First Drive: 2022 Volkswagen Golf R

10 min read

First Drive: 2022 Volkswagen Golf R

10 min read

When the original Golf GTI hit the scene back in 1976, it kick-started an entirely new performance segment of the auto industry: the hot hatch. Outfitted with a fuel injected 1.6-liter four cylinder mill that had previously been exclusive to the Audi 80 GTE sedan, the GTI merged the everyday practicality of a hatchback with the performance capability of a sports coupe in an affordable package. Four and a half decades later, hot hatches are faster and more sophisticated than ever, but as the Mk8 Golf R illustrates, the mission remains the same. Mostly.

Make no mistake – this is a serious performer by any standard. Back in 2020, VW development driver Benjamin Leuchter laid down a 7:51 lap time on the famed Nürburgring Nordschiefe road course with the Mk8 Golf R, a time which bests the seventh-generation car by a full 19 seconds and puts it in the company of machines like the 997-generation Porsche 911 Turbo. But with an as-tested price of $45,440 (with destination), it also commands more than three grand over the outgoing car, pushing it further away from the realm of low-cost performance that helped make hot hatches such a sensation in the first place.

There’s a sense that Volkswagen is well aware of this. Outfitted with wide heated and ventilated sports seats draped in Nappa leather and free of brash aesthetics, the Golf R feels like the mature enthusiast’s counterpoint to cars like the Honda Civic Type R. It’s a sword that tends to cut both ways, though, and whether that’s ultimately to the Golf R’s benefit or detriment really comes down to where your priorities lie.

Inside and Out

Mk8 Golf R 1

The Mk8 Golf R definitely looks the business, but it’s not so over the top that you’ll need to make excuses for it when you pull up at a formal event.

The Golf R has always been one of the stealthiest options available for enthusiasts who’re looking to fly under the radar, but the Mk8 Golf R ratchets up the visual drama more so than past iterations. Its unique 19x8-inch alloys and hunkered down stance are complemented by gloss black trim, a unique front fascia with big air intakes, a relatively understated rear spoiler, and a quad-tipped exhaust. The combination gives the new Golf R a noticeably more aggressive look in comparison to the GTI while also staying true to the purposeful, minimalist vibe that’s become a hallmark of Volkswagen design.

The cabin of the new R doesn’t throw a lot of curveballs, but there are a few key elements that set it apart from lesser Mk8 Golfs. The interior is a very tech-forward affair, boasting the customizable 10.25-inch Digital Cockpit Pro digital gauge cluster as well as a 10-inch capacitive touchscreen infotainment display with VW’s MIB3 operating system software as standard. A leather-wrapped steering wheel, carbon fiber-esque trim, and blue stitching bring a sense of occasion to the proceedings, while the aforementioned sport seats up front feature a blue “R” stitched into the backrests. But like its predecessor, what really sets the Golf R apart from the GTI – now the only two versions of the Golf available in the North American market – can be found underneath the skin.

Motivation comes from the familiar 2.0-liter turbocharged EA888 four cylinder engine. Now in its fourth generation, the direct injected power plant has been worked over to produce 315 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque, gains of 27 horsepower and 30 lb-ft over the outgoing car. Paired with either a six-speed manual gearbox or a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, the power is routed to all four wheels through an updated version of VW’s 4Motion all-wheel drive system.

Mk8 Golf engine

The fourth generation turbocharged 2.0-liter EA888 engine churns out 315hp and 310lb-ft. It can be paired with either a seven-speed DSG dual clutch automatic transmission or a six-speed manual gearbox.

As with its predecessor, the Mk8 Golf R’s all-wheel drive system can send up to 50 percent of the power to the rear wheels, but now thanks to a new multi-plate clutch on the rear axle, it can also distribute up to 100 percent of the torque that’s sent to the back end to an individual rear wheel. This not only provides improved handling through more sophisticated torque vectoring, it also allowed VW engineers to program in a Drift mode so that you can bring some power oversteer shenanigans into the mix if you so choose.

The chassis has seen some attention as well, of course. All US-bound examples of the Golf R will be equipped with the Performance Package that’s optional in other regions. The package includes adaptive dampers as well as Drift mode and a Special drive mode that replicates the settings which were used to set that blistering Nürburgring lap time.

Both the spring rates and anti-roll bars are ten percent stiffer than the outgoing car’s, and additional negative camber has been dialed in at the front end. Stopping power comes from 14.1-inch discs with two-piston calipers up front, while single piston calipers clamp down on 12.2-inch rotors at the rear.

