2022 Volkswagen Golf R First Drive - Track-Focused Toy For The Grown-Up

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey
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2022 volkswagen golf r first drive track focused toy for the grown up

The 2022 Volkswagen Golf R remains a potent backroad weapon – almost too potent.

I came to this conclusion while driving part of North Carolina’s famed Rattler highway. The Golf R, one of the hottest of hot hatches, was making me feel a bit like a superhero thanks to stout brakes, the ability to shorten straightaways, and firm and accurate steering that allowed me to place the wheels exactly where I wanted/needed them to be.

And all this while I was driving relatively conservatively because I was on a public road. Imagine this car unleashed on a track.

Undoubtedly, that’s what VW wants its customers to do. Because why pay more for a steroidal GTI – a car that, as you’ll see in a forthcoming first drive, can do 80 percent or more of what the R can do, shares the same MQB platform, and is also more relaxed in urban driving – if you’re just going to use it to fight parking wars at Trader Joe’s?

The car certainly has the right specs: 315 horsepower and up to 295 lb-ft of torque from the turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder, all-wheel drive with torque vectoring, and a choice of either a six-speed manual or seven-speed DSG automatic transmission. The engine’s power numbers are increased from before.

Other changes/updates include a redone cabin, new drive modes, larger brakes, updates that aim to improve handling, and the addition of VW’s IQ.DRIVE driver-assistance package.

(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.)

On the road, it feels almost like overkill. The car scoots from point A to point B with general ease. It doesn’t hurt that peak available torque is on hand right off idle – at 1,900 RPM in manuals (which do give up 15 lb-ft to the automatic) and 2,000 in the DSG. There were a couple of moments in the twisties when I found the engine lugging on an uphill and needed to drop a gear, but those instances were few.

More to the point of this car’s mission, the handling is very well buttoned down. That’s especially true when the car is placed in Sport mode, which increases steering heft and adjusts throttle response (along with providing for more-aggressive shifts with the DSG) for sportier driving. I also tossed the car into Race mode, just for grins, which made the steering even heavier, though neither Race nor Sport completely eliminated the traces of artificiality that snuck in.

I didn’t often flirt with “the limit” – public road, remember, and one with very little shoulder and lots of trees just a few feet away – but to the extent that I did, there was a bit of predictable and controllable understeer. Body roll does rear its head here and there, but it’s not obnoxious.

The Golf R is standard with DCC adaptive damping, and uses a strut-type setup with lower control arms – the spring rates are stiffened by 10 percent over the previous car – in front. Camber is increased, among other tweaks. Meanwhile, the multi-link rear uses an anti-roll bar, also has 10 percent stiffer spring rates, and similarly makes use of smaller tweaks and adjustments in a bid to improve handling.

Other drive modes include Comfort, Custom (lets you customize the setup, duh), Special (programmed for driving the Nürburgring Nordschleife), and a Drift mode, which is obviously meant only for private roads. What it does should be self-explanatory, and it works by sending all available torque to the outside rear wheel.

The car’s cross-drilled vented disc brakes get a shout-out here for being firm and quick to bite during aggressive driving without being grabby during gentler moments.

I did most of my driving, except for some around-town trundling for photos, in a manual Golf R. The clutch is unremarkable in terms of take-up and feel and the shifter isn’t a particular joy to row, but both work well enough to be counted on the positive side of the pro/con ledger.

As for the automatic, it seemed to work well for urban driving, but I’d need to spend more time hustling it to get a sense of its shifts and how well the paddles work. I did find the shifter to be irritating to use, especially during a drive-to-reverse-back-to-drive parking maneuver. Add VW to the list of automakers who can be accused of overthinking this basic control.

Our drive wasn’t all fun and games, as we needed to hit the freeway to get to the Rattler, and this is where the Golf R’s flaws started to emerge. The good news is that its ride was acceptable on the freeway, especially in Comfort mode. The bad is noise – tire noise was prevalent, and engine noise was ever-present, even at low RPMs. I understand that this is a trade-off most Golf R customers will happily make, but I’m also paid to point these things out.

There’s a bit of bigger bad news, and that’s the fact that VW has gone almost all haptic touch with its digital cockpit. That means no volume or tuning knob, and no HVAC knobs or buttons. Adjusting the cabin temp the old-fashioned way is infuriating and takes one’s eyes off the road for too long. Ditto adjusting the seat heater – which was necessary on a chilly Carolina day. The haptic touch buttons on the steering wheel worked a bit better, at least. I even found the touchscreen infotainment system to be too slow to switch screens/menus. The Golf R I drove also refused, for reasons unknown, to list the distance between waypoints in miles – it went Euro and gave me kilometers.

Volkswagen would likely point out that one can use voice recognition to tell the car to, for example, adjust the temperature, and while the system seems to work, it seems an unnecessary step when simple knobs for radio and knobs/buttons for the climate controls would be the ideal solution. There’s also a safety issue in how long must take his/her eyes off the road to use the haptic-touch controls.

