New Volkswagen Golf R prototype first drive – hot hatch facelifted for 2024

One of our favourite hot hatches, the VW Golf R, is due to gain more power, an updated infotainment system and sharper styling later this year. We’ve taken a prototype version for a test drive...

VW Golf R prototype front driving

On sale: Late 2024 | Price: From £45,000 (est)

You could say the Volkswagen Golf R has always been a bit of a stubborn hot hatch, because it simply refuses to let its everyday usability be corrupted by its sports-car-rivalling performance.

You see, the Honda Civic Type R has Touring Car appeal, but the suspension can be a little bit aggressive in its sportiest drive mode. Meanwhile, the limited practicality of the Toyota GR Yaris means it's simply incapable of taking a family on holiday. The Golf R, on the other hand, can take everything in its stride. 

In other words, it’s garnered a reputation as a hot hatch that can be used every day in more situations than most rivals. But that's not all, because an updated version is due to arrive by the end of 2024.

Volkswagen Golf R prototype side driving

In fact, the R joins the entire VW Golf range in being refreshed. But while the facelifted regular Golf is on sale now (with the facelifted VW Golf GTI and Golf GTE plug-in hybrid (PHEV) set to join it over the summer), fans of the R (and GTI Clubsport) will have to wait a little longer. 

How much this will cost is still being kept under wraps, but it's expected be around £45,000. Sure, that’s no small amount, but the facelifted GR Yaris will cost a similar amount and a Honda Civic Type R costs upwards of £50,000 nowadays.

However, we do know that the R will continue to be sold in hatchback and estate car forms. We’ve been able to try both in prototype forms and gather some early impressions ahead of the car’s full reveal on 25 June 2024.

Volkswagen Golf R prototype hatch and estate rear driving

What’s the VW Golf R facelift like to drive? 

The facelifted Golf R uses the same 2.0-litre turbocharged engine as before, except now it produces 328bhp (as opposed to 316bhp) and has a 0-62mph time of 4.6 seconds (down from 4.7 seconds). To be frank, the bump in power is barely noticeable, but current Golf R owners will be more appreciative of the sharper engine response, thanks to a tweaked turbocharger that gets to work sooner and reduces the time it takes from pressing the accelerator pedal to it delivering as much shove as possible. 

Oliver Young driving VW Golf R prototype

If the above tweaks sound familiar that's because last year’s Golf R 20 Years special edition saw similar upgrades. It seems the improvements were enough to become the foundation for the standard R’s facelift. The improvements worked well too, so that can only be a good thing for buyers. 

There are still Comfort, Sport, Race and Individual drive modes to play with, which can also adjust the firmness of the optional adaptive suspension (called DCC adaptive chassis control).

Volkswagen Golf R prototype front head-on driving

In comfort, the ride is firm but very forgiving and still very well cushioned by hot hatch standards. Dial things up to Sport or Race and the ride becomes less compliant in exchange for less body roll, even if a Civic Type R is still going to corner flatter.

As before, the optional Performance Pack includes two extra driving modes: Drift and Special. The former is best experienced on a private track and sends more power to the rear wheels to help rotate the car when accelerating out of corners. The latter has been tuned with the Nürburgring Nordschleife racetrack in mind and combines the most aggressive engine and gearbox response with a slightly less aggressive suspension setup to cope with the Nordschleife’s undulating surface.

Volkswagen Golf R prototype rear cornering

You’ll still be able to pay extra for a factory-fitted sports exhaust upgrade from Akrapovic, but it has been revised to produce a slightly deeper, more aggressive sound – we should mention this is only available on the hatch. Mind you, the standard system is already pretty good as well.

While the engine soundtrack is synthesised and piped in through the interior speakers, you get some crackles and pops from the exhaust every now and again – these are louder and more aggressive with the Akrapovic setup – and you can clearly hear the turbo whooshing away when you floor the accelerator pedal.

The R remains solely paired with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox – there's no clutch pedal here. Gearshifts are super quick, even if we wish it were snappier to respond to manual control (via the paddles mounted behind the steering wheel). Pulling away and driving smoothly from stationary can also be a little tricky in the sportier drive modes due to accelerator pedal response becoming very sensitive, almost like an on/off switch.

Volkswagen Golf R prototype estate side driving

The R remains astonishingly capable and easy to drive, whether that be in a relaxed or spirited fashion.  Its performance is relentless, its steering is well weighted and confidence inspiring and its all-wheel-drive system is grippy yet playful.

What’s the VW Golf R facelift like inside?

Images of the face-lifted Golf R's interior are being kept under wraps until the full reveal takes place on the 25th June 2024.

However, what we do know is that, while the rest of the Golf range is switching back to individual, physical steering-wheel buttons, the Golf R will continue to use the more fiddly touch-sensitive panels of the pre-facelift model. Why? Well, it’s because VW would have to integrate the R button (which cycles the driving modes) into a new set-up. It’s a shame the top-of-the-range Golf R is being denied an improvement cheaper Golfs are getting.

On a more positive note, the Golf R is receiving the same updated infotainment system as the others, as well as a larger touchscreen than before – up from 10.0in to 12.9in. Navigating the system soon proves a quicker and easier process than it was with the old one, aided by handy, configurable shortcut buttons at the top that let you jump between your most commonly used menus. 

Meanwhile, the climate controls are still touch-sensitive pads located directly below the touchscreen, but are now at least backlit, making them easier to see when it’s dark. 

Apart from that, the interior is much the same as before, meaning it feels somewhat plush in certain places, but disappointingly cheap with scratchy plastics elsewhere.

As for interior space, it’s exactly the same as before. Rear-seat space is good but not quite as generous as the amount you get with a Ford Focus ST or Skoda Octavia vRS. The boot of the hatch can take five carry-on suitcases beneath its parcel shelf. The estate car version, on the other hand, can take nine.

VW Golf R facelift verdict and specs

Based on our early test drive, the Golf R is as usable as ever, gaining slightly livelier performance yet retaining all of its signature comfort and refinement. Sure, the improvements are minor, but they’re improvements, nonetheless. 

We’ve mentioned some rivals already, but perhaps the updated Golf R’s biggest threat comes from the Audi S3. It’s another great, versatile, sub-£50k hot hatch and one that’s just been facelifted – and in the process it’s gained Golf R power and an eerily similar all-wheel-drive system. A comparison between the pair will be very interesting indeed.

Price £45,000 (est) Engine 4cyl, 1984cc, turbocharged, petrol Power 328bhp Torque 310lb ft at 2100 to 5500rpm Gearbox 7-spd automatic 0-62mph 4.7sec Top speed 155mph 0-62mph 4.7sec Fuel economy tbc CO2/tax tbc

Key rivals:
Audi S3
Honda Civic Type R
Toyota GR Yaris

Read more: The best hot hatches

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