2022 Golf R First Drive: More Than a Juiced-Up GTI

2022 Golf R First Drive: More Than a Juiced-Up GTI

Still the grown-up hot hatch, but with more fire than ever before

  • Redesigned for 2022
  • 315 horsepower from turbocharged four-cylinder engine
  • Torque-vectoring AWD system for improved handling
  • Digital instrument panel and R-specific steering wheel are among interior enhancements
  • Launches the third Golf R generation for 2022 (eighth-generation Golf platform)

What is the Golf R?

After spending 2020 and 2021 on hiatus, Volkswagen's über Golf finally returns to our shores. The 2022 Volkswagen Golf R is based on the newest eighth-generation Golf, though curiously VW has decided to not sell the base Golf anymore in the United States. For us, it's just the Golf GTI or Golf R.

The redesigned Golf R provides greater performance than before, courtesy of a beefed-up engine, bigger brakes and a true torque-vectoring all-wheel drive system. It also benefits from the new Golf's tech and interior upgrades, though there are plenty of differences to separate these two like-minded hot hatchbacks.

From the front, the Golf R is distinguished from the GTI by its unique lower valence, larger air intakes, matte chrome mirror caps and the R's signature blue grille accent (now backlit!). The Golf R also features 19-inch wheels, summer-rated tires, blue-painted brake calipers, a gloss black rear diffuser, a larger spoiler and chrome-plated exhaust pipes. As with the previous Golf R, a four-door hatchback is the only body style offered, but luckily it still comes with a six-speed manual if you live in the U.S. or Canada. If rowing your own gears isn't your particular pint of Hefeweizen, a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic is available as an option.  

How does the Golf R drive?

Looking at it on paper, you'd expect the Golf R to drive like a GTI with a little extra hot sauce to help VW justify the price difference. But right out of the gate it becomes abundantly clear that the new R is not a GTI "plus." It's a completely unique experience that might just make it the pick of the litter this time around.

The R's 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder shares its general architecture with the lesser GTI, but it's been juiced up to 315 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque with the manual transmission (and 295 lb-ft if you spring for the automatic). The extra power and torque are immediately noticeable, and the R rushes to its 7,000-rpm redline from anything above 4,000 rpm quicker and with far more gusto than the GTI.

The new R's trick all-wheel-drive system puts down power with zero fuss. You can feel the differentials cleverly shuffling the engine's available torque from wheel to wheel from the seat of your pants. The AWD and sticky rubber mean grip is made available at all times in most conditions, even the wet. Switch the stability control to its Sport setting and the R will do neat little powerslides out of pretty much any second- or third-gear corner. It's fun, but it won't let you get into any real trouble.

Since the U.S. and Canada are the only two markets that get the six-speed, we jumped at the chance to sample the three-pedal option. Unfortunately, the manual might be where R is least engaging. The gearing itself is excellent, allowing you to effectively use second and third during sportier driving on twisty roads. On highway driving, sixth gear is tall enough to keep the engine at a low enough rpm to give both efficiency and quietude.

The shifter itself is a bit lazy, and the notchy lever feels like more of an afterthought. The Golf R's closest rival, the Honda Civic Type R, has a manual you have to shift with intent, even on the day-to-day. The Golf's can be approached with seriousness or nonchalance, and the car neither rewards nor punishes. That might be fine for some, but the Golf R is for enthusiasts and we think the manual might leave them wanting more.

But the magic of the new Golf R isn't in its shifter — it's in the gutsy engine and that very clever AWD system. It might leave a few of the more visceral elements of a true driver's car on the table, but there's little doubt this is one of the fastest and most capable small cars hot-hatch enthusiasts have ever been able to buy. If you want something fast, practical, good-looking and shockingly capable, the Golf R is one of the best options on sale right now.

How comfortable is the Golf R?

For a small car that rides on big 19-inch wheels, the Golf R is impressively comfortable. Adaptive suspension dampers come standard on the R, and the separation between ride comfort and sporty handling is wider than ever. Put the R in Comfort mode and it becomes little more than a well-damped family hatchback.

Road noise is hushed at almost any speed, and the cabin is nearly whisper quiet. There's no irritating engine drone and no undue tire noise to speak of. It's more comfortable and less fatiguing than a wide variety of $45,000 luxury cars, and that's no small feat given the R's economy car roots.

The sporty bucket seats look like they're for hardcore track days, but they're soft to the touch and the padding, while firm, means the chairs are supportive. They also feature lumbar adjustment and are both heated and ventilated, which will pay dividends if you live in an area where the climate fluctuates vastly from season to season.

It's easy to find a seating position you like, and because the Golf is still relatively compact, it's easy to see out of (front or rear) and place within a lane. Living with the R isn't nearly the compromise that the car's hardcore looks and racy badge suggest.

