2022 Volkswagen Golf R Road Test | Still the mature hot hatch

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It’s been nearly a year since we got behind the wheel of a Euro-spec 2022 Volkswagen Golf R for our First Drive. Now, VW has its U.S.-spec Golf R out, and we decided to find out if our end conclusion of it being “way more fun” still holds.

There’s one big difference (among other smaller ones) between this Golf R and the previous one we drove, and it’s all to do with the transmission. This Golf R is fitted with VW’s six-speed manual, which is a special treat for North America. You see, the Golf R in Europe is exclusively fitted with VW’s seven-speed DSG automatic, but us lucky folks in the U.S. get to choose our preferred method of shifting.

Unfortunately, selecting a manual transmission does result in a slightly less torquey engine. The updated 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder in the Golf R makes 315 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque with the DSG, but VW dials back torque to 280 pound-feet with the manual. We’re sure your local tuner will happily give you the twist back, but wave goodbye to your warranty while you’re at it.

Despite the small penalty in shove, the availability of a manual is still something to be thankful for. The transmission itself is perfectly fine. Moving the shifter through the gates isn’t some biblical experience, but there’s enough feedback to keep us entertained and to refrain from calling it rubbery.

VW swapped the characterful golf ball-shaped knob for a chunky, square knob, and it feels like a downgrade. And while first impressions with the clutch had us wanting for more feel, we warmed up to it with use. The package as a whole is average when it comes to manual transmissions in performance cars, but beggars shouldn’t be choosers: its mere existence is still enough to make us happy. At the same time, we don’t besmirch anybody for picking the excellent seven-speed DSG over it.

One item we particularly fell for in our first time behind the wheel of the European Golf R was its optional Akrapovič exhaust system. That titanium exhaust isn’t available for the U.S., but our car gets its own valved exhaust instead. Thankfully, the replacement isn’t much of a downgrade versus the Akrapovič system in sound level and quality. It blats, pops and crackles with plenty of authority. The perforated quad tips of the Akrapovič system win on style, but rest assured that the U.S.-spec exhaust might actually be a little bassier and guttural. We’d need back-to-back comparisons to be sure, but in short, it doesn’t seem like we’re completely missing out.

Above left: What you see at night; Above right: What you see with interior dome lights on at night

It’s been thoroughly beat on at this point, but in case you needed another reminder, Volkswagen’s new climate and audio controls are the least user-friendly in the business. Make sure it’s light outside the first time you drive a Golf R, because otherwise you’ll need to flip on the dome lights to change the cabin temperature or adjust the volume. VW uses touch capacitive panels on the center stack right below the infotainment system, but these panels aren’t backlit at night (problem depicted above), leaving you completely clueless as to where you need to stab or slide your finger.

They’re not exactly easy to use at high noon, either. Even after you know where the sliders are, it’s hell to use them while driving with your hand bouncing every which way over poor roads. Plus, accidental touches of the volume or temperature adjustment happen with frequency when you’re just trying to navigate through the infotainment system directly above. Perhaps putting touch sensitive controls in the perfect spot for a palm stabilizer was a bad idea? We didn’t care for this setup last year, and additional time with the Mk. 8 has only solidified our thinking that this poor design must be replaced in the Golf R, GTI, ID.4 and any future Volkswagen that ends up with it.

Thankfully, driving the Golf R is an absolute delight. The level of delight is highly dependent on what drive mode you dial in via VW’s complex new drive mode selector. For most roads, simply chucking it into the “Special” mode configured specifically for Germany’s Nürburgring that will allow you to derive the most fun from the chassis. This puts the throttle response, steering and exhaust in their most aggressive settings, but keeps the dampers in a softer state of tune. James May must be perplexed by this, but turns out the “Nürburgring” setup is the best setup for slicing up America’s poorly maintained labyrinth of roads. Take it one step further by going through the various screens to activate “ESC Sport” (no, there is no simple TCS/ESC button to press), and you get to tangibly feel the advantage of VW’s trick rear differential by way of small allowances of power-driven slip angle.

