A nicely honed official fuel-consumption number and sharp on-paper performance figures are one thing. Backing those claims up with truth in reality is entirely another, and that’s where the Golf GTI and R excel.

Over the years the Golf GTI and R have gone from strength to strength when it comes to dynamics, and the MY19 models will see out this Golf generation in fine style.

It’s taken the R-branded Golf almost 15 years to be good enough to outshine its more affordable GTI-badge sibling, but the Mk7.5 Golf R finally does that. Blending unyielding traction with a playfulness and sweetness of balance that has long eluded the Golf R, the latest Special Edition version is the best yet. Chuckable handling with progressive and well-telegraphed responses, strong brakes, and a hugely likeable engine make driving one quickly a cracking experience.

The MY19 GTI is perhaps not quite the all-rounder it once was. On the optional 19s of our test car, it lacks that Teflon-coated smoothness of ride that characterises its more humble siblings, yet there’s still a lot to like. Terrific balance, great power-down ability from its limited-slip front diff, quick steering and a really strong engine make for a really fun drive. But the R is that little bit more hardcore – louder, sharper, quicker and tougher.

What's the first impression?

Almost nothing for the money will give you 0-100km/h in 4.8 seconds like a Golf R DSG (or 5.0sec in the wagon), and if we’re talking the Special Edition, such a fruity exhaust. The way it barks on upshifts and crackles on overrun is deeply addictive, and has almost become a signature of hot Golfs.

For most people, most of the time, the MY19 GTI has enough stonk to completely satisfy. With a 0-100km/h claim of 6.2 seconds, it’s at the top end for 40-something hot-hatch acceleration, yet it’s missing the very thing you’d expect from a DSG Golf GTI. It has no upshift bark.

Perhaps more mileage and carbon build-up in the exhaust system will improve things – it often does – but we miss the blurting that everyone else is now copying. Alongside the gratuitous dual-clutch Renaultsport Megane 280, the MY19 GTI is a touch too cultured and quiet. But it remains such an impressive hot hatch, even in the twilight of its life.

2019 Volkswagen Golf R Special Edition price and specifications

Price: $61,990 (before on-road costs)

Engine: 2.0-litre turbo-petrol four-cylinder

Power: 213kW at 5400-6500rpm

Torque: 380Nm at 1850-5300rpm

Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch, AWD

Fuel use: 7.2L/100km

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