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First Drive: Volkswagen Golf R 20 Years

Lawrence Allan

Written By Lawrence Allan

Volkswagen Golf R 20 Years Review 2023: front driving


  • Even faster and more effortless than standard Golf R

  • Changes improve engine and gearbox response

  • Standard leather is better than the R's cloth seats


  • Quite a bit more than a standard Golf R to buy

  • Blue exterior detailing won't be to all tastes

  • Still not the most exciting hot hatch around 

Volkswagen Golf R 20 Years Review 2023: wheel
Blue wheel accents of Golf R 20 Years are striking or revolting depending on your review, but thankfully are optional.

What is it?

The Volkswagen Golf R 20 Years is an even more special version of Volkswagen's flagship Golf variant, built to celebrate 20 years since the brand's R division first worked its magic on the popular family hatchback.

Today's Volkswagen Golf R can clearly trace its genetics back to 2002. That doesn't sound like a long time ago in the grand scheme of things, but an awful lot has changed in the car industry since then. Back then VW released the Golf R32 based on the Mk4 Golf, shoehorning in a 3.2-litre version of the celebrated VR6 engine along with a four-wheel drive system. 

It was a recipe with plenty of potential, particularly as the more attainable Mk4 Golf GTI was (and still is) considered the most underwhelming GTI of all time. The original Golf R32 was also the first VW Group model to be available (outside the UK) with the now common DSG dual-clutch automatic gearbox. 

In the 20 year period since the R32 arrived we've had a further R32 generation before the '32' part of the name was ditched along with (yep, you guessed it) that sonorous 3.2-litre engine. The next three generations were all 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo models, arguably losing some character but gaining more performance and efficiency. 

The latest Mk8 Volkswagen Golf R is already the most powerful Golf ever put into production with 320PS, in that typical "more is better" attitude car makers have these days the new Golf R 20 Years raises the output to 333PS. 

It's not just a simple tune up, though. The 2.0-litre engine also gets a 'pre-load' function which keeps the turbo spinning at a constant speed, while the throttle flap is held open even when you lift off - both changes are in the name of boosting throttle response.

Alongside this VW has given the DSG gearbox an update for more aggressive shifts in the raciest drive mode, and improved the noise both inside and out. Interior changes are limited to standard Nappa leather sports seats (much more premium than the naff, almost bus-like chequered cloth you normally get as standard), carbon fibre trim on the dash and door tops and new puddle light graphics. 

And the outside? You get a couple of new badges for the VW Golf R 20 Years, a Blue R logo, plus either blue or black door mirror covers and the option of blue accents for the standard 19-inch alloy wheels. Note that the latter is optional - thankfully for many. 

Volkswagen Golf R 20 Years Review 2023: front static
The VW Golf R 20 Years is also marked out by contrasting blue or black mirror covers.
Volkswagen Golf R 20 Years Review 2023: interior
The cabin receives carbon fibre trim for the first time on any Golf, while special puddle lights mark out the 20 Years version too.

Sounds exciting. What's it like? 

Don't get too excited: this is a Volkswagen Golf R after all, which majors on effectiveness and effortless cross-country pace over outright excitement. However, the changes all come together to make this a more appealing hot hatchback to enthusiasts. 

We'll gloss over the visual additions of the VW Golf R 20 Years a bit: you'd have to be a die-hard Volkswagen fanboy to notice the badging tweaks, while the blue detailing all but disappears if you (like most Golf R buyers seem to) opt for the Lapiz Blue paint. Really, what matters here is whether it drives better than the regular car. 

We're pleased to say that the changes did seem noticeable after half a day at the wheel on a nice mix of country roads. It absolutely poured with rain all day, but wet roads are definitely Golf R territory - we don't think you'd be going faster in cars costing five times this. 

The first thing you pick up on is the engine and throttle response. The standard VW Golf R is certainly rapid but can respond a bit lazily to throttle inputs even in its raciest setting. In less aggressive drive modes the 20 Years feels no different, but selecting Race or the Special setting activates the new calibration and there's less lag - it picks up very quickly and continues to rip through the revs convincingly right up to the redline. 

