2022 Volkswagen Golf R First Drive: Good—But Is It Too Good?

Volkswagen’s all-wheel-drive Golf R has always had a simple mission: deliver supercar-like handling in a humble package. The 2004, 2008, and 2015 iterations did that well, and so does the 2022 VW Golf R, which is based on the all-new eighth-generation Golf (the base model of which is now forbidden fruit to us Americans, as the Golf R once was). Dynamically, this is the best Golf we’ve ever driven, but it lacks a little of that much-needed humility.

The Most Powerful Golf Ever

Volkswagen has given us good reason to keep our expectations high for the new Golf R model. For one thing, it’s the most powerful Golf ever made, with its EA888-series 2.0-liter engine now delivering 315 hp and 280-295 lb-ft. Backing up the engine is a new 4Motion all-wheel-drive system, an electromechanical torque-vectoring rear axle, and bigger brakes than the outgoing car. And for all those years North Americans were denied the Golf R, VW offers a mea culpa: U.S.- and Canadian-spec Golf Rs are offered with a six-speed manual transmission as well as a dual-clutch automatic, while the rest of the world only gets the automatic. (Eat your heart out, Europe.)

How does the new Golf R drive? Why, it’s nuts, of course. Volkswagen turned us loose on roads that were twisty and extremely narrow. Here, the Golf R was right at home: Tenacious grip, heroic brakes, and a seemingly unflappable all-wheel-drive setup allowed us to rocket into, through, and out of the corners as if we’d been given a day pass from the laws of physics.

Of course, we expect good corner-exit behavior from the Golf R. That’s the whole reason to drive all four wheels in what would otherwise be a front-wheel-drive car, but it’s still a breathtaking experience: Mash the throttle as you unwind the wheel, and the Golf R just goes, goes, goes.

The best way to appreciate the magic is to pilot a front-wheel-drive Golf GTI through the same sharp turns, which we did. Despite having a rather well-done limited-slip differential, and despite it being an altogether wonderful car, asking the GTI to try to replicate the Golf R’s pace on these same twisty roads had the front-driver slipping and smoking its tires.

There’s More to the Golf R Than Exiting Corners

Corner exit isn’t the only thing the 2022 Volkswagen Golf R does well: There’s also its raw speed, the feel of which is enhanced by the six-speed manual. We love the feel of its shifter, though we’d prefer it if the clutch’s engagement point didn’t feel quite so vague.

There are also good arguments to be made for the seven-speed DSG automatic, particularly on curvy roads: We found a few sharp turns where the car would have been happier in first, but we stayed in second, figuring it would be quicker to wait for the revs to build than to downshift and almost immediately upshift again. With the DSG, we could have paddled down to low gear with no time penalty. That said, launches with the automatic are unimpressive unless you use the Golf R’s launch mode; with the manual, your left leg is the launch mode.

The brakes are brilliant: We leaned on them quite heavily—perhaps more heavily than we would care to admit on a couple of blind turns—and they responded with firm bite, easy modulation, and rapid speed-scrubbing. Lateral grip was so strong, we felt as if the tires were stapled to the pavement, and despite registering up to 1.15 on the in-dash g-meter, we heard barely a squeak and felt barely a scrub.

All the while, we marveled at the Golf R’s ride. With the dynamic dampers set to their stiffest mode, the 2022 Golf R transmits every single bump, crack, and imperfection in the pavement back to the driver’s posterior—and yet it never felt jiggly, despite almost constant jiggling.

Is It Too Perfect? 

What is both intriguing and annoying about the 2022 VW Golf R is how firmly it stays on course. Push too hard, and it understeers, with the tail remaining obstinately planted—to the point that it’s easier to coax some rotation out of the front-drive GTI than it is the Golf R. As we found during our Car of the Year testing, even with its rear-power-biased Drift mode engaged, the Golf R stays resolutely on course. (No wonder Volkswagen had us try it out on snow.)

Granted, there’s nothing wrong with a car that goes where you want it to, as millions of drivers who overcooked their way into a smashed fender would no doubt agree in retrospect. Still, when your front-drive car is more willing to run loose than your all-wheel-drive car—especially your all-wheel-drive car with a trick new rear diff—something is wrong. The Golf R’s dynamics are close to perfection, but it is possible to be a little too perfect.

Frustration in the Cabin

Volkswagen does have imperfection well-covered in its interior, though. Once again, we struggled with the new climate and infotainment system. It’s not the steep learning curve that’s the problem; some of us have gotten used to the interface already in the all-electric ID4 (think smartphone, not car). Rather, it’s the controls’ positioning that are the problem, particularly the buttons that call up different functions on the screen and yet are located down by the air vents. That just makes no sense. Neither do the temperature and volume controls immediately below the screen, because if you happen to rest your palm against them as you try to use the screen, nothing works. Simple tasks like changing the temperature frustrated us repeatedly.

The capacitive-touch buttons on the steering wheel aren’t any better—who thought to put the capacitive steering-wheel heat button right at the edge of the steering-wheel spoke? We repeatedly turned on that hand heater while simply making a turn, then had to stare at the dash to figure out how many button pushes turned it off. This is not a situation you want to face when careening hell-for-leather down an unfamiliar twisty road. Volkswagen used to have the most straightforward control layouts in the biz; now it has one of the most confusing. It’s not good.

Mo’ Performance, Mo’ Money

When it arrives in dealerships toward the end of this year, the 2022 Volkswagen Golf R will sell for $44,640 with a manual transmission and $45,440 with an automatic. That’s higher than we’d hoped—a $3,350 jump compared to the 2019 Golf R—though Volkswagen argues the R has every creature comfort available in other Golfs worldwide, save those that don’t pass American regulations.

We came away impressed overall by the 2022 Volkswagen Golf R’s driving characteristics. The dynamics and agility are truly awe-inspiring, and we were amazed at the pace we could keep up down those very twisty roads. But VW seems to have improved the dynamics so much that it bleaches out some of the car’s character, and the frustrating controls serve to only erect an unnecessary barrier between the driver and the driving experience. The 2022 VW Golf R delivers exactly what we expected in terms of its dynamics, but the fact we prefer the less powerful, front-drive GTI says something.

The R has historically always been a hit with us because it delivered performance you would never believe could come from a Golf. The new R performs better than ever, but somehow, it’s left the Golf’s humble character behind—and that’s what we miss most.

2022 Volkswagen Golf R Specifications

BASE PRICE

$44,640-$45,440

LAYOUT

Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door hatchback

ENGINE

2.0L/315-hp/280-295-lb-ft turbocharged, direct-injected, DOHC 16-valve I-4

TRANSMISSION

6-speed manual, 7-speed twin-clutch auto

CURB WEIGHT

3,450-3,500 lb (mfr)

WHEELBASE

103.5 in

L x W x H

168.9 x 70.4 x 57.7 in

0-60 MPH

4.7 sec (mfr est)

EPA FUEL ECON

20-21/28-30/23-26 mpg

ON SALE

Late 2021

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