2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI First Drive - Don't Fix What Ain't Broken

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey

If you’re a Volkswagen Golf GTI fan, you were probably worried that Volkswagen would screw it up as they refreshed it for 2022.

Here’s the good news – the company (mostly) didn’t do that. Especially when it comes to the most important part of GTI ownership – on-road driving performance.

Here’s the bad news – the same interior that I panned in the Golf R first drive is on hand here as well, since the cars share their Golf bones. They also, of course, share the MQB platform.

Changes for 2022 include more power for the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, suspension changes, and refreshed styling. It’s longer and lower than the previous car.

(Full disclosure: Volkswagen flew me to Asheville, North Carolina, and fed and housed me for two nights so I could drive the Golf R, GTI, and Jetta GLI, plus any other current VW I wanted to. They offered socks in the same pattern as GTI seats and I left them behind.)

The engine now makes 241 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque with either the six-speed manual transmission or the seven-speed DSG automatic.

On the road, the front-drive GTI behaves a lot like its more powerful all-wheel-drive sibling, but the differences are obvious. Like with the R, I was careful about approaching the limit, but when I did push it, the car seemed to reach the limit sooner, and it also generally experienced understeer. I drove a top-trim GTI with the available DCC adaptive damping suspension – GTIs have a strut-type front setup and the rear is multilink, and both receive tweaks meant to improve handling.

The car felt looser, or at least less buttoned-down, than the Golf R, but that’s not necessarily bad. It lent a playful air to the GTI. The GTI’s steering is similarly not quite as hefty, and it’s a smidge less accurate. Body roll is present but not too shabby.

There’s less power to play with here, and it shows, though the GTI is no slouch. It’s more than quick enough for most back-road blasts along with freeway merging. The clutch and shifter work well enough to give the crowd good feelings, and the brakes are almost as stiff as the R’s, while still avoiding being grabby.

I had no chance to drive the DSG automatic.

I didn’t get any freeway-cruise time in the GTI, but the car felt reasonably docile around town. The GTI is a bit on the louder side in terms of engine/tire noise, but it’s not too obnoxious for daily-driving duties. Using the Comfort or Normal drive modes definitely quiets things down a bit. Sport gives the driver heavier steering and a more responsive throttle.

Like the R, the GTI gets the new digital cockpit, and like with the R, it’s infuriating to use at times. This is where VW forgot the mantra “if ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and screwed up a good thing. My kingdom for knobs and actual buttons.

Maybe I’d be a bit more copacetic if the infotainment system wasn’t also so gol-durn slow to switch menus. At least the menus in the gauge cluster work better, look cleaner, and are more useful. If VW had stopped the digital revolution at the gauge cluster and kept the knobs, that would’ve been a fine compromise. Instead, we get an interior in which even changing the cabin temp requires you to take your eyes off the road for too long.

At least the steering-wheel haptic touch controls are easier to use than the ones on the center stack.

Since the GTI and R are dimensionally pretty much the same, the GTI is like the R in that it offers good front head- and legroom, limited in-cabin storage, and rear-seat room that is acceptable for taller passengers as long as the seats don’t go back too far. The chairs in this car weren’t as snug as the R’s, but they were plenty comfy.

Golf GTI comes in three trims: S, SE, and Autobahn. S models start at $29,545 ($30,345 for the DSG), with SEs starting at $34,595 ($35,095 for the DSG). The Autobahn will cost you $37,995 for the stick, and $38,795 for the automatic. Destination is $995.

Standard features on S include automatic climate control, keyless starting, automatic headlights, heated seats, heated steering wheel, wireless charging, and rain-sensing wipers. SE adds navigation, satellite radio, keyless entry, Harmon Kardon audio, and in-car Wi-Fi, and an available leather package adds leather, a power driver seat, seat memory, and cooled front seats. Autobahn trims get tri-zone climate control, cooled front seats, leather seats, heated outboard rear seats, and a head-up display. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, along with Bluetooth. A panoramic sunroof is standard on the top two trims.

The amount of USB ports is trim-dependent, but they’re all USB-Cs.

Fuel economy is almost identical with either transmission – 24/34/28 with the stick and 25/34/28 with the auto.

When I pulled over for photos, a young dude in an F-150 pulled over to tell me a bear had been spotted nearby. Confused, I thought he was warning me, then it dawned on me that he saw the camera in my hand and was trying to help me get pics of it.

I didn’t see Yogi – perhaps he/she was scared off by the GTI’s red paint job. I’m also surprised the local didn’t ask me about the car. Usually, GTIs draw young car buffs like moths to a flame.

If he had inquired, I’d have told him that the next GTI is as fun to drive, if not more so, than the last one. That Volkswagen got the most important part – performance – right. That the car is really good, except for its frustrating interior controls. Oh, and the sticker for the Autobahn trim makes me wince a bit.

Volkswagen engineers mostly didn’t fix what isn’t broken, with one notable exception. That’s a win.

What’s New for 2022

The Volkswagen Golf GTI is thoroughly updated, with freshened exterior styling, a reworked cabin, more power, and improved handling. It’s also longer and lower than its predecessor.

Who Should Buy It

GTI loyalists, the hot-hatch fan who wants a well-rounded car.

[Images 2021 Tim Healey/TTAC, Volkswagen]

Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

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  • TonyP TonyP on Nov 10, 2021

    I was in the market for a GTI to the point of being a day away from dropping a deposit on a Mk8. Once the reviews rolled out talking about the touch-buttons everywhere, I bought a used, manual, mk7 GTI Autobahn (along with a JB4 tube). I regret nothing. My first GTI, it's an absolute blast with good ol dials and real buttons.

  • AK AK on Nov 11, 2021

    Car and Driver's "How we'd spec it" article today is saying that the base S trim does come with physical knobs for the smaller touch screen in the center stack. I haven't seen any photos of it to confirm, but if true- that just hammers home the point that the best GTI is the base one. Cloth plaid with a stick and leave it like that. I'm interested.

    • FreedMike FreedMike on Nov 11, 2021

      It appears there's a knob for the volume and tuning but that's it.

  • Lou_BC "respondents between 18 and 80 years old" Basically anyone deemed an adult who might be allowed to drive.
  • Lou_BC They will do fine if they come up with some cool sedans ;)
  • Mister They've got their work cut out for them. I live in a large metropolitan city of 1.2+ million people, the is a single Mitsubishi dealer. It's really more like a used-car dealer that sells Mitsubishi on the side. With the remarkably cheesy name of "Johnny Legends".
  • Kjhkjlhkjhkljh kljhjkhjklhkjh WHAT !?
  • Jeff Matt--I think this is a good move for Mitsubishi to expand their presence with satellite dealers. I had a 85 MItsubishi Mighty Max and my sister had a 83 MItsubishi Starion. MItsubishi needs to add a compact pickup to compete with the Maverick and the Santa Cruz but offer it for less. A smaller more affordable truck will sell. I believe MItsubishi should still offer an inexpensive subcompact like the Mirage it will sell in a slowing car market with high msrps. Yes I know the Mirage is probably going to be canceled but I believe in these times it is a mistake and they should reconsider cancelling the Mirage. Toyota is having problems selling the new redesigned Tacomas and Tundras with the turbo 4s and 6s. Most Tacomas have MSRPs of well over 40k. There is room for MItsubishi to grow their market share with more affordable vehicles. I am not saying Mitsubishi is going to overtake Toyota, Honda, or Nissan but they should take advantage of the more affordable market segment that these companies for the most part have abandoned. MItsubishi doesn't have to be the biggest just increase sales and become more profitable.
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