First drive: 2022 Volkswagen Golf R weathers the storm

February 27, 2022

The 2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI and Golf R represent the freshest choices in a withering class of hot hatchbacks. While we await the redesigned Subaru WRX STi and Honda Civic Type R, and hope that Hyundai doesn’t cancel the excellent Veloster N, deciding between the two Golfs reflects a gulf between wants and needs.  

A nicely equipped GTI costs about $31,000, including the $995 destination fee. The 2022 Golf R I tested cost about $44,640, or 42% more. That’s a steep climb for the hotter hatch. 

The redesigned eighth-generation GTI features a stronger 2.0-liter turbo-4 that makes 241 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque. A 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission or a 6-speed manual sends power to the front wheels only. That could be plenty.

Just not in the snowy single-digit temperatures of a Chicago winter. The all-wheel-drive handling of the Golf R justifies the price jump, though a set of good winter tires on the GTI would cost a whole lot less. Then there’s the additional power from the turbo-4 in the Golf R, which is tuned to make 315 hp and 310 lb-ft (up from 288 hp and 280 lb-ft in the outgoing Mark). 

Without an open track or even dry conditions to test it on, the 2022 Golf R made its best case on a deceptive sheet of new fallen snow. It had warmed during the day, the concrete wet with perspiration. By nightfall, temps dropped 25 degrees, and patches of ice hid beneath the snow. The mostly highway drive to my daughter’s hockey practice was dominated by heavy, planted, full-size SUVs with four-wheel drive. 

The 235/35R19 summer tires had been swapped out for Pirelli Sottozero 3 winter tires on the Golf R tester. Grip out of the icy subdivision and on the cloverleaf ramp instilled confidence, even as the series of expansion joints momentarily flicked the hatch off course. New adaptive dampers and stiffer springs work with a stronger yet lighter aluminum subframe for more composure, which helped on that bumpy turn.

2022 Volkswagen Golf R

2022 Volkswagen Golf R

In Comfort mode on the highway, with the exhaust muted, it operated in a happy medium on the road-noise spectrum. The dampers have a broader range than the last generation, and the ride wasn’t as firm as I’d expected. 

With plenty of tire friction from larger vehicles melting slick portions, the highway was clear enough to rifle through the 6-speed automatic and get a jolt from the upgraded turbo-4. The shifts throw to the longer side, but the clutch pedal uptake is perfect, getting progressively springier. 

And there was one day with my tester where dull drab Graynuary welcomed a scattering of sun so the roads were wet but not icy. The engine power is not explosive from a start, even with some chirping from the rear. But it’s only a blink until all that torque comes on at just 1,900 rpm, and the R behaves much more devilishly. VW quotes the R’s quickest 0-60 mph time of 4.7 seconds with the 7-speed dual clutch automatic, but with the manual and good road conditions, expect times below 5.0 seconds.

Once I dropped off my daughter (her massive hockey goalie bag fit perfectly in the 20 cubic feet of space in the hatch) it was time to Drift away in the frozen parking lot. But first, some nits to pick. 

The hatch won’t open if the car is running, even with the parking brake engaged; the engine needs to be shut off. Delivery drivers or winter drivers dropping off passengers with junk in the trunk be warned. 

2022 Volkswagen Golf R

2022 Volkswagen Golf R

The easiest way to play with the multitude of drive mode settings in the 10.3-inch touchscreen is to avoid it by pressing the R button in the steering wheel to activate Drift.

A lot has been made about Volkswagen’s haptic climate control system and MIB3 touchscreen infotainment system, and little of it has been positive. Switching from simple to use buttons and dials to flat touch surfaces poses challenges, especially with single-digit temps and double-digit winds. 

The climate controls can be accessed through the touchscreen or on a flat bar on the lip of the dash below the touchscreen, like hot keys on a keyboard. Except they’re not a shortcut. Instead of a quick crank of a dial, I had to press and hold my fingertip as the temp setting climbed incrementally. A slider in the touchscreen enables a quick swipe. Fortunately, the screen responded to gloves that my iPhone rarely picks up. 

@captainbobby3 You can still have your gloves on to use the touchscreen!! #volkswagen #cartok #chicagobears #dabears #cars #fyp ♬ Steven Universe - L.Dre

Below the touchscreen and climate bar and between the vents are four hot buttons for quick touchscreen access, including climate, a parking menu, driver assist systems, and drive modes. It keeps the dash clean, with the climate and touchscreen settings a background instead of a distraction. 

This economy of design caused another oddity, if not annoyance. The front and rear defroster buttons migrated to the left side of the steering wheel on the dash, in the same haptic interface as the headlight settings. 

Like a climate switch, a drive mode switch would be welcome, but it would lack the granularity expected in the digital age. The touchscreen houses four general modes, including a Custom mode that lets you adjust the steering, drivetrain, engine sound, and damping on a sliding scale. You could set the drivetrain to Race mode, the steering to Sport mode, but leave the engine sound in Pure, if that’s your thing. In winter weather testing, I kept it in the default Sport mode except for cruising in Comfort on the highway. 

2022 Volkswagen Golf R

2022 Volkswagen Golf R

2022 Volkswagen Golf R

2022 Volkswagen Golf R

2022 Volkswagen Golf R

2022 Volkswagen Golf R

I played more with the 10.0-inch digital instrument cluster, with its available lap timers, horizontal tachometer, and other data bytes. 

Back in the empty parking lot, I left it in Sport mode, hammered the throttle, jammed it in second, kicked out the rear and felt the car behave all too predictably. My teenage self was disappointed in its control; my adult self was impressed. Up to half of the torque can go to the rear axle, where the new rear-wheel-drive unit has a clutch on either half shaft to vector all of that torque to the grippiest wheel. Switching to Drift mode and shutting off the stability control corrected its wisdom, and soon enough I was swooping around turns and spraying up snow. 

The 2022 Golf R was a hoot even in bad conditions, yet safe enough to not worry about the weather. The dual nature ability makes it as good a daily driver as it is a hot hatch.


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