2018 VW Golf R vs 2012 VW Golf R: Is New Always Better?

How much has the Mk7.5 Volkswagen Golf R changed from the Mk6?

2018 VW Golf R vs 2012 VW Golf RPhoto credit: Norman Woo and Derek Mau; Writing by Derek Mau and Alex Kramer

When it comes to performance cars, the 2018 VW Golf R is arguably the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing. While most hot hatches like to shout their sporting intentions, with giant rear wings and loud paint jobs, the Golf R is more than content to let its tires do the talking.

On the outside, it looks virtually the same as every other Golf, yet it packs some serious go-fast hardware. With 292 horsepower, AWD, and a proficient chassis, the Golf R is more than ready to tackle your favorite ribbon of asphalt or hot-shoeing it at the track.

2018 VW Golf R Mk7.5
2018 VW Golf R Mk7.5

What’s new for 2018

After reaching North America in 2015, the current Mk7 Golf R receives a mid-cycle refresh for 2018. Some of the major changes for 2018 include an upgraded interior, some minor exterior styling updates, and a new seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.

The previously optional adaptive dampers are now standard, as the lineup features just one model. Price of entry is now just a hair under $40k, which is an eye-watering $13k more than the cheapest GTI and raises the serious question of how much those 72 ponies are worth.

2018 VW Golf R digital cockpit
Digital Cockpit

For anyone on a limited budget this means either settling for the less powerful GTI or wait 4-5 years for a (hopefully) lightly used Mk7 Golf R. Neither of these being ideal, we started to wonder if there was maybe another option. Would an Mk6 Golf R be on par with the 2018 model? Luckily, this was a question we could put to the test, as one of us is the proud owner of a 2012 Golf R.

2018 Golf R vs 2012 Golf R Mashup

The Mk6 Golf R may not have the sharp looks of an Mk7 or benefit from the adjustable dampers, LED headlights, or nicer infotainment system, but there are an abundant array of aftermarket parts for the 2012-2013 Golf R. With a simple ECU flash upgrade, you can tune the slightly older R to match the power output of a 2018 model. Replace the factory infotainment system with an Alpine or Sony in-dash digital receiver, and you’ll have a sharp looking 7-inch touchscreen display with all the bells and whistles of the Mk7’s–including Android Auto and wireless Apple CarPlay capability.

For this mashup, we elected to use our project Mk6 Golf R ― conservatively modded with Continental’s newest max summer tires and VWR lowering springs from Racingline ― and pit it against the 2018 Golf R. Even though the 2012 model has a 36 horsepower handicap on paper to the 2018 model, we were confident that the Mk6 Golf R could go toe-to-toe against the Mk7.5 version and deliver a ride just as thrilling. Contributing to this mashup and providing another voice is Alex Kramer–who, by the way, is not a total VW-fanboy.

Does a gently used Mk6 Golf R match up to a Mk7.5 Golf R?

Derek: There are so many good things about the 2012 VW Golf R, I barely know where to begin. Befitting my conservative personality, I appreciate the Golf’s demure styling and iron cast build quality. But the sweet spot for Volkswagen’s all-wheel drive hot-hatch has to be its ability to rail through the turns with reckless abandon and total confidence.

Duly noted, the Mk6 doesn’t benefit from the lighter and stronger MQB platform that underpins the Mk7, but you’ll never miss it when carving up the corners. You can loosen the nose or the tail at a twitch or lift of your right foot. Nevertheless, it is still reasonably supple and refined.

2012 VW Golf R Mk6

Does the Mk6 Golf R handle better than the 2018 Golf R?

Alex: As good as the Mk6 is, the new Mk7.5 R has the appeal of a potent hot hatch, but also the refinement and sophistication of a luxury sports sedan (which is better, as it costs almost as much). There’s the adjustable suspension, which is every bit as good as what you’d find in an Audi or BMW. Dampening in its firmest setting tightens up the ride and is stiffer than the Mk6, but put it in comfort mode and it soaks up all the bumps with ease. The MQB chassis is supremely buttoned down and feels better than the older Mk6 platform. Unflappable, composed, and utterly predictable.

Derek: Well, the Mk7 Golf R may have a slight edge in feel and handling over the previous generation but the coupe version is no longer available nor can you buy one with a sunroof. As a fan of the Mk6, the styling of the coupe looks “right” without the excess of two extra doors. And the moonroof is perfect when cruising on a warm summer night.

2018 VW Golf R 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system

Does the allure of new technology prevail?

Alex: Ok, fair enough, but anyone who cares about technology will find much to appreciate in the new Golf R. For starters, the Mk7.5 finally gets a modern infotainment system with a standard 8-inch touchscreen and the new VW Car-Net connectivity system. There’s also the Digital Cockpit, a customizable instrument display that integrates information on driving, navigation, and performance. In comparison, the electronics in the Mk6 seem downright antiquated.

Derek: Okay, I admit the cabin of the 2012-2013 model looks a little dated compared with the 2018 model. Some might suffer from screen-envy because it doesn’t have the fancy 12-inch digital cockpit display. It also doesn’t have the large-ish 8.0-inch infotainment touchscreen. But for old-school gearheads like me, the analog gauges with the blue needles fit right in with the car’s performance personality. Heck, the VW engineers didn’t even bother to program the digital cockpit with blue needles–which is a detail associated with the Golf R.

The all-business interior has excellent build quality, just like the Mk7.5 model. In my humble opinion, it has the best front seats from any German or Japanese automaker. They’re comfortable, the side and thigh bolsters keep me in position when lateral Gs are pulling, and the quality leather feels rich.

