Expert Reviews

2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI and Golf R First Drive Review

Canadians historically have shown a great love for the Volkswagen Golf, Golf Wagon, GTI, and Golf R. Apparently we embrace efficiency, functionality, refinement, and engaging dynamics. However, with the launch of the new eighth or “Mk8” generation, the standard Golf TSI hatch and wagon are off the menu in North America. The new Taos compact crossover will be covering those bases.

Yet V-Dub enthusiasts can rejoice. The delectable GTI and all-wheel-drive Golf R return in Mk8 form, and dang if we Canucks don’t embrace these little tinder boxes with open parkas. In fact, Canada is the number-four market in the world for the Golf R – not per capita but actual raw volume. And the GTI to Golf R mix here is about an even 50/50 split.

Refreshed, yet Instantly Recognizable

The term icon gets bandied about too much in this biz, but if any car deserves that handle it’s the VW GTI. The original hot-hatch has had many worthy opponents over the years but has never been dislodged from its perch as being the most well-rounded and well-respected. Nearly unassailable in its broad gamut of capabilities, the outgoing Mk7 GTI is going to be a mighty hard act to follow. Does VW up the game with the Mk8?

The Mk8 GTI is immediately identifiable – Volkswagen ain’t gonna mess with that – but the new skin looks sleeker and more modern, sporting slimmer front headlights and a gaping lower grille with cool X-shaped LED fog lamps peeking out through the mesh. There are five new colours, and these testers were dipped in classy Kings Red Metallic and a striking Pomelo Yellow Metallic that had heads spinning wherever we went.

Hop inside and the GTI’s front seats (in leather or fabulous plaid fabric) hug with the expected comforting embrace of VW’s best. The steering wheel is equally pleasing in its placement and contouring, although the cabin has fallen victim to the touch-panel trend with nary a volume knob, analogue gauge or manual HVAC control in sight. Four haptic buttons below the 8.25-inch touchscreen will call up basic menus, but even they require a determined shove and don’t always respond. The HVAC screen is well laid out, but again, trying to make adjustments on the move requires William Tell accuracy with the digits. Knobs, physical buttons, and big rotary controllers are better, but so is home milk delivery and vinyl (records, that is, not seats). Whatever. Something to get used to, and that said, the graphics are cool and configurable, and the Digital Cockpit Pro gauge cluster is pin-sharp.

Optimized for Performance

The GTI’s MQB platform gets a stiffer and lighter aluminum front subframe. The front and rear springs are five per cent and fifteen per cent stiffer respectively – a strategy to reduce understeer. Standard is the clever electronically controlled limited-slip differential and brake-based torque-vectoring. A first for the GTI is an available 19-inch wheel upgrade with summer performance tires. These top trim Performance testers were fitted with the latter (18s standard) along with adaptive damping.

For 2022 the GTI’s venerable EA888 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder gets nudged from 228 to 241 horses and torque from 258 to 273 lb-ft. Power is routed to the front wheels through either a six-speed manual transmission or seven-speed dual-clutch DSG auto. A new vehicle dynamics system orchestrates the whole kit-and-kaboodle, integrating parameters of the engine, suspension, and drivetrain to optimize performance.

Harmonious and Joyful on the Road

Out on the road the Mk8 GTI shows the chassis magic that defines this hot hatch. In comfort mode the suspension sops up most of the bad stuff with ease – even on the 19-inch wheels – and the feelsome steering guides the car with accuracy and fluidity.

Select sport mode and the GTI becomes more alert and buttoned down, and yes, I did manage to squeeze in a bit of meaningful hooning in order to explore some limits. Understeer is very well managed thanks to an impressively neutral chassis setup that will happily rotate mid-corner with some grin-inducing lift-off oversteer. (Thank you Mr. Roundabout.) But the star of the show is the electronically controlled limited-slip differential that pulls the GTI’s fetching snout out of corners with uncanny zeal. The Mk8 GTI is a dynamically harmonious hunk of driving joy that if let off its leash would set a blistering pace down your favourite B-road.

The upgraded 2.0L pulling fiercely once above 3500 rpm, although initial throttle response seems a little soft – it doesn’t show quite the eagerness of the Mk7.

The six-speed manual transmission is a good one with slick, positive throws and a well-weighted clutch with easy take-up. It’s a great way to enhance the driver/car connection, but if you’re going for outright numbers, the slick-shifting seven-speed DSG dual-clutch will set a faster pace. Sadly, the puny plastic shift paddles feel just a tad too low-rent here.

