First Drive: 2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI

07/12/2022

First Drive: 2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI

07/12/2022

For decades the Volkswagen GTI has been the go-to option for those seeking a car that’s fun to drive, practical, and affordable. But after spending a week with the 2022 Golf R earlier this year, we actually had some trepidation going into this test. Like the R, the new GTI’s price tag ($30,540 base, $39,385 as-tested with destination fee) continues to climb, and our seat time in the former left us frustrated with its technology and disappointed by its dynamic behavior. In short, we were starting to wonder if Volkswagen had lost the plot.


2022 VW GTI front quarter

The GTI gets its new, more sculpted look courtesy of the eighth generation Golf, and builds on that aesthetic with a honeycomb grille, red accents, and subtle ground effects.


The GTI is perhaps a bit of a sacred cow, though, and VW basically created the hot hatch segment when the first GTI hit the streets back in 1976. Equipped with a hopped-up Audi engine and a buttoned-down chassis, that car established a template and made it clear that performance and pragmatism weren’t mutually exclusive.


Volkswagen has stayed admirably true to the GTI’s original mission throughout the ensuing decades, and we’re happy to report that the latest iteration still nails the fundamentals. Some of the issues that we noted in the R (which are inherent to the Mk8 Golf in general) still remain troublesome, but the GTI managed to score a lot of points with us due to its engaging character. In fact, it might just our preference between the two.

Formula Refinements

Built on an updated version of the Mk7 Golf architecture, the new GTI’s exterior dimensions are nearly identical to the outgoing car, but updates can be found throughout. Like the R, the GTI’s more sculpted and aggressive look as compared to its predecessor is largely thanks to the standard Golf’s new sheet metal. The red accents, large front grille, and dual exhaust pipes further hint at performance intent, but the new car still upholds a long-standing GTI tradition of being the hot hatch for those who’d prefer to fly under the radar.


The cabin of the new GTI is a noticeably more stylish and tech-forward affair, but the liberal use of hard plastics throughout the interior feel like a step backward in terms of overall quality. For better and for worse, the GTI’s two large displays now vie for the majority of your attention. Standard equipment on SE and Autobahn trims, they consist of a 10.25 customizable digital gauge cluster and a 10-inch infotainment display running VW’s latest MIB3 software (the base S model gets a smaller, 8.25-inch touchscreen). The interior of the GTI owes much of its minimalist appearance to the new infotainment system and its interface, but the uncluttered look also comes with some significant drawbacks. We’ll come back to that later.


2022 VW GTI six-speed

The GTI still comes with a six-speed manual gearbox by default, and it’s a good one. A seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission is also available.


Under the hood is an updated version of the turbocharged EA888 2.0-liter four cylinder engine which now makes 241 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque, improvements of 13 horsepower and 15 lb-ft of torque over the outgoing GTI. Power is routed exclusively to the front wheels through a torque-sensing, electronically controlled limited slip differential with brake-based torque vectoring. Gear changes are handled by a six-speed manual gearbox as standard, but a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic is available as well.


Chassis upgrades like a new lighter and stiffer aluminum subframe and higher spring rates (5% and 15%, front and rear respectively) are also on hand to bolster the GTI’s handling prowess. Our tested came fully loaded in the top-spec Autobahn trim, a package which includes adjustable dampers and 19-inch wheels along with a 12-way adjustable driver’s seat, interior material upgrades, and some creature comforts that go above and beyond what’s included in the S and SE-trimmed cars.

Behind The Wheel

Let’s get this out of the way early: As we noted in our Golf R review, the new infotainment system is a mess – so much so that it noticeably detracts from the overall driving experience regardless of context. Beyond the system’s needlessly complex menus and layout, it’s often slow to respond to inputs and maddeningly difficult to use while in motion. That would be a minor annoyance in a car with a traditional control layout (like the Mk7 GTI), but it’s a big problem here because virtually all physical knobs and buttons have been tossed out in the Mk8 GTI.