2012 VW Golf R leather front seats
2012 Golf R seats

Power and Pizazz

Derek: Nevertheless, the 2018 Golf R powertrain is pretty darn smooth and powerful. I can tell right away the Mk7.5 has a broader powerband, is quicker off the line and has better mid-range torque. Those new 19-inch wheels look bitchin’ when in motion but the tires are holding back the car’s potential.

You have to admit those ContiSportContact tires give up too quickly compared to the Continental’s latest generation max-summer tire. The ExtremeContact Sport tires on the Mk6 Golf R have better feedback and better traction on dry or wet pavement.

2018 VW Golf R 19-inch Englishtown wheels
19-inch Englishtown wheels

Alex: I totally agree. It’s almost surprising how much better the tires are, especially given they’re a size smaller in both width and diameter on the Mk6 Golf R.

The 2018 Golf R is more powerful and has better power delivery overall. That said, the power advantage isn’t helping when I have to brake earlier or be a little less aggressive blasting through the corners for fear of sliding off the road.

Plus, it could use a little more lively handling dynamics. For me, handling is a tad bit too composed. I want the R to be light on its feet and dancing around those corners.

On the plus side, I like the shifter on the Mk7.5 better. It’s a subjective thing, but the Mk6 shifter feels rubbery and vague by comparison.

2018 VW Golf R Mk7.5

Derek: Okay, the advantage goes to the Mk7.5 Golf R because VW improved the shifting feel. For the Mk6 Golf R, most of the vague and noodly shifting feeling went away after installing the short-shift kit. However, it still doesn’t match the quality of the Mk7’s manual transmission.

Ultimately, the on-road behavior of the Mk6 has a high degree of agility and responsiveness. That’s despite the older Golf lacking VW’s Dynamic Chassis Control. As a car I drive daily, the Mk6 Golf R’s suspension has the right amount of firmness. It won’t punish you when you’re just driving to the grocery store. Take it to roads less traveled and it still magnificently holds its composure when the speed picks up, and the turns get tighter.

Flat out, the engine performance delivers the thrills and chills of a high-strung 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-banger. The generous amount of torque begins feeding in at 1600 rpm and ramps up quickly. The torque curve starts to lose steam around after 4800 rpm and engine redlines at 6800 rpm. Bottom line, forward thrust is impressive when you find the engine’s sweet spot.

Does the Golf R add up to a good value?

Alex: Looking for a practical hatchback with a fair amount of cargo space and the dimensions to make it suitable in an urban setting, but want a car you look for excuses to drive? The 2018 Golf R is the answer.

The one hesitation in its case might be the price point. With a starting MSRP of just over $42,000, the R is a lot more demanding of your hard-earned cash. The barrier to entry for the GTI is much lower, at around $30,000. That’s a big leap. The jump in power is 72 ponies, which is substantial, but does it justify the 12-grand leap in price?

What if you factor in the 4MOTION all-wheel drive system that changes the car’s handling dynamics only for the better, the added technology and VW’s People First Warranty that covers the 4-door hatchback bumper-to-bumper for six years/72,000 miles? Then the 2018 Golf R begins to overcome the price difference.

2018 VW Golf R, 2012 VW Golf R

Derek: If you want a hot hatch that performs almost as well as the Mk7 Golf R and you prefer something more special than a GTI, then the Mk6 Golf R is the ticket without the hefty $42k price tag.

The Mk6 Golf R is currently selling in the neighborhood of $25,000. However, you can find higher mileage examples for $20,000 or less. There aren’t too many out there though. According to VWVortex forums, Volkswagen produced 5,507 2012 and 2013 Golf R models for the US.

Whichever model suits your fancy, V-dub’s hot hatch is sure to please on all counts. After all, no contender can match the Golf R for its blend of laid-back competence, value, and absolute commitment.

SPECIFICATIONS: 2018 VW Golf R vs 2012 VW Golf R

2018 Golf R w/DCC, Navigation 2012 VW Golf R w/Sunroof, Navigation
Base MSRP: $39,785 $35,490 (new)
Price as Tested (new): $40,725 (including destination charge) $36,260 (including destination charge)
Engine: 2.0-liter TSI, turbocharged direct-injected inline-4 2.0-liter TSI, turbocharged inline-4
Drivetrain (Layout): Front-engine, all-wheel drive Front-engine, all-wheel drive
Horsepower: 292 hp @ 5,400 RPM 256 hp @ 6,000 RPM
Torque: 280 lb-ft @ 1,800 RPM 243 lb-ft @ 2,400 RPM
Transmission: 6-speed manual 6-speed manual
0-60 Acceleration: 4.8 secconds (Car and Driver test) 5.9 seconds
Top Speed: 150 MPH 127 MPH
Suspension: Front: Strut-type w/lower control arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar

Rear: Multi-link w/coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar

Front: Strut-type w/lower control arms, coil springs, shocks, anti-roll bar

Rear: Multi-link w/coil springs, shocks, anti-roll bar

Brakes: Power-assisted four-wheel discs (vented front/rear) Power-assisted four-wheel discs (vented front, solid rear)
Tires: Continental ContiSportContact 235/35 R19 Continental ExtremeContact Sport 225/45 R18
Fuel capacity: 14.5 gallons 14.5 gallons
Fuel economy (EPA): 21 / 29 / 24 MPG (city/hwy/combined) 19 / 27 / 22 MPG (city/hwy/combined)

24 MPG observed