True luxury compact hatchbacks never really caught on in the American mainstream, with most high-end automakers like BMW and Audi sticking to coupes or sedans at the entry level and instead sprinkling clamshell cargo compartments among its larger models (such as the A7 and the 4 Series Gran Coupe). At the fringes of the conversation, however, there’s long lurked a stealth contender for the premium hatch crown, a car that regularly crammed both E-suite comfort and Olympic-level athleticism into a pint-size package.
It’s no stretch to say that the Volkswagen Golf R, which in recent years has sported class-above features like all-wheel drive matched with hammer-shot turbo horsepower, has served as a low-key flagship for the VW brand. Peel back the badge, and one also discovers that the hatch shares most of its platform with similarly sized Audi sedan brethren like the S3.
Redesigned for 2022, the Golf R pairs with the more modestly endowed GTI to represent the full breadth of the Golf lineup in North America (with its econo-minded siblings no longer being imported). Naturally, the arrival of the new generation car brought with it expectations that both its comfort quotient and performance potential would continue to edge upward into the upscale universe — perhaps even with an eye towards stealing sales away from small crossover contenders like the M-adjacent BMW X2 and the AMG edition of the Mercedes-Benz GLB-Class.
Surprisingly, this is not the case. While today’s Volkswagen Golf R is certainly more potent than its predecessor, corporate cost-cutting has reduced much of its previous upscale air to a memory. Despite holding the line on pricing that suggests punching above its weight, the Golf R redux can’t quite match its ancestor when it comes to keeping up with the almost-luxe crowd.
Big Power, Big Prizes
Focusing on what the new Golf R does do well leads you directly to the engine bay, where a familiar 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine serves up 315 horsepower This represents a substantial 27-pony improvement over the outgoing model, and when matched with the seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual gearbox found in my tester, it also gains 15 lb-ft of twist (with six-speed manual cars sticking with the old Mk7 generation Golf’s 280 lb-ft rating).
The vehicle’s all-wheel drive system has been updated, too, able to manage a 50/50 torque split between the front and rear axles, or when set to Drift mode, shove the entire rear torque output to the outside wheel for maximum chaos. Tire-smoking shenanigans aside, the AWD setup is good for a 0-60 mph scoot in the low four-second range, which puts it in contention with a long list of sports cars, sedans and high-performance SUVs all gifted with similar levels of grip.
Peeling Back the Layers
In practice, accessing the Golf R’s full performance potential means parsing through its various drive modes, which are activated via a capacitive touch button on the dashboard, and then selected on the vehicle’s touchscreen. I’ll have much more to say about Volkswagen’s new control surfaces in a moment, but the automaker has upped the ante with the latest R’s selectable settings: driver’s can choose from Comfort, Sport, Race, Special, the previously mentioned Drift and Individual, which allows for more granular tweaking.
By default, the car I drove selected Sport as its default, which provided a nice balance between snappy shifts from the dual-clutch and a ride I could live with (with Comfort sometimes sucking a little too much life from the car’s throttle response). Race mode is the most enjoyable when it comes time to let loose, and in recognition of this it has its own dedicated steering wheel button that automatically engages the most aggressive exhaust, throttle map, suspension and transmission details.
What of Special? It’s there as an analog for the settings used by Volkswagen’s pro driver when he lapped the Nürburgring, and if you happen to be in the vaunted track’s vicinity, by all means give it a go. Drift was an amusing aside in snow-covered parking lots or low-speed rural corners, but I found that I could just as easily rotate the Golf R in Race mode.
There’s no doubt that the 2022 edition of the Golf R feels noticeably quicker, with only the occasional turbo hesitance interrupting smooth acceleration from a roll at nearly any speed. In the snow, and riding on proper winter rubber, the Volkswagen displayed a slight tendency to push through a corner, easily correctable and eminently predictable when driving aggressively.
That being said, as with the Mk7, the new R maintains a sheen of separation between driver and driving. Fast, to be sure, but fun? Not to the same degree. The pursuit of ever more impressive spec sheet stats has led to a hatch that rides the edge of traction but rarely translates that energy to the cockpit, insulating occupants from the more visceral thrills delivered by less couth front-pullers like the Hyundai Veloster N.
If, like the car it replaces, the current Golf R matched that sensation of detached speed with a well-appointed premium cabin, then I’d be more enthusiastic about its overall package. Unfortunately, the Volkswagen’s interior is a disappointment on several levels.
Although I was impressed by the sensation of space provided by its roomy layout, nearly every other aspect has taken a solid step backwards. Blame cost-cutting associated with the new Golf platform — intended to sell at scale outside of the United States — for low quality vibes that permeate the R’s passenger compartment.
It starts with the reams of piano black plastic that have been slathered on the Golf R’s dashboard, center stack and console, a setup that eliminates virtually every button in favor of a smattering of touch controls that inevitably lead drivers back to the vehicle’s touchscreen infotainment system for any meaningful interaction with its systems. It’s a void-like, low-rent look, and it’s not helped by the frustrating lack of responsiveness evinced by its touch panel when attempting to change a minor climate detail or switch from one Android Auto menu to the next.
Those same touch controls are installed on the steering wheel, where they are entirely unusable while wearing gloves, even those designed for use with such sensitive buttons. I ended up having to drive barehanded in sub-freezing temperatures, and even then I found it difficult to apply the precise amount of pressure to the correct slab of featureless plastic on the wheel to get where I was going on a given menu, or simply even turn up the stereo.
Throw in the fact that the capacitive controls perched under the center screen for the heating and cooling system are not illuminated (making them impossible to use at night), the coarseness of the upholstery, the hard plastics shared with the car’s cheaper cousins and a noisy sunroof that summoned a windy whistle into the car even when closed, and the difference between the current and previous Golf R experiences couldn’t be more stark.
Too Much to Ask
It’s clear that Volkswagen has abandoned its premium pretense with the 2022 Golf R everywhere but the price tag. With a starting price of $43,645, it’s the most expensive hot hatch on the market, yet its cabin doesn’t come close to matching the expectations set by that sum, and its infotainment and vehicle systems offer the most frustrating user experience in its class.
This is truly a shame, given the fantastic power delivery of the Golf R’s robust turbo engine and its four-season friendly all-wheel drive persona. I can easily forgive a car like the R for erring on the side of buttoned-down when it comes to its on-road personality — after all, who wouldn’t be charmed by a powerful pocket aristocrat? — but only if that grace and poise are duplicated within its cockpit.
It’s easy to imagine VW executives gathered around the planning table and stamping “good enough” on the next-generation Golf’s platform, especially given that American sales of the top-flight R represent a drop in the bucket for the hatchback’s European focus. On a more affordable model like the GTI this might be less off-putting, but for what was once a leading light for Volkswagen performance and style, the 2022 Golf R’s inability to present as something special anywhere but under the hood is a strike against.
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