The Volkswagen Golf R is the ultimate expression of VW’s hot hatchback, combining everyday practicality with the power and performance of a sports car. This iconic model has been around since 2002, with the current eighth-generation model continuing the tradition of delivering a sporty driving experience with advanced technology, modern design, and VW’s build quality. Let’s take a closer look at the new Golf R, which I drove in the Middle-East city of Dubai last month.

The Volkswagen Golf R has been a popular car in the hot hatchback market since the release of the original Golf R32 in 2002. The R32 was praised for its smooth power delivery, excellent handling, and unique exhaust note. It featured a 3.2-litre VR6 engine producing 241 bhp and 236 lb-ft (320 Nm) of torque, as well as Volkswagen's 4Motion all-wheel drive system.

In 2010, Volkswagen introduced the Golf R as the range-topping Golf model. The Golf R featured a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine producing 256 bhp and 243 lb-ft of torque, as well as the 4Motion all-wheel drive system. At that time, the Golf R was praised for its refined ride, excellent build quality, and sporty performance.

Gallery: 2023 Volkswagen Golf R first drive review

Photos by Nick Philippo

2023 Golf R

The current generation of the Golf R was introduced about three years ago at the end of 2019, and builds on the success of its predecessors with even more power, advanced technology, and a sharper design. The eighth-generation Golf R is the most powerful yet, with a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engine producing 320 bhp and 400 Nm of torque (minus 20 Nm in comparison to its European sibling). It allows you to accelerate from 0 to 62 mph in just 4.8 seconds instead of the 4.7 in Europe.

The Golf R's drivetrain is one of the highlights of the vehicle offering the right kind of oomph under your right foot, accompanied by the sound track from the optional Akrapovic exhaust. The engine is mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission that provides quick and precise shifts, so precise and smooth that they might come across as a touch dull. The power is converted to the road via an all-wheel-drive system which includes a R-Performance Torque Vectoring system that provides the right kind of balance between distributing the power and balancing the grip. The car’s drivetrain is responsive, delivering power to all four wheels quickly and efficiently.

The Volkswagen Golf R is a joy to drive on one end, and beautifully comfortable to drive at the other end. The R feels just as accommodating as any compact German executive saloon. The precise handling and a responsive chassis make it fun to throw around corners. The R-specific suspension and steering tuning give the car a firm but comfortable ride with a range of settings that allow you as the driver to adjust the ride to your preferences. There is even a drift mode available via the driving profile selection! All in all, you will get rewarded with a sharp steering response, quick turn-in, and tons of grip, which converted into a lovely drive across desert roads and the Arabian concrete jungle.

2023 Volkswagen Golf R first drive review

Exterior sleekness & interior refinement

The exterior of the Golf R is sleek and sporty, with a bold front grille, aggressive air intakes, and striking LED headlights. The R-specific bumpers, side skirts, and rear spoiler give the car a distinct look, while the quad Akrapovic exhaust tips hint at the car’s performance capabilities. My Golf R rode on the optional 19-inch alloy wheels, which fill out the wheel wells nicely and give the car a planted, purposeful stance. Overall, the Golf R’s exterior design is both refined and a touch aggressive here and there, not making it stand out hugely in a crowded hot hatch market even in the optional Lapiz Blue paintwork finish. There are more in-your-face options available out there, but they won’t let you be this fast under the radar.

The interior of the R has its quirks, but offers a modern and minimalist design. The cabin is well-appointed, with decent materials and a premium feel throughout. The front seats are supportive and comfortable, and the driver's seat is adjustable in multiple directions to ensure a perfect driving position.

The Golf R comes with a host of technology features, including a digital gauge cluster, a touchscreen infotainment system, and a premium audio system. The controls of the digital interfaces are far from intuitive. Obvious features are buried in different menus and hard to find, and the touch buttons in front of the central screen are not easy to control. Too much thought is required. Even after days of driving the Golf, you still get annoyed and wonder why the Germans came up with this design.

2023 Volkswagen Golf R first drive review


Overall, the current Volkswagen Golf R is an impressive vehicle that lives up to its reputation as a performance sports car. With its advanced engineering, sleek design, and on-tap performance, it is capable of allowing anyone to drive it with ease. All in all, it is a lovely daily which is capable of bringing you from A to B. Whether you’re cruising on the highway or tackling desert roads, the Golf R offers a composed driving experience that is hard to beat.

While the sporty German faces stiff competition in the hot hatch market, it continues to impress with its quirky interior, mature exterior design, and performance capabilities. However, if you would purely look at the hot-hatch nature of this Golf, then I would move elsewhere and find you models that offer more engaging driving dynamics and more enhanced involvement, which doesn’t mean the Golf isn’t a wonderful companion everyday of the week. On the contrary even, it is just no longer the benchmark when it comes to true sporty hot-hatch abilities.