In these settings you also notice the gearbox changes. Clearly stung by criticism that the regular Golf R is too smooth and civilised for its own good, VW has engineered in more of a kick in your back with upshifts to add a bit of spicy character. Again you don't feel this in the less racy drive modes, but it adds some sensation and theatre in a car that really needs it. 

The engine sound is better, too, but not drastically so. Once again the regular Golf R somewhat lacks a truly emotive soundtrack to match the potency on offer, but get the Volkswagen Golf R 20 Years above 4,000rpm and there a more hard-edged tone to the augmented 'engine' noise from the speakers. Our car had the optional Akrapovic exhaust which helped matters, but this also gets more pops and bangs than in the standard car.

One new feature we're not sure about is 'Emotion Start'. By starting the car with a certain technique you'll get a louder, more in-your-face exhaust note for that initial few seconds with revs flaring up more. It's the complete opposite of the 'quiet mode' that many performance cars have and not something your neighbours will probably appreciate, but if you're at a car meet (or more likely the McDonald's car park late at night) it might win some fans. 

Other aspects of the VW Golf R's driving experience aren't changed in the 20 Years edition. It's surprising that DCC (Dynamic Chassis Control) is still an option here - it's a pretty essential one if you want to make the most of the car's Jekyl and Hyde balance between comfort and sharpness and adjust to varying road surfaces. 

With it fitted you really get a sense for the sheer breadth of ability the VW Golf R 20 Years offers. It's that little bit more engaging for your traditional hot hatch buyer, if ultimately still not the white knuckle thrill ride of something like a Honda Civic Type R. But dial the aggression down when you're not in the mood and the R becomes almost as refined and effortless at long distances as a regular Golf. It'll even nudge 40mpg if you're gentle with the right foot on a long journey. 

Volkswagen Golf R 20 Years Review 2023: rear static
The Volkswagen Golf R 20 Years dials up a bit more excitement but doesn't ruin the standard car's impressive all-weather, all-roads capability.

Okay, but how much is it? 

Brace yourselves: the starting price of the Volkswagen Golf R 20 Years is £48,095. That's £5,400 more than the entry-level Golf R - quite a sum even when you're able to soften the blow by spreading the cost over a three or four-year finance deal.

That price is also before you've spent £850 on the adaptive dampers and a hefty £3,500 on the Akrapovic exhaust option. Volkswagen also has the cheek to charge you for things like a reversing camera and rear side airbags, items which should be standard on a flagship such as this. 

But let's look at it another way. The Golf R 20 Years gets the usually optional Performance Pack as standard (that raises the top speed, adds a clever Drift mode and the 'Special' drive mode honed at the Nurburgring racetrack), plus the bigger alloy wheels and the leather sports seats, which also get electric memory adjustment for the driver and both heating and ventilation in both front seats. 

These are all things that VW says the majority of Golf R buyers spec anyway, so if you do the maths the 20 Years version looks like decent value. Plus it's expected that around 500 cars will come here, making this more exclusive and special when the time comes to sell. 

Volkswagen Golf R 20 Years Review 2023: front side
The VW Golf R 20 Years is only available to buy for a year, with around 500 expected to come to the UK.

Watch: The new Golf R "20 Years" | Volkswagen R

Volkswagen Golf R 20 Years: the facts

Model tested: Volkswagen Golf R 20 Years

Engine: 2.0-litre 4cyl turbo petrol

Gearbox: seven-speed dual-clutch automatic

Power/torque: 333PS/420Nm

0-62mph: 4.6 secs

Combined fuel economy: 36.2mpg

CO2 emissions:  175g/km

Price from: £48,095

As tested: £50,087

It is a special edition version of the Volkswagen Golf R built to mark 20 years of the R brand, with unique styling changes and mechanical upgrades.

Absolutely it is. Even the standard Volkswagen Golf R is capable of 0-62mph in 4.7 seconds and a top speed of up to 168mph. The Golf R 20 Years brings the acceleration time down to 4.6 seconds. 

In every situation the Volkswagen Golf R is faster than the Golf GTI because it has more power and torque, along with four-wheel drive to get all that power down onto the tarmac. 


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