New for the Mk. 8 Golf R, this differential vastly ups the level of fun you’ll have when exploring what the car can do. On top of the AWD system being able to send up to 50% of the engine’s torque rearward, the new torque-vectoring rear differential with two multi-plate clutches can distribute up to 100% of said rear torque to a single wheel. This means that in a corner, the Golf R can direct more power to the wheel on the outside, tightening your line and pushing you through the corner. In practice, it’s transformative for the all-wheel-drive R. Prior to this new differential, the Golf R has always felt like more of a GTI+ with the rear wheels just along for the ride, providing additional traction when necessary and mitigating torque steer. Now, the Golf R can feel like a rear-biased all-wheel-drive car at times. It even has a Drift mode that easily sends you spinning round and round by overpowering that outside rear wheel, and it’s all possible thanks to the torque-vectoring rear differential.

Dial the Golf R back to Comfort, and it’s a laid back, sedate cruiser. The exhaust quiets down; the steering gets light, and the ride goes soft. VW’s latest generation of DCC adaptive dampers manage to soften out the ride enough to ensure it’s ideal for daily driving duty. The breadth of adjustment via the damper slider is impressive — swing it all the way stiff, and you’ll find it’s seemingly dialed in for the smoothest of racetracks with how harsh the ride gets on the street.

However, as good as the Golf R might drive, the UI fumbles make it difficult to live with. Your heated seats are stuck in the infotainment system, and waiting 15-20 seconds for the screen to fully boot-up in winter before being able to slam the heated seats on is as infuriating as it sounds. Others on staff have noted their fury with operating the radio on other VW products housing this system, and it’s still a valid complaint here with a poor menu structure and zero seek or tune buttons to be found on the center stack. And sure, the ambient lighting and multiple screens can be customized via a list of 30 different colors with innumerable combinations of those colors, but that’s just multi-colored lipstick on a pig.

If high-tech and feature-filled is what you’re after, though, the Golf R delivers. VW is choosing to sell the Mk. 8 Golf R in a single fully-loaded trim this year, and it ain’t cheap at $45,085. That’s the price for the manual, too — if you want the DSG, add another $800. Compared to a similarly-loaded GTI, you’re looking at a $6,095 premium for the R. Is the extra power and AWD worth that extra cash? We’d argue the newfound driving characteristics with the rear differential give the R a stronger case than before, but if you’re looking at a base GTI that starts at $31,270, stick with it. The R does not offer a $14,000 better driving experience. For some perspective with the luxury realm (because that’s how pricey the R is now), the Audi S3 starts at $46,895, making it entirely reasonable to cross-shop the two.

My tester is in the pretty Lapiz Blue Metallic paint, and it’s one of only three options available with the other two being black and white. We can hope that VW brings back its Spektrum paint color program to spruce things up, since the palette is rather boring for the time being.

The single interior option is similarly disappointing. Our Euro-spec Golf R was fitted with epic blue, black and gray patterned seats with suede bolsters that held us snugly in place. The plain Titan Black seats in the U.S. Golf R are just boring in comparison, and there are no options for different colors or materials. However, that lack of flare and pomp might be exactly what you’re looking for if a Golf R is on your radar. Its larger rear wing is one of the only boy-racer elements someone could scoff at, for the rest of this utilitarian hatchback is simply fashion-forward business casual. Your potential backseat riders (clients you want to impress?) will even have heated seats and their own climate zone.

It’s almost like the Golf R is moonlighting as an entry-level luxury car with its price and tech features, but doesn’t finish the job by swapping out all the humble Golf interior plastics with elevated materials. That said, none of its theoretical competition is going to be particularly luxurious inside either. It’s also impossible to say how the new Golf R measures up to the competition, for the two biggest rivals — GR Corolla and the upcoming Civic Type R — are cars we’ve yet to drive. If history is any indication, though, the Golf R will continue to be the expensive grown-up in the hot hatch world. Thankfully, that grown-up is just a little more fun this time around.

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