Fundamentally, the designs of the VW Golf (and for a few years, the Rabbit) and GTI haven't changed much in three decades. The Golf has grown a bit broader over time, and better balanced, but it's a clear, careful evolution of a familiar look.
There are a number of designs from the U.S. and Korea that are edgier or more adventuresome, that's a call for change. But from another angle, the Golf has such a nicely proportioned, well-honed design that's the epitome of stylish (albeit conservative) functionality. And while it clearly leaves the drama and sheetmetal creases to the Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra, the Golf has a collection of appealing details, including a small spoiler at the back, where the hatch hinges to the body.
The cabin looks at once stereotypically German in its tight construction and sober look, yet it's also better detailed than in the past, with better control interfaces--keeping big, round gauges in front of the driver and in perfect view. Volkswagen hasn't cheapened the interior trims and textures as it has for the Jetta sedan, leaving the Golf with the richer look, even though they're both in the same price range. And in the GTI, plaid seat upholstery carries on a GTI interior-style tradition.
The Golf R does look a bit different, with special aluminum kickplates and a flat-bottom leather-trimmed steering wheel, plus special 'R' logo deep-bolstered leather sport seats, aluminum pedals, and additional touches like blue gauge pointers. From the outside, xenon headlamps and LED daytime running lamps (with adaptive front lighting) are standard, and the Golf R is probably best singled out by the 'R' logo on the grille and the centrally located dual exhaust outlets in back.