Review: The 2022 Volkswagen Golf R May Have Grown Up, But It Still Brings Out My Inner Hooligan

It may be near Audi-level on price, but this could be the ultimate sleeper hot hatch

2022 Volkswagen Golf R
(Images: TFL Studios)
Finally, more power! Fussy infotainment system & haptic controls
Fantastic handling capability Mediocre fuel economy w/ the 6-speed manual
Remarkably well-rounded character
(more on that below)
What do you mean it’s $45K!?
Rear torque-vectoring (and Drift Mode)

Overview: The 2022 Volkswagen Golf R made me feel old at first — then it cured me.

Let’s face it — adulting can really, really suck sometimes. When I and so many other folks first started driving, it was all we could do to fantasize about going fast, as most performance options are well out of financial reach. That’s why I love hot hatchbacks: They can be fast and affordable. So much did I want to ascribe to the “gotta go fast” philosophy that I would have gladly suffered a back-pummeling ride, perforated eardrums and annoyed neighbors just to have a fun car. Getting into the 2022 Volkswagen Golf R, I expected to be taken back in time. I expected to have a raucous, raw and visceral experience that revived my teen self.

2022 Volkswagen Golf R

Instead, I found my curmudgeonly self griping at how damn frustrating modern cars have become to operate. I wondered if both I and the car were getting too grown up. Why can’t I just focus on having fun, Volkswagen? Why do I have to fiddle with all these maddening capacitive buttons just to set the car up the way I want it? My first experience taking the car to launch wasn’t exactly pleasant as I came to terms with what I thought the Golf R had become. And all of this for an Audi-esque $44,640.

“Maybe I need to try it again,” I thought — and so I gave the 2022 Volkswagen Golf R another shot. And I’m glad I did, because this is hands-down one of the best cars I’ve driven this year.

Performance: This car is a blast, once you find your way around the settings

At its core, the 2022 Volkswagen Golf R Mk8 has a familiar powerplant: VW’s turbocharged 2.0-liter EA888. However, we finally, finally see more horsepower than what we experienced with the Mk7. In fact, you get 315 horsepower driving all four wheels, as well as 295* lb-ft of torque — at least with the 7-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox. Opt for the 6-speed manual instead (like we have here), and you’ll only get 280 lb-ft of torque. The so-called “Evo4” variant gets some tweaks to both hardware and software to get that extra power, but another headline change with this generation is with the Golf R’s all-wheel-drive system.

This time around, VW ditched the old Haldex system with its center clutch, open rear differential and brake-based torque-vectoring system for a twin-clutch setup on the rear axle — one for each of the half-shafts. That allows the Golf R to split power not just front to rear, but also side-to-side, enabling another addition for the Mk8: Drift Mode. Pressing the “R” button on the steering wheel or the center “Mode” button allows you to get into Drift as one of the special drive modes. When it’s enabled, the car will send all of the available power (mind you, only 50% of the total power makes its way rearward) and shifts it to the outside tire in corners. It’s fun, but obviously not something I’d recommend on public roads, so I kept it in ‘Race’ most of the time…until I discovered the Nürburgring special mode.

You can really change up the way this Golf R feels to drive

Selecting each of the drive modes will change up the standard VW Digital Cockpit in a few different ways, namely the prominence of the speedometer or the tachometer (you can use the “View” button on the steering wheel to cycle through a few different layouts). Nürburgring turned out to be my favorite, though, as it substantially changes up the throttle response and the DCC adaptive suspension. On DSG-equipped models, it also changes the transmission mapping. Essentially, it dials everything in a bit differently from Race to handle Nordschleife’s 14 miles of corners…or more handily, the canyon roads leading up into the Rocky Mountains.

Our particular Golf R came with Bridgestone Potenza S005 tires.

No matter which drive mode you pick, though, the 2022 Volkswagen Golf R absolutely tears up the back roads. You get nice, linear response from the EA888 motor, a perfectly honed clutch and snappy (if a bit numb) steering — all of which turned me into a card-carrying hooligan in the span of about five minutes. Granted, the Mini Cooper JCW has that effect too, but there’s so much more going on here. From the drivetrain to the 14.1-inch cross-drilled front brakes to all the on-board technology, this R model is simply the best, most well-rounded hot hatch around at the moment.

The only real down side? With the extra grunt — and possibly my desire to wind up that turbo as much as possibly — you do only get about 23 MPG with the 6-speed manual. It’s not terrible, but with even the last-gen Civic Type R managing 25 MPG I’d call the VW’s showing on that front “meh”, at best. With gas prices over $4 a gallon, you will feel the lower economy more than you would in, say, a Golf GTI.

One size fits all: The 2022 Volkswagen Golf R checks most of the tech boxes, but…

Volkswagen slimmed down the Golf offerings for U.S. buyers this go-around — you can either have the GTI or the Golf R. The GTI still offers some wiggle room in its trim walk, from the base (but still well-equipped) S up to the fully-loaded Autobahn. Here in the Golf R, you only get one bells-and-whistles package, with your only choices being transmission, color and accessories.

On one hand, that means you don’t have to really think about content here: You just get it all, full stop. A 10-inch infotainment screen with built-in navigation comes standard as does the 10.25-inch Digital Cockpit Pro. There’s a 12-speaker, 480-watt Harman Kardon sound system, three-zone automatic climate control, heated and ventilated Nappa leather front seats, heated rear seats and a panoramic sunroof. On the safety front, you get VW’s IQ.Drive system with front and rear radar, cameras and ultrasound sensors to support all the driver aid systems, including adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist.

It’s all there, though that can cut both ways. First, having all that gear can get in the way of experiencing the more mechanical, connected aspect of driving the 2022 Volkswagen Golf R. That’s what I first experienced, and I mainly blame that on the MIB3 infotainment system. It’s a similar gripe I had with the ID.4 — it looks slick, but the combination of capacitive buttons with haptic feedback and touchscreen controls is frustrating to get used to. The Digital Cockpit isn’t much better from an ease-of-use standpoint, either. While I appreciate the flexibility VW baked in as far as what you can display at any given time, actually getting to the items you want can be a major chore.

2022 Volkswagen Golf R

Verdict: A great hot hatch, even with the frustrations

It’s impossible to approach the 2022 Volkswagen Golf R without mentioning some of the frustrating controls. Would I still want one, though? I would, because as hot hatches go, it’s still a great one to drive. You do have to get past the tech, and admittedly that is a barrier to entry for some hot hatch enthusiasts who want something a bit more straightforward.

Simply put, the Golf R can be a grown up car when you need it to be, and a fun machine to hoon around when you want it. It’s something Volkswagen’s always managed to pull off with both the GTI and the Golf R, and I’d argue this is their most well-rounded attempt yet. If you can afford the Golf R — that $45,000-ish price tag definitely stings — it’s absolutely worth your time.

Fortunately, if that’s too rich for your blood (it is for mine), there’s also the GTI. Not a bad choice, either way.

In its latest generation, just how far has the Golf R come over the past decade? We take a look at that question in the video below: