We should count our lucky stars that Volkswagen even decided to bring the eighth-generation Golf to the U.S. After decimating the affordable German car's lineup for 2022, only two variants remain destined for our amber waves of grain: the hopped-up GTI and the even-hoppier Golf R. The previous Golf R was fun, but it didn't feel like it was truly its own car. That's changed in the model's latest generation, where this hot hatch has finally come into its own.
If you've never noticed, VW's performance hatchbacks are color-coded, with the GTI leaning heavily on red and the Golf R relying on blue. That visual differentiation is a bit more obvious this time around, thanks in large part to a bright-blue strip that spans the width of the front end, which still has a bit of the ol' sloping-brow look thanks to the new fascia. There are plenty more visual differences that set the GTI and Golf R further apart from one another, like the Golf R's more aggressive bumpers, 19-inch alloy wheels and the not-so-large-I'd-call-it-obscene rear wing. Combine that all and you have a Golf R that finally has some visual bark to match its bite. The new look is quite visually aggressive, although it's worth mentioning that the wheels and wing on my test car are part of an Performance Package, so you may be able to skip 'em if you prefer. (The early test car shown here is actually a European-spec model, and it's unclear at this time if VW will offer this equipment as an option or if the company will just bundle every U.S.-spec car with it.)
The interior has a few key differences, but it's largely the same experience you get in lesser Golf variants. R-specific touches include loads of blue contrast stitching, different dashboard trim and an excellent pair of sporty front seats with integrated headrests and blue plaid inserts. The seats themselves aren't so tight as to alienate parts of the American market, but they're still supportive in the right ways when the driving gets spirited.
Otherwise, the cabin is just as friendly and functional as it is on the GTI. The door pockets are carpeted for your pleasure and will hold plenty of junk, as will the glove compartment, but the center armrest's cubby remains too compact for, say, a purse. There's a special place ahead of the shifter for your phone, which you can close into its dock for maximum distraction avoidance. The trunk will hold plenty for a car of this size, too, with about 13.5 cubic feet of storage on offer. The only real usability bummer is the cup holder, which tries to be clever with moving parts, but generally ends up incapable of doing its job, especially if you deign to have two beverages up front at once.
The previous Golf R's performance always felt OK, but never great, like it was a GTI that had gone to a tuner for some additional pep in its step. That changes with this 2022 model. The honkin' tailpipes out back give more than a subtle hint that there's something solid under the hood, which in this case is a 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 putting out 315 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque.
For those keeping track at home, that's 27 hp and 30 lb-ft higher than its predecessor, and boy, is that bump immediately noticeable. Regardless of drive mode, the engine and its seven-speed dual-clutch automatic push me along on a wave of low-end torque, seemingly never needing to eclipse 3,000 rpm to get me up to whatever speed I need. But when the time is right, the engine will hustle at higher revs, screaming its four-pot song to the outside world. Shifts in both directions are lightning quick and devoid of clunks or other negative attributes. It all just works.
Every 2022 Golf R comes with adaptive dampers and steering, so vehicle drive settings should feel the same across all examples. Comfort mode does a decent job in daily use, with plenty of available power underfoot paired with a suspension that soaks up some, but not all road nastiness -- after all, the alloys are big and the 235/35R19 Pirelli P-Zero summer tires are thin. Sport firms everything up, and it's my preference for spirited driving -- VW's, too, as this setting is the default mode when starting the car. Race is a bit too, um, racy for most American backroads and is likely best reserved for track days. But no matter the underlying modes, the Golf R feels like a distinctly unique model this time around, offering performance that feels an entire tier above the GTI.
The previously mentioned optional Performance Pack also adds Nürburgring and Drift modes; the former sets the car up specifically to handle Germany's legendary Nordschleife racetrack, and Drift eases up on traction control while making sure the rear axle gets as much power as it can. There's also an Individual mode if, like me, you want most of Sport's benefits without the detriment to ride quality.
Is the new Golf R efficient? Yeah, I'd say so. The EPA has yet to release estimates for this new model, but for context, the previous one managed 23 mpg city and 30 mpg highway, which isn't bad for a powerful AWD hot hatch. The numbers may trend southward given the extra oomph, but powertrain development being what it is, I'm sure VW managed to stay pretty close to the old figures. In my time spent not grinning like an idiot in switchbacks, I see highway figures right around 30.
Now that I've experienced VW's newest, flashiest infotainment system in two different cars, I can see past some of Discover Pro's frippery and experience its rough edges. Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are on board, and it's clear that VW understands the trend toward smartphone mirroring, because its native infotainment system pretty much looks like CarPlay on its 10-inch display. The hardware boots quickly, but if my fingers are too fast, the system can start tripping over itself, treating one tap like two or just straight-up ignoring my requests until it feels like it. Those experiences are few and far between, and things could very well change for the better by the time the first cars arrive in showrooms later this year, but it's worth mentioning. Two USB-C ports up front means devices charge quickly, but if you prefer a trickle, a Qi wireless pad is right beneath 'em.
VW Group has been a longtime proponent of digital gauge clusters, and the story stays the same here. A 10.3-inch digital cluster offers up an impressive number of styles to peruse, changing what information gets your eyes' priority. You can view a full-screen map or investigate audio options in greater detail, but I prefer to leave the readouts in a more traditional gauge mode. A head-up display further reduces distraction by beaming vehicle speed, speed limit indicators and more right to your peepers.
Volkswagen may have gone a bit overboard on touch capability, though. The steering-wheel buttons function as both touchpads and regular buttons, which can lead to some awkward work on the volume slider. The climate control is entirely digital, which can be frustrating, too, as it means swapping through menus to change common functions like fan speed. Temperature and volume controls are accessible on sliders beneath the display, but for some reason, they aren't illuminated at night.
So, how much will the Golf R cost? I have no idea. The outgoing Golf R was already a hair over $40,000 when it was discontinued back in 2019, and given the newfound features and power in its successor, it's likely that the cost of entry will rise. That's a tall ask for a Volkswagen Golf, even one as impressive as this. But then again, a Honda Civic Type R is nearly $39,000 these days, and the VW does feel more premium, so perhaps that's just what state-of-the-art hot hatchery costs nowadays. For a guy raised on inexpensive hot hatches, that's still a tough pill to swallow, even though this new model won't be confused with a 1.8-liter Golf anymore.
If you do decide to take a dive into the deep end, the 2022 Volkswagen Golf R is immensely rewarding. It's a hoot and a half on any road, straight or curvy, and now more than ever, it feels like a model that can stand on its own as a true performance vehicle.
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