Golf R

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2022 Volkswagen Golf R Test Drive Review

The 2022 Volkswagen Golf R is the most powerful, most precise, and most posh version of VW's high-end hot hatchback yet.

8.2 /10
Overall Score

Volkswagen may have discontinued the standard Golf in the United States but the Germans let us keep its performance variants. The rally-inspired Golf R returns for the 2022 model year after a short hiatus, alongside a redesigned Golf GTI. The all-new, eighth-generation Golf R brings high-end performance and premium amenities without being snobby about it.

Look and Feel

9/ 10

When Volkswagen announced that the Golf would exit the U.S. market after 2021, it was a sad day for compact car fans but not entirely a surprising one. Against the growing number of trucks and SUVs, car sales continue to diminish. Crossover SUVs now account for around 70 percent of VW's U.S. sales.

Yet, instead of completely erasing the Golf lineup, VW is keeping the GTI and Golf R performance models around. Why? Because the Golf GTI outsold the ho-hum basic Golf, anyway. The enthusiasts had spoken and the enthusiasts were heard. Huzzah!

The 2022 model year marks the eighth generation (also known as Mk8) of Volkswagen’s nearly 50-year-old compact car, but its hottest version has only been around since 2004, when the Golf R32 was released. The 2022 Golf R is the fifth rendition of the racing-inspired compact, which was last sold stateside as a 2019 model.

In terms of styling, the Golf R is your standard Volkswagen fare: subdued. Unlike the rival Honda Civic Type R, Hyundai Veloster N, and Subaru WRX STI, the Golf R looks less boy racer and more nerd gamer. Stereotypes aside, the Golf R differentiates itself from the equally understated Golf GTI with blue trim in place of the GTI's red undertones. Compare the two side-by-side and the visual cues—from the brake calipers and grille insert of the exterior to the contrast stitching and ambient lighting of the interior—are obvious. When compared to the previous generation, the 2022 Golf R definitely looks new, but doesn't shout about it.

The new Golf R sits on the same length wheelbase as the previous generation (103.5 inches) but is longer overall by half an inch at 168.9 inches. The hatchback is also 1.2 inches taller and 0.4 inch slimmer. But through neat design tricks, the 2022 Golf R looks much longer, lower, and leaner.

Gloss black-framed twin intakes in the front bumper are exclusive to the Golf R and produce an aggressive-for-a-Golf look. Model-specific 19-inch black aluminum-alloy wheels wrapped in 235/35 summer performance tires, a sharp beltline, and sleek LED headlights and taillights complete the look.

The Golf R interior was also completely redesigned for 2022. Essentially barren of buttons and knobs, the dashboard styling is slimmed down. Even the air vents are thinner and aligned along the same longitude as the dash. A new 10-inch infotainment touchscreen (previously 8 inches) is the prominent cabin feature. And blue is present everywhere.

Although unavoidable, the cerulean tone is not overdone. It’s subtle, tasteful, and very much Golf R. The standard ambient lighting features 30 selectable colors that illuminate areas of the center console, dashboard, door trim, storage bins, and footwells. But regardless of mood, blue remains the overarching theme. And if one were to feel too awash in artificial light, a standard panoramic power sunroof will happily let nature highlight the cabin.

Still a driver-focused cockpit, new sport seats feature Nappa leather upholstery, integrated head restraints, sufficient bolstering, and are adorned with a blue “R” stitched into the backrest. The front seats offer both heated and ventilated settings while the rear seats are heated only. Nothing feels cheap here. Premium materials are used throughout the interior with an abundance of soft-touch surfaces.

Performance

9/ 10

The 2022 model is the most powerful Golf R yet. Period. A turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine produces 315 horsepower and 280 pound-feet with the six-speed manual transmission, or 295 lb-ft of torque with the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission (DCT). The previous generation offered 288 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque with both transmissions. An increase of 27 hp and 15 lb-ft might not seem like a lot but on a vehicle that weighs 3,400-ish pounds, it doesn’t go unnoticed.

The standard 4Motion all-wheel-drive (AWD) has been updated and adds a rear-axle torque-vectoring system. Previously, up to 50 percent of the engine’s power could be sent to the rear axle. Now, the power can be transferred between the front and rear axles as well as between the rear wheels. This means that if conditions warrant it, up to 100 percent of the available torque can be distributed to an individual wheel. With improved traction, the new Golf R is that much better while cornering.