A step into digital hell aside, the rest of the cockpit is fine. I do like the digital gauges – they are clear and easy to read and offer a ton of menus to play with. The seats are comfortable for road trips and bolstered enough to keep you more or less in place without being overly snug. I found headroom and legroom to be more than fine for my frame, and I was able to sit in the rear just fine, as long as the rear seat wasn’t all the way back. Materials seem class-appropriate for the most part, but some cheaper-looking/feeling plastics seemed to sneak into the cabin in some places.

As usual with VW, there’s a lot of black at play. Ambient lighting aside, the cabin isn’t very colorful.

Storage space is limited – the center console is deep but small – and you’ll need a USB-C if you want to plug your phone in.

Available features include Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, satellite radio, four USB-C ports, navigation, heated seats, and heated steering wheel. IQ.DRIVE includes lane-centering (which was fairly intrusive on the backroads), adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitor, forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, and more.

Only trim is available, and it’s $43,645 for the manual and $44,445 for the automatic, plus $995 for destination.

Fuel economy is listed at 20/28/23 for the manual and 23/30/26 for the DSG.

When it comes to driving dynamics, the Golf R is hard to beat, even at a price that’s quite dear for a hatchback. The biggest problem is that there’s another car that’s almost as good, more fun to drive in some ways, costs less, and is better suited for the mundane commute. And it shares the same platform and is sold by the same company.

The Volkswagen Golf R is really, really good. Really good. But its own sibling gives it a run for its money.

Assuming both are within your budget, it really comes down to use case and whether you want the car that makes you a better driver or the one that challenges you but is a tad more fun. The Golf R is the former. Shop accordingly.

What’s New for 2022

The 2022 Volkswagen Golf R is thoroughly refreshed, with a largely changed interior, more power, and changes meant to improve handling.

Who Should Buy It

The weekend-warrior track rat. Someone who thinks the GTI just isn’t good enough. Someone who wants/needs all-wheel drive. Someone who likes the idea of the Honda Civic Type R and/or Subaru WRX STI but wants to look like a grown-up.

[Images © 2021 Tim Healey/TTAC]

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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3 of 44 comments
  • Ol Shel Ol Shel on Nov 06, 2021

    1. What will it take to downgrade the wheels (and rotors/calipers?) to something rational and durable, like 17s? I don't stick a wheel in the grass at apex like I used to (Never bent a rim on my 205/60-13s), but still want to be able to hit a pothole without it costing $1500 every time. 2. Does it turn in the snow, or just plow straight ahead, letting the nannies ensure you slide off nose-first?

  • Conundrum Conundrum on Nov 06, 2021

    I suppose it would be fair to add here that the notorious Jack Baruth has commented that the Mk 7 Golf R was a dull box to drive, with none of the sprightliness of the same generation GTI. That is, it was a comitted understeerer. Having driven several of those Mk 7 GTIs and Mk1 AWD A3s besides, they seemed all right, if lacking the verve I had hoped for. And the DSG-equipped models were a bit of a donkey to maneuver back and forth at low speeds as the automatic clutch took its time to engage at low rpm. Often this clutch trait has been described as torpor in the turbo department as folks eager to punch out with a left turn from a side road into main-road traffic wondered what the delay in scoot was all about. Then there was the B-pillar cunningly situated to not allow more than a view of its plastic wonderfulness when attempting to look out sideways and a bit backwards at the same time. Without leaning forward to compensate, of course. Overall, and with the quality experience of five new Audis and an execrable 1980 brand new Jetta to my credit, I could not countenance the purchase or lease of one of these MQB cars. Unless it was so brilliant I could not stop myself. Now all of a sudden, the Mk 8 R has apparently metamorphosed into a track rat with non-dull handling, and a cheapo interior leavening its price increase. At least, that seems to be what the pundits early to press aver. I await a more experienced opinion of its virtues to be sure whether it would be worth the bother of a personal test drive, considering the high price. I don't expect its poor sightlines or lack of ease of egress to have changed though. Although, some fun can usually be had, because VW salespersons seem to exist in another reality, which can at least be fun to observe when any wry comment on my part sails easily over their heads, so there's that. Entertainment!

    • Stuki Stuki on Nov 07, 2021

      My experience with previous Rs has been a bit similar. But not so much that it understeers annoyingly, as that it feels heavy. Lacking some of the responsiveness and quickwittedness that the GTI has managed to retain. Stiffer _everything_, from sidewalls to wheel mounts to added grip to stiffer all parts of the structure and driveline, can make up for some of that in heavier cars, but it is rarely done. Almost inevitably leaving heavier, more powerful, awd versions a bit duller feeling than their lighter, simpler fwd or rwd counterparts. Even if the latter is lower powered and on less nominally "sporty" suspenders.

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