That means that basic tasks like climate control and media adjustments are handled either through the infotainment system menus or capacitive touch sensor “buttons” on the center console and the steering wheel. As a result it’s nearly impossible to make any sort of adjustment without taking your eyes off the road, and since most functions now require multiple steps and button presses, they take a lot longer to execute than they normally would.


2022 VW GTI engine

The GTI’s turbocharged 2.0-liter inline four now offers up 241 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque – improvements of 13 horsepower and 15 lb-ft of torque over the outgoing car.


The silver lining here is that the experience isn’t quite as bad in the GTI as it is in the R. The latter has a drive mode “button” on the steering wheel in a spot where your left palm often rests, and accidentally triggering it causes the drive mode to revert back to Comfort and re-enables all of the car’s electronic nannies. It’s an issue we ran into more than once during our week with the R while we were hustling it out in the canyons, but the GTI doesn’t have this feature. Instead, drive modes are accessed by a capacitive button on the center console or called upon through the infotainment system, so that problem doesn’t exist here. Thanks to this additional seat time with the new system we also discovered a few interface gestures and shortcuts that made it more tolerable to use, but on the whole, Volkswagen has created a significant problem where there wasn’t one before.


Capacitive buttons and shoddy infotainment aside, the GTI is still a joy to drive whether you’re navigating city streets or bombing down your favorite back road. The clutch weight is just right with a clear engagement point that makes it easy to quickly acclimate to the gearbox, and the shifter offers short, satisfyingly mechanical throws. While we did find ourselves wishing for an auto rev-matching feature during our more spirited drives, the fact that GTI is still available with a good manual gearbox feels like a victory worth savoring even if the dual-clutch is quicker and more efficient.


2022 VW GTI interior

The Mk8 GTI’s interior is more streamlined and stylish than before, but the lack of physical buttons and knobs can make even basic tasks – like changing the air conditioning fan speed – a frustrating endeavor.


Although it’s stiffer than the outgoing car, the new GTI still handles the everyday stuff with aplomb. Setting the drive mode to Comfort relaxes the shocks, the steering weight, and the throttle response, and it’s easy to find an agreeable driving position regardless of one’s stature. And since it’s still a Golf at the end of the day, there’s still a reasonable amount room for back seat passengers and plenty of space for cargo whether or not those seats are folded down. Hell, if you can keep your foot out of it, this GTI will even deliver an EPA-rated 34 miles per gallon on the highway.


A lively jaunt through the canyons in Sport mode reveals the GTI’s true charm, though. Although it’s down more than seventy horsepower versus the Golf R, there’s still more than enough grunt on tap to keep things interesting. At just under 3100 pounds, the GTI is also roughly 400 pounds lighter than the Golf R, and it feels like it. The GTI is noticeably more eager to change direction and less prone to understeer that its burlier big brother, and we never found ourselves missing the additional power or all-wheel drive setup.


2022 VW GTI wheels

The Autobahn trim ditches the 18-inch alloys found on S and SE models for unique 19-inch wheels with summer tires. Red dual-piston calipers clamp down 13.4-inch rotors at the front end of all new GTIs.


Although the Autobahn trim’s adjustable dampers are nice to have, it seems like the mid-tier SE is probably the spec to go for. Starting at $34,295 before destination, it’s nearly $4000 cheaper than the Autobahn and includes a lot of worthwhile upgrades over the base model, like LED headlights and fog lights, a 480-watt premium audio system, wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and wireless phone charging. Opting for the SE also allows you to spec the car with plaid cloth seats – virtually a must-have for a GTI – and those aren’t available with the Autobahn trim because of the package’s leather upholstery upgrades.


That price also makes the GTI nearly $10,000 cheaper than Golf R, which is now offered in one fully-loaded spec. We’d argue that the GTI is ultimately the better buy – not only because it stays more faithful to the practical, fun, and affordable ethos that made hot hatches such a sensation to begin with, but because it’s actually more enjoyable to drive. It might not be flawless, but if you can learn to live its shortcomings, the GTI continues to offer something special.

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