How's the Golf R's interior?

The Golf R doesn't stray too far from the formula established by the redesigned GTI. The most significant changes to the cabin from the previous generation are immediately apparent from behind the wheel. The digital Driver Cockpit instrument panel is standard and has a few more tricks up its sleeve this time. You can configure the screen to display various bits of info, including torque output, a g-meter and lap times. It also changes its format depending on which drive mode you're in and even lights up to let you know when to shift.

Standard leather seating, an R-specific steering wheel, carbon fiber-like trim and blue accents throughout differentiate the Golf R's interior from the standard GTI's. Otherwise, the Golf R shares many of its less powerful sibling's details. It comes standard with ambient interior lighting (with 30 color selections), a heated steering wheel and a 10-inch touchscreen with navigation.

Unfortunately, Volkswagen has slightly cheapened the Golf's interior for this generation. Harder plastics run throughout the interior, and soft-touch materials that used to be commonplace in the previous-generation Golf R are now gone. Then there's the cabin's ergonomics. There are fewer than five buttons in the entire cabin, and every physical control has been replaced with either a touch-sensitive pad or a menu in the infotainment display.

These changes are initially maddening, and the frustration is only mildly toned down once you get used to everything. We get that touch controls represent a neat leap forward, but fussing with a touch-sensitive temperature slider while trying to keep your eyes on the road simply isn't intuitive or safe enough. Thankfully the capacitive buttons on the steering wheel work well and provide enough haptic feedback to let you know you've made an input.

Overall, the Golf's interior is what we'd call a near miss. It's an acceptable, comfortable place to be, but not a joy to interact with. We're hoping for a future refresh of the GTI and R that rights some of this interior's wrongs.

How's the Golf R's tech?

In addition to the standard 10.25-inch infotainment display that offers niceties such as wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration, the Golf R also comes with VW's IQ.Drive suite of active safety features as standard. IQ.Drive includes adaptive cruise control, lane keeping assist, automatic emergency braking (but only for automatic-equipped cars), pedestrian detection, road sign detection and more.

Though our time with the R wasn't long enough to fully test the adaptive cruise control or the effectiveness of its stop-and-go assist, we did notice the road sign detection working without fault.

How economical is the Golf R?

The EPA has put the Golf R through its testing procedure and its big power and AWD mean it's one of the less efficient compacts on sale today. The manual-equipped Golf R gets an EPA-estimated 23 mpg combined (20 city/28 highway) and the automatic, which has one more cog in its transmission, should net 26 mpg combined (23 city/30 highway).

What are the Golf R's trim levels?

The 2022 Golf R comes in one fully loaded trim. The only option available to buyers is the choice between the six-speed manual transmission or the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. Feature highlights include:

Golf R
Comes standard with:

  • Turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine (315 hp and either 280 lb-ft of torque with the manual or 295 lb-ft with the automatic)
  • All-wheel-drive system with rear-axle torque vectoring
  • Adaptive suspension system
  • 19-inch alloy wheels with performance tires
  • Golf R-specific grille, bumpers, badging, side trim & exterior cladding
  • Chrome quad exhaust tips
  • Automatic adaptive LED headlights (swivel as you turn the steering wheel for better illumination in curves)
  • Keyless entry with push-button start
  • Heated steering wheel
  • Heated and ventilated leather front seats
  • Heated rear seats
  • Three-zone climate control
  • Adjustable ambient interior lighting

Tech features include:

  • Nine-speaker Harman Kardon audio system
  • 10-inch touchscreen display
  • Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration (with wireless connectivity)
  • Wireless smartphone charging pad
  • Head-up display (displays important information in your sight line on the windshield)
  • Parking sensors (alert you to obstacles that may not be visible in front of or behind the vehicle when parking)

The Golf R also comes with Volkswagen's IQ.Drive suite of advanced driver aids that bundles:

  • Lane keeping assist (steers the Golf R back into its lane if it begins to drift over the lane marker)
  • Adaptive cruise control (maintains a driver-set distance between the Volkswagen and the car in front; enhanced stop-and-go functionality with automatic transmission only)
  • Blind-spot monitor with rear cross-traffic alert (warns you if a vehicle is in your blind spot during a lane change or while in reverse)
  • Forward collision mitigation (warns you of an impending collision and applies the brakes in certain scenarios)

Edmunds says

The redesigned 2022 Volkswagen Golf R is faster, more high-tech and even more exciting to drive than its already superlative predecessor. VW's hottest hatch can go toe-to-toe with any of its competition, and even outperform some much more expensive machinery. The new interior is a letdown, but otherwise the Golf R delivers everything you could want from a small car with both grace and pace.

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