Behind The Wheel

Mk8 Golf interior

A model-specific leather-wrapped steering wheel and unique sport seats provide the cabin with some additional flare, but the look of the Golf R’s interior doesn’t stray too far from the GTI playbook. A 480-watt, nine-speaker Harman Kardon audio system comes standard.

Before we dive into the new Golf R’s behavior on the streets of LA and the winding roads of the Angeles National Forest, we feel the need to address an issue with the Mk8 Golf R that’s so thoroughly baked into the car’s design that it’s virtually unavoidable in any driving situation: The user interface.

To be clear, Volkswagen has made some excellent infotainment systems in the past – the Mk7 Golf R had one of them. This new MIB3 system, however, can be downright infuriating to use. The system offers no physical buttons whatsoever; like Cadillac’s much-maligned Cue system from a few years ago, it instead relies on capacitive touch sensors and haptic feedback, much like modern smartphones. This might sound cool in theory, but in practice, it’s actually kind of a mess. Beyond the fact that this interface design encourages you to look away from the road in order to find the function you need and confirm that the requested action has been done, we found touch inputs on both the capacitive buttons and the infotainment display itself often didn’t register correctly, or at all.

When it does work as intended, MIB3 is generally fine otherwise. Both the display and the operating system’s graphics are a big step up from MIB II, and the inclusion of wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (along with an integrated wireless charging pad on the center console) here help to mitigate some of the frustration.

Mk8 Golf wheels

Unique 19-inch wheels and summer tires are outfitted as standard. Every Golf R that Volkswagen sells in the U.S. will be equipped with the Performance Package, which includes adaptive dampers and two additional drive modes.

Once we settled in at the helm, we noticed that the new sport seats feel geared more toward grand touring rather than track days, whereas the opposite could be said of the thrones in the Civic Type R. They make the Golf R easier to live with for the day to day stuff, but we occasionally wished for a bit more thigh bolstering to help us stay in place during aggressive lateral maneuvering.

Even with its stiffened suspension setup, the Golf R is still incredibly civil around town in the default Sport driving mode. Shifts from the dual-clutch gearbox are ostensibly seamless at speed, and the adaptive dampers do an excellent job of isolating the cabin from the larger impacts that we encountered out on LA’s less-than-perfect streets. Volkswagen’s excellent fit and finish is on full display here, and although some of the interior materials feel like a step backward when compared to the outgoing car, the cabin still looks and feels far more grown up than the Honda’s.

Mk8 Golf rear packaging

Although it’s a bit quieter than we’d prefer, the quad-tipped exhaust does emit a nice little volley snaps, crackles, and pops, when you let off of the throttle in Race mode.

Out in the canyons, the new Golf R’s performance seems to be defined more by the power on tap than the car’s handling prowess. Weighing in at just over 3400 pounds, the Mk8 Golf R is about 150 pounds heavier than the outgoing car, but you wouldn’t know it based on its ability to pile on speed. VW quotes an official 0-60 MPH time of 4.7 seconds, but our butt dyno indicates that the real time is probably closer to four seconds flat, and that’s more than enough to leave the Civic Type R in the rear view at the stoplight drags.

Still, hot hatches have traditionally been more about corner carving than sheer acceleration, and while the Golf R’s sophisticated all-wheel drive system does an excellent job of sending the power where it’s needed, the steering is pretty low on meaningful feedback, even when weighed up in Race mode, and the grip levels aren’t quite as high as we had hoped. Some of the blame for both of these issues might be attributed to the Hankook summer tires that our tester wore, but we’d need seat time in an Mk8 Golf R outfitted with a different set to really say for sure. The Bridgestone Potenza S005, Goodyear Eagle F1 Super Sport, Pirelli Pzero PZ4, and the Hankook Ventus S1 evo3 all appear to offer factory fitments, at least for the time being.

Although the 2022 Volkswagen Golf R isn’t quite as well-rounded as its predecessor and MIB3 leaves a lot to be desired, there’s no question that this is the most potent production Golf to date. Some may lament the slight shift in focus from agility to horsepower, but at the end of the day, that kind of performance tends to be more exploitable – and appreciated – by the folks that actually buy forty-five thousand dollar hot hatches, and we can’t blame Volkswagen for being honest about who this car is really aimed at.


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