Hot Yet Refined: 2022 VW Golf R

The Volkswagen Golf R is back after a two-year hiatus. The German automaker’s Golf GTI has long been heralded as a quintessential hatchback, a benchmark of the class. But in VW’s hierarchy, there IS a hotter hatch than the GTI: the Golf R. VW debuted an all-new Golf R for 2022 with more power, newer tech and redesigned styling inside and out. Our week with the new Golf R was plenty of time to determine if the new model serves up enough heat and refinement to maintain its place at the top of the hot hatch pecking order.

Some hatchbacks, like the Ford Focus RS or the Hyundai Veloster N, aren’t exactly what you’d call subtle. Their exterior designs show little restraint and they scream boy racer to all those that observe them (including the local police). Volkswagen has taken a different, more restrained approach for Golf R’s 2022 model year. Previous Golf Rs have been subtle and  tasteful (reallly?) so it’s no surprise that the 2022 model follows suit. At a quick glance, some may find that the new Golf R doesn’t look all that different than the old model, which isn’t really a bad thing in my opinion. Regardless, the exterior is all new: the front and rear lighting, wheels, hood, doors and hatch and spoiler. Looks are subjective, but I think the 2022 Golf R looks understated yet sporty enough to differentiate itself from a standard Golf or Golf GTI, especially in gorgeous Lapiz Blue our tester was painted. The Golf R is differentiated from the GTI by an entirely different front fascia, larger rear spoiler, different wheels and quad tailpipes instead of duals. Silver mirror caps seem to be an ode to later model Audi S and RS cars and they look just as tasteful on the new R as they did on the older Audis. The look does not scream boy racer and should not attract unnecessary attention.

An all-new interior greets you as you step inside the 2022 Golf R and take a well-bolstered seat. The look is minimalist and clean, and the infotainment screen is canted toward the driver to add usability. Unfortunately, there aren’t any physical controls around the screen and the digital touch controls don’t even provide haptic feedback, meaning the only way you actually know you adjusted something is through a graphic displayed on the screen. Worse yet, the controls are not illuminated at night, making it unnecessarily difficult to adjust the volume, fan setting, or temperature. Simply providing physical and back-lit controls would eliminate all of the above issues. Down the road, I can foresee issues arising from an unresponsive infotainment screen causing you to lose the ability to adjust anything in the cabin. There is simply no good reason not to have physical controls for the fundamental operations that are manipulated nearly every time you use the vehicle. The infotainment otherwise looks modern with crisp graphics and good black levels, but it wasn’t the quickest to respond. As if the lack of buttons wasn’t insult enough, you often have to scroll through different menus to get to what you are looking for. In other words, the infotainment is also needlessly complicated, greatly hampering usability. Though I did get more used to it by the end of the week, the infotainment WILL be a deal-breaker for some. Personally, it is reason enough alone to have me seeking out used prices on previous generation Golf Rs.

Aside from the infotainment, interior materials are not as nice as they were in the past model, especially in the back seats where the extremely cheap plastic on the door panels would be more appropriate in a 90s taxi than in a range-topping Golf. Cost-cutting is clearly evident. Configurable ambient lighting is nice to have at night and helps to liven up the otherwise drab interior. Why can’t the Golf R get a heritage interior like the GTI’s plaid seats? The Harmon-Kardon branded sound system is quite good, able to play loud and clean but lacked the deep bass response or lifelike tonality and leaves room to be upgraded. The seats are the highlight of the interior, well-bolstered yet also comfortable. The interior is surprisingly commodious for such a little car, with room for six-foot adults up front and two behind them. The cargo area is not huge but offers plenty of room for a week’s grocery shopping. If you don’t want to fold the rear seats down, there’s also a pass-through to stow longer cargo.

The 2022 Golf R features a significantly updated drivetrain with little change to the powerplant. The venerable 2.0-liter turbo 4-cylinder is similar to the one used in the last generation Golf R but is now rated at 315hp and 310lbft of torque (295 lbft with the manual) thanks to updated software. Launch control is standard with the 7-speed DSG gearbox, but even without engaging it the Golf R is a real pocket-rocket. There is some turbo lag but once the engine is on boost…hang on! The Golf R is an absolute hoot to scoot around in slow-moving traffic thanks to its small size, agility and power. The engine noise is enhanced and it’s not great, but the exhaust will occasionally give you a pop or crackle or bang if you’re in one of the sportier driving modes. The Golf R offers larger front brakes, adaptive dampers and an AWD system to enhance performance further over the GTI. The new Golf R has 15 position electronically controlled dampers which the driver can manipulate through the various drive modes. Comfort is the softest setting, Nurburgring mode is the most aggressive plus 12 additional modes. Additionally, the driver can program a custom-drive mode and tailor the engine, suspension and other settings to get the Golf to respond the way the driver wants it to. Despite arriving to us on a hot week in May still wearing winter tires, the Golf was a blast to throw around corners. The new AWD system has the ability to split the power more aggressively in the front and rear as well as the ability to split the power side to side in the rear for torque vectoring. This feature helps to counteract understeer and make the Golf R more playful on a backroad. Despite the disappointing interior quality and frustrating infotainment, the Golf R’s driving dynamics are excellent; smooth and refined yet very nimble and agile. The ride is only stiff in the most aggressive damper settings and Golf R still makes for an excellent daily driver and baby schlepper as well as sporty car on a back road.

Volkswagen played it safe with updating the 2022 Golf R’s exterior design, interior design and overall feel. It is still a highly refined hot hatch for adults who don’t want to advertise their enthusiasm for driving and have a child or two to cart around. If Volkswagen decides to remedy the issues presented by the infotainment, then the new Golf R will truly be an excellent vehicle. Though still recommendable on driving dynamics alone, the 2022 Golf R is one mid-cycle refresh away from truly being superlative.

-Ken Wilson

2022 Volkswagen Golf R$44,445
Destination Charges$995
As-Tested MSRP$45,440

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