In early 2022, I was lucky enough to find a new Volkswagen Golf GTI whose original buyer backed out before it arrived. The black-on-black hatchback was supremely fun for a little over a year, but like many gearheads, I never stopped window shopping for a replacement. I returned the lease earlier this year, almost two years ahead of schedule, and still received a refund check due to the insanity in the used car market. While returning the lease at the dealer, I overheard a conversation about a 2023 20th Anniversary Golf R that was on its way and immediately placed a deposit. I took delivery a few weeks ago and have been on a mission to get past the break-in mileage period so I can begin really driving it.
Before we get too far, there’s a little backstory we need to cover. While waiting for the Golf R to arrive, I received a call from a Toyota dealer about a GR Corolla I’d inquired about weeks earlier. They promised to sell it at MSRP, but when it came time to move forward, the final price sheet showed add-on protection packages I didn’t want. I was told that the extras, including things like paint protection, were not optional, and I decided to walk away from the sale rather than argue.
Though I was close to buying the GR Corolla, I’m thrilled with the Golf R and can say I’d buy it again if I had to make the same choice today. That said, both cars are interesting and compelling performance cars if you can find them at or near MSRP. I wanted to share the reasoning behind my saying that I’d buy the VW over again and give a general overview of how the two cars differ and which features gave the Golf R the edge in my decision-making process.
The Volkswagen Golf R knows when to calm down
When I had the GTI, I was impressed with its sport mode feature, as it brings noticeable changes to the car’s behavior. The SE trim I leased didn’t come with the adaptive suspension system that the range-topping Autobahn trim had, but its sport mode was a genuinely delightful feature to use. The Golf R builds on the GTI Autobahn with more drive modes, all-wheel drive with torque vectoring, and a load of other go-fast goodies.
That all sounds great, but there’s little use for giant brakes and aggressive driving modes when you’re sitting in stop-and-go traffic or navigating tight city streets. Placing the car in comfort mode after spirited driving in Nürburgring or race mode brings a noticeable and drastic change in the car’s behavior. The change feels like the Golf R is unclenching its fists, taking a deep breath, and counting to ten. Comfort mode tames the car considerably, and the Golf R becomes a surprisingly comfortable cruiser.
The GR Corolla is in go-mode 100 percent of the time
Though not as quick in a straight line, the GR Corolla is no slouch and can roast the Golf R in the corners. Its all-wheel drive system offers more granular control over power and torque delivery, and its six-speed manual transmission delivers crisp shifting with an excellent feel and easy movement. The driver can dial in specific all-wheel drive configurations that shift power between the front and rear axles and between individual wheels.
Because of those things and many others, the GR Corolla is a thrilling car to drive in most situations. Even so, the car is ON at all times. Want to kick it in sixth gear and have a relaxing cruise on the highway? LOL. How about taking a quiet phone call using Apple CarPlay? Probably not going to happen. The same characteristics that make the GR Corolla so much fun to drive work against the car in the comfort and livability categories.
Even though I don’t rely on the Golf R as my primary car, I wanted a hot hatchback that could be just as comfortable and easy to use as it is aggressive. The fear of missing out by letting my GR Corolla allocation slip away was intense, but a major factor in my decision to get the VW instead was that it nailed the drive modes, making the Golf R far more agreeable to live with.
The Volkswagen Golf R has more room for people and gear
One of the most impressive things about the Golf R is its cargo space, where it offers 19.9 cubic feet with the back seats upright and 34.5 cubes with the rear bench folded flat. Though there is no powered liftgate option like in many crossovers, the Golf’s low liftover height and wide, flat floor make it easy to load heavy items. Additionally, the car’s relatively upright shape makes it easier to load tall or awkwardly shaped gear.
Beyond a generous cargo hold, the Golf R offers a spacious interior with solid room for four passengers. Though there’s seating for five, the car is much better limited to four, as the center seat on the rear bench is hard for anyone taller than a third grader due to reduced headroom. That said, the car’s rear outboard seats are far more accommodating, bringing a supportive shape with good padding. The VW also comes with heated rear seats.
To be fair to the Toyota, I would have purchased a GR Corolla if it had been possible without so much dealer interference. I was willing to look the other way on the lack of rear seat space and daily drivability concerns with the Toyota and would have figured out a way to jam my dog into the back seat, but I couldn’t swallow the massive upcharges. The VW is the better car for my needs, but it doesn’t spark the same level of excitement that the GR’s character does. I encourage anyone considering these cars to drive them both back-to-back, if possible. They are similar in some ways but completely different in others, and it’s a good idea to understand how they differ and to know if those factors are a big enough deal to influence your purchase decision one way or the other.
Volkswagen Golf R Pros
- Massive acceleration
- Comfortable, spacious front seats
- Usable back seats with heating
- Generous cargo hold
Volkswagen Golf R Cons
- Too expensive
- The anniversary model lacks a sunroof
- It feels and drives bigger than it is