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Review: The 2022 Volkswagen Golf R Is Redesigned For Speed, Not Class

The Volkswagen Golf R has long presented itself as an upscale alternative for hot hatch fans who want to rise above the pocket racer image typically projected by these compact rockets. Intended to both thrill and coddle, the Golf R has traditionally relied on an explosive turbocharged engine, a tarmac-grabbing all-wheel drive system, and an interior that rose above its more econo-minded rivals in terms of design and finish.

2022 Volkswagen Golf R front 3/4 view

Completely redesigned for the 2022 model year, the Volkswagen Golf R rides on its namesake's eighth-generation platform. This turns out to be a blessing and a curse for fans of the R, for while its revised drivetrain makes good on its promise of straight-line superiority, decisions made well above the priciest Golf's pay grade have cut its once considerable cabin charms off at the knees. The end result is a compromise between form and function that not all Volkswagen customers will be comfortable with.

Limited Line-Up

For 2022 the only versions of the Golf Americans get are the GTI and the R, with the standard models banished exclusively to the European market. It's not exactly a surprise, as the sedan-shaped VW Jetta outsells the Golf hatch by a fair margin state-side, but it's a move that has come with unexpected consequences for the cross-Atlantic faithful.

2022 Volkswagen Golf R side profile

Specifically, Volkswagen has elected to go all-in on targeting down-market, budget-focused buyers on its home continent, a strategy that fully informed the design process of the Mk8 version of the car, including the R. You can see it in the small details—the hood now relies on a prop rather than featuring a strut, for example, and the rearview mirror has lost its frameless look—but the discounting in the Golf R goes far deeper than these easily overlooked details.

2022 Volkswagen Golf R gauge cluster

The worst infractions are found within the Volkswagen's passenger compartment, which has wiped out the previous model's control set in favor of a sea of glossy black plastic. This is matched by the generally low-quality materials and fabrics found throughout the entire interior. Dull to look at and even harder to interact with, buttons and sliders have been replaced by capacitive touch panels that aren't even illuminated at night, forcing the driver to grope for heating and cooling controls once the sun dips below the horizon.

2022 Volkswagen Golf R touchscreen

The decision to not even offer the barest sliver of LED illumination for the Golf R's controls is baffling, but it’s clear that Volkswagen expects owners to interact with every aspect of the vehicle through its touchscreen infotainment system. If only this weren't a second exercise in frustration, underscored by staggeringly slow response times to any LCD push and combined with steering wheel controls that aren't any better at moving from one menu to the next. It's an ergonomic disaster that exists for the sole reason that it's much, much cheaper to manufacture screens than it is to design an appealing dashboard or center console.

Big Beating Heart

While the 2022 Volkswagen Golf R might wear threadbare interior duds similar to its European sibling, it's a different story under the hood. All versions of the R feature a 2.0L four-cylinder that has been turbocharged to produce 315 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque, more than respectable figures for such a modestly-sized automobile. To take advantage of the hatch's full fury, you'll need to specify its seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, as six-speed manual cars (which feature the Mk7's carry-over gearbox) are restricted to 280 lb-ft of twist.

2022 Volkswagen Golf R rear 3/4 view

With launch control tagged in, the Golf R responds well to the bit of extra muscle it's been gifted post-redesign. The sprint to 60-mph arrives in just a tick or two over four seconds, thanks in large part to the grip afforded by its also-tweaked all-wheel drive system. The latter is better at managing an even power split front and rear, or even focusing exclusively on the axle out back when the car is set to 'Drift' mode, a feature I found unnecessary when sliding the rotatable R around on the fresh layer of snow and ice Mother Nature had deposited on the back roads surrounding Montreal. 'Drift' is joined by 'Sport' (the default setting for the car), 'Comfort,' 'Individual' (configurable by the driver) and 'Special,' which replicates the settings used when VW punished the R on the Nurburgring.

2022 Volkswagen Golf R front view

In fact, when it was time for fun I found myself sticking with 'Race' mode, the most aggressive of the Golf's various drive settings, and the one that presented the kind of rapid suspension response and emboldened exhaust note expected from a hot hatch. Still, despite the Volkswagen's competence at munching miles when the roads turned twisty, I never felt all that engaged with the vehicle's driving experience, as its insulated character was more 'point and shoot' than truly immersive.

There's Still Time For A Fix

Were that the 2022 edition of the Golf R as mini-posh as its predecessor, I might be more willing to forgive its lack of excitement. I'm all for a stealth exec slingshot that can surprise with heart-pounding highway pulls, even if it's a little less lively when hustled on narrower roads. It's a lot harder to forgive the R's staid character when contrasted against its forgettable interior and frustrating feature set. Considering this is a car that starts at just under $44,000—more expensive than even the Honda Civic Type R—it's reasonable to expect a cabin that reflects the size of the VW's monthly payment.

2022 Volkswagen Golf R rear view

Roughly a decade ago, Honda misjudged the compact car market in a similar fashion, betting on a low-buck Civic in the U.S. when the rest of the segment had moved towards providing buyers with more equipment, better build quality, and more advanced designs. Within the space of 24 months, an emergency refresh had put the Civic back on even terms with its peers. One can only hope for a similar strategy from Volkswagen, lest it allow its Golf R flagship to fade as a first-choice for the German brand's faithful.

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