VW also reconfigured the drive modes. Previously, you got Normal, Eco, Individual, and Race. For 2022, the choices are Comfort, Sport, Race, Drift, Special, and Custom. They can be accessed via the touchscreen or the steering wheel-mounted R button. Steering stiffness and throttle response are tailored for each mode. DCT-equipped vehicles also experience more aggressive shifts when in any of the sport-tuned modes.

Showcasing the Golf R’s new performance chops are the track-focused Drift and Special drive modes, the latter of which is configured specifically for the famed Nürburgring Nordschleife. In Drift mode, the vehicle switches stability controls to ESC Sport and sends torque to the outside wheel for controlled slides. In less capable vehicles, sliding equates to a terrifying loss of control. In the Golf R, however, it puts a smile on your face.

Comfort mode should only be used during long stretches of highway driving. During driving sessions at a northern Michigan winter test facility as well as a rainy day on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, the Sport and Race modes proved to be raucous and ready for anything. From curvaceous autocross courses to sinuous mountain roads, the Golf R was unflappably sure-footed and exhibited essentially zero body roll—just an absolute joy to drive.

The manual transmission offered smooth, quick shifts. With the DCT, gearing was equally snappy and precise. The R-spec paddle shifters for the DCT are also larger than those found in the GTI, which are tiny, all but hidden behind the steering wheel spokes.

Regardless of drive mode, the Golf R is comfortable as a daily driver, too. Even with an added 10 percent of stiffness in the springs and anti-roll bar, the suspension is still compliant enough to not pulverize your bottom or back on long drives. You’re not going to feel like you’ve participated in an endurance race every time you exit the car. With adaptive dampers and customizable drive modes, you can configure the Golf R to perform any way you please on any road you travel on. You could very well spend all day fidgeting with the settings without getting bored.

Form and Function

7/ 10

Even though the 2022 Golf R is larger than its predecessor, it actually loses interior volume. The quoted 19.9 cubic feet of cargo space is more than the typical sedan, but less than the 22.8 cubic feet offered by the previous Golf R. Overall passenger volume is down from 93.5 cubic feet in the 2019 Golf R to 91.1 cubic feet in the 2022 model. Not to say that the Golf R feels small or doesn’t offer any usable space for passengers and luggage. With the rear seats folded down, you can still fit a full-size bicycle back there, nor is a doctorate in Tetris required to organize items from your latest Costco or Ikea run.

The multifunction sport steering wheel features ergonomic nubs for positioning your hands at 9 and 3 o’clock which also are perforated for added grip as well as style points. The slightly flat bottom provides a welcome rest area for weary hands.

The carbon-look buttons on the steering wheel and the dash are backlit in white for easy readability and offer haptic feedback. Considering there aren’t many buttons in the Golf R to begin with, receiving the touch response when you do hit one is a beneficial acknowledgment that you selected something—whether on purpose or not. The touchscreen also is slightly angled toward the driver, making it easier to reach.

Tech Level

8/ 10

However, using touch controls instead of actual buttons and knobs makes for a frustrating experience, particularly when driving. Like the GTI, the Golf R features Volkswagen’s MIB3 infotainment system with captive touch sensors. Basically, the interface is a large smartphone where you can pinch, zoom, and swipe through the menus.

The infotainment system is blazingly responsive. The problem is that frequently accessed functions like volume and climate control have been replaced with touch sliders. Sitting below the touchscreen, they are a sleek and sexy design element. From a functionality standpoint, though, they are absolute rubbish.

We would inadvertently adjust the audio volume while trying to access the infotainment menu and vice versa Audio volume can at least be adjusted via steering wheel-mounted controls, but not the climate control. It’s either use the goofy sliders or the touchscreen. Neither are worth putting up with when the vehicle is in motion. Even when the road surface is smooth, the amount of time you need to take your eyes off the road to see what you’re trying to control, haptic or not, simply isn’t worth it.

The operating system is Volkswagen's latest called Discover Pro. In the Golf R this means standard navigation, wireless device charging, WiFi hotspot capability, voice commands, HD radio, SiriusXM with 360L satellite radio, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone compatibility, and four USB-C ports. Optioning for a Car-Net Hotspot subscription and Plus Nav package adds automatic map updates for traffic conditions, including construction zones.