2022 Volkswagen GTI Canadian Pricing

The base 2022 VW GTI starts at $31,495 6MT ($32,895 DSG) and comes with 17-inch wheels, fabric seats, blind-spot detection, 8-inch screen, heated steering wheel and front seats, LED headlights, and more. The Autobahn ($34,995 6MT, $36,395 DSG) adds 18-inch wheels, a full suite of safety and driver aids, illuminated front grille, 10.25-inch screen, SiriusXM, wireless app connect, and road sign recognition. An $1,800 package adds 19-inch wheels with summer tires, sunroof, and Harman Kardon audio.

The top-spec Performance ($38,995 6MT, $40,395 DSG) ups the game with standard 19-inch alloys, Dynamic Chassis Control, leather, ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, head-up display, Harman Kardon audo, park assist, and more. The only option is the $1,250 sunroof. Oh, and if you want to forgo the power/memory/ventilated leather buckets for the fab plaid fabric, VW will not charge you a dime.

2022 Volkswagen Golf R – Breaking out of the Box

And here is where some of you might be thinking “Hmm… if a fully loaded GTI runs close to $42K, why not make the short leap to the Golf R which is also fully loaded, gets Nappa leather and so much more?” Why not indeed.

Let me get this out of the way right off the bat. The 2022 Volkswagen Golf R in drift mode will do honest-to-gawd doughnuts on loose gravel. Yep, you read that right. Round and round she goes. While this all sounds very juvenile, it does illustrate a very important fact about the reimagined Golf R. The all-wheel-drive uber-Golf is no longer the stoic, buttoned-up, Audi-in-disguise, I-do-everything-so-well-I’m-almost-boring hot hatch.

V-Dub enthusiasts rejoice. Again. The Golf R has its freak on.

Indeed, with its Nappa leather and full complement of everything, it does the comfortable, luxurious, and eminently practical upscale hatch thing to perfection. But give it a poke and the R now pokes back.

Poised for Attack

It looks the part with a 20 mm lowered ride height, door sill extensions, standard 19-inch “Estoril” alloys, blue brake calipers with R logo, mirror caps in matte chrome and aggressive snout with larger lower intakes. The rear gets an R-specific bumper, two-piece spoiler, gloss black diffuser and twin dual exhausts. Aero is improved, with a reduction in both front and rear lift at speed.

Spring and anti-roll bar rates increase by ten per cent, there’s more negative camber dialled in on the front wheels and the steering gets recalibrated for better feedback. But the biggest mechanical upgrade is a new electronically controlled torque-vectoring rear drive unit that can apportion torque side to side, similar to the system that Ford used with its hot-rod Focus RS.

While the R’s AWD system can still only direct 50 per cent of the power rearward, 100 per cent of that can be sent to either wheel if needed. Which, according to VW, means some power-on oversteer is there to be had. Karsten Schebsdat, head of Golf R driving dynamics, says, “This is the biggest step forward with respect to performance we’ve ever made in the history of the Golf R.” He ain’t just whistling Dixie.

Loud and Rowdy

The 2022 Golf R will swing into beast mode with little effort. The 2.0L turbo now spits out 315 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque (280 in the six-speed manual) and throttle response in markedly sharper. There are several drive modes: comfort, sport, and race, with the latter offering three sub settings – drift, special and custom.

Of particular interest is “special” that was developed specifically for the famed Nürburgring Nordschleife circuit. It has all systems in kill mode except for the dampers, which are at a softer setting to keep the car planted on rough surfaces. Perfect for Canada. Select this mode and the idle jumps up 500 rpm (just because) and the gauge graphics turn green in a nod to the Nordschleife’s “Green Hell” nickname. The exhaust gets more vocal too, with delightful woofs and the odd backfire on lift-off if you’re lucky. And praise be, the outing Golf R’s phony piped-in Subaru-esque exhaust note has been trashed.

Attack a corner in the new R and it grips like a pit bull and powers through flat, poised and with alarming speed. But it’s not a clinical experience. It’s emotional. The back end pushes, the engine snarls, and the steering feels alive. The R is now fun.

Adding to the fun factor is the available six-speed manual transmission that, wonder of all wonders, is only available in the North American market. Consider us special. The 2022 Golf R with manual transmission list at $44,995 with the DSG model at $46,395. A $1,250 sunroof is the only option.

GTI or Golf R?

Interestingly, after driving the 2022 Volkswagen GTI and Golf R, my preference has done a complete flip. Last year I would have chosen the Mk7 GTI’s exuberance and scrappy fun over the Golf R’s stoic competence, but with the Mk8 Golf R’s new riotous and easily exploitable personality, it’s my new fave hands down. Either way, V-dub enthusiasts can’t lose.