Also standard on the all-new Golf R is Digital Cockpit Pro. The configurable digital 10.25-inch instrument cluster display offers three views with up to 21 options for data—anything from performance figures and navigation to phone history and safety systems. The display will also change colors and graphics depending on drive mode.

Safety

8/ 10

The 2022 Golf R comes standard with the Volkswagen IQ.Drive suite of driver aids. Using a mix of radar, cameras, and ultrasound sensors, IQ.Drive provides an exhaustive list of features, including a pre-collision warning system with pedestrian and cyclist detection, automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go, lane keep assist, lane centering, parking assist, automatic high beams, and dynamic road sign displays. A rearview camera is also standard on all Golf R models.

Also available is Travel Assist, which combines adaptive cruise control and lane-keep assist. Easily activated via a steering wheel-mounted button and available from zero to 95 mph, the system will handle acceleration, braking, and steering on highways. This is not a hands-free feature, however, as the driver must indicate attentiveness by keeping his or her hands on the steering wheel, even if with minimal input.

On DCT-equipped models, Emergency Assist monitors a driver’s alertness. If the driver does not respond to notifications, which can be audio, visual, and even brake jolts, the vehicle will come to a complete stop and activate the hazard lights.

Although on sale now, the 2022 Golf R has not yet been rated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). For reference, NHTSA awarded the previous generation of the Golf a five-star overall crash-safety rating. The IIHS gave the previous-generation Golf its top "Good" rating in most categories but with a lower "Acceptable" score in the small overlap test for front passengers and a "Poor" headlight rating.

Cost-Effectiveness

8/ 10

The price for a nearly perfect rally-inspired compact car is not for the budget-conscious. That being said, ordering a Golf R is as easy as it gets. You have a choice of two transmissions, three colors (Lapiz Blue Metallic, Deep Black Pearl, and Pure White), and that’s it. But with the added tech in performance and safety and everything else, the redesigned Golf R also sees an expected boost in the MSRP department.

The 2019 Golf R started at $40,395 for the stick shift and $41,495 for the automatic transmission. Destination was an extra $895, and VW offered some additional options. For 2022, the Golf R is offered in a single fully loaded, all-inclusive package. The manual transmission Golf R jumps $3,250 in price to $43,645 while the DCT model increases $2,950 to $44,445. Destination is also up a Benjamin to $995.

The Golf R is now the most expensive entrant in its niche segment of big-powered small cars. The 2021 Honda Civic Type R starts at $37,895 ($43,995 for the Type R Limited Edition), plus a $1,015 destination charge. Sold only with a six-speed manual, the Civic Type R offers comparable powertrain specs. Like the Golf R, it has a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder, which produces 306 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. Unlike the AWD Golf R, though, the Type R is front-wheel drive (FWD).

Also FWD is the 2022 Hyundai Veloster N. The quirky three-door boasts a 2.0-liter turbo-four that produces 275 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque. The Veloster N starts at $32,500 with the six-speed manual and $34,000 with the silky eight-speed DCT. Add another $1,025 for destination.

The AWD, rally-ready 2021 Subaru WRX STI has a starting price of $37,245 plus a $925 destination fee. The WRX STI Limited price is $41,945. The Subie is equipped with a 2.5-liter turbo-four with a rated output of 310 hp and 290 lb-ft, and is only available with a six-speed manual. The STI is also sold only as a sedan.

EPA fuel-economy ratings for the Golf R are 23 mpg city, 30 mpg highway, and 26 mpg combined with the DCT and 20 mpg city, 28 mpg highway, and 23 mpg combined with the manual. Those are pretty good numbers for its competitive set.

If you're just looking at the Golf R as just a compact car, its high price can be a turnoff. But when considering the VW's performance capabilities and top-end technology, its MSRP is on point amongst its teeny competitive set. While the Subaru WRX gets redesigned for 2022, no details of the STI variant have been released yet. The next-generation Civic Type R is set to debut in 2022 as a 2023 model and the Veloster N is still in its first generation, having arrived with the 2019 model year.

The risk with being first is that everyone else gets to see what your “best” effort is and can pivot their performances to outshine you. That’s the position the Golf R is in. It’s sitting on the podium in the current standings, but other athletic compacts have yet to join the competition with redesigned versions. Whether the Golf R medals gold, silver, or bronze, or is dropped from the rankings completely, will be a wait-and-see nail biter. But from what we’ve seen so far, the 2022 Golf R sets a lofty standard that won’t be easily surpassed.

Updated by Beverly Braga

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