With it's advanced technology, the new Golf R is the fastest of its kind.
When Volkswagen introduced the Golf GTI in the 1980s, it created the blueprint for the modern hot hatch. In 2004 (2002 in Europe), Volkswagen played fast and loose with the rulebook and created the Volkswagen Golf R32. Out came the four-cylinder engine, and in went a VR6 from Audi; front-wheel drive was changed for an on-demand all-wheel-drive system, and in went a dual-clutch gearbox for the German market.
The Golf R32 was something special and became the blueprint for the Golf R. Skip forward to 2022, and the Golf R is faster with its 315 horsepower under the hood. It's also more advanced with its all-wheel-drive system with a Drift mode, standard manual gearbox (A DSG dual-clutch is optional), and standard adaptive dampers. Volkswagen has continually refined the Volkswagen R to be the pinnacle of the Golf range in terms of driving fast while remaining a useful and comfortable daily driver.
As a result, it's one of the most advanced hot hatches in the world.
If you want a small, low-key, yet sophisticated hot hatch, then Volkswagen's Golf R is the best game in town. There are detractors, but the Golf has always been subtle and sophisticated amongst its peers. The Golf R left the US for a while there, but it went with 288 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque from its turbocharged four-cylinder and returned for 2022 with 315 hp and 295 lb-ft. It also returns with a manual transmission as standard or can be upgraded to the optional seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. However, go with the manual transmission, and you lose 15 lb-ft of torque. For 2022, there are just three paint colors to choose from: Deep Black Pearl, Lapiz Blue metallic, or Pure White.
Along with an upgrade in power, the 4Motion all-wheel-drive system now features a rear differential that can actively distribute torque between the left and right rear wheels for improved handling. It can only send 50 percent of the engine's power to the back, but that fifty percent of the power can be shifted 100 percent to either rear wheel when needed.
The Golf R's interior is, at its core, the same as the Golf GTI's. Both use a thick-rimmed steering wheel with great ergonomic touches and touch-sensitive controls for the configurable 10.2-inch digital gauge cluster. Both have super-comfortable seats, but the Golf R's buckets are different. The R doesn't have an option for plaid cloth inserts. Instead, it's all about Nappa leather, blue and carbon-style accents, and the blue "R" logo on the backrest. You can access the drive modes from a dashboard button, but the blue R button puts you straight into Race mode and opens up the option for the special Nurburgring mode, which positively galvanizes the car into action while keeping the suspension soft enough for a rough road.
The downside of the Golf R is the infotainment's interface and frustrating menu system if you want to change settings. It's a pretty UI on the screen, but you need to use it a lot as the lack of knobs becomes trying, and the touch-capacitive buttons can be finicky. That's a Volkswagen issue, though, and not exclusive to the Golf R by a long shot.
We had been driving the Golf R for a while before reaching a nice twisty piece of road to try Sport mode. A quick button push later, we realized we were already in Sport mode. It's the standard setting but straddles the line of Comfort and Race. Comfort mode softens everything from the suspension to throttle programming and exhaust noise and is perfect for when you might end up playing taxi driver to elderly family members.
For the most part, Sport mode is where the Golf R lives. You can poodle around town or cruise a long road, and the transmission is far from aggressive until you poke the throttle agressively. The suspension is firm but not uncomfortable, the brakes are strong and linear, and the engine is relentless.
The EA888 2.0-liter turbocharged engine has been an ongoing development for a long time, and it's a peach. It pulls like a V6 and just keeps going with no signs of turbo lag. With that power going to all four wheels, the Golf R is quick. Then you reach a corner, and it takes a little getting used to.
The Golf R loves to turn into a corner. And the stability control and torque vectoring love to help you through the corner. For better or worse, it doesn't let you know what you're doing wrong; it just corrects it. That makes the Golf R easy to drive fast with just a modicum of skill and talent.
However, start pushing it, and the Golf R loves to play as well and enjoys being steered on the throttle before ejecting out of a corner using the velocity it's helped maintain. Hit a set of linked, tight corners, and everything comes together in a way that some sports cars can't manage. Yet, we always felt like we were cheating a bit, even using the paddles in manual mode.
Race mode takes things further, and that's where the Golf R comes alive with the suspension at its hardest setting, the stability control knocked down a few more notches, throttle mapping improved, and the transmission more ready to downshift. The steering becomes heavier, more exhaust noise is piped in, and it becomes properly aggressive.
Tapping into Race mode opens two more options, and the first we tried was Nurburgring mode. It's full attack mode, but with the suspension softened to deal with the bumps and rough surfaces expected on the 'Ring and European back roads. It perfectly suited our favorite 24-mile stretch of local testing ground with varying states of road decay and on- and off-camber turns that can present their own hazards.
We're not fans of the heavy steering in the Race modes, though, so maybe it's a good thing VW included a Custom mode. We suspect this is where most people will end up when not in Sport, as you can tailor everything to preference. It also has a Drift mode, but we don't have a wide-open track on hand, and we're responsible automotive journalists, so we didn't try it.
When you dial the stability control down or off, the AWD system keeps moving the power around. While it's undeniably a well-engineered system, it can sometimes feel unnatural and takes getting used to. Some people will dislike that, but after a while, it becomes a useful tool and allows the car to turn in harder and tighter and maintain grip. It becomes part of the Golf R's handling characteristics.
The Golf R is fast, and it's bred to attack twisting roads and tracks. However, it's also a Golf at heart. That makes it a practical daily driver with all the utility of a hatchback. There's room for a couple of kids in the back, it's comfortable for a long haul, and with the power it has on tap, the Golf R eats freeway miles with ease. It isn't as raw as some enthusiasts want, but, for everyone else, it's a complete package.
Pull into the company parking lot, and it fits in well with sharp-looking sports sedans with bigger engines that cost more yet couldn't keep pace on a twisting back road. It's not down on comfort or features, either, as the Golf R comes in one fully loaded trim that includes a Harman Kardon sound system, fancy interior and exterior lighting, a half-panoramic sunroof, a wireless charger for your phone, and plenty of other bells and whistles.
Let's bear that in mind when discussing the price and if you should pull the trigger and buy a Golf R.
At $44,090 with the manual transmission or $44,890 with the automatic (Excl. destination), that's a big chunk of cash for a hot hatch. On the other hand, it's one hell of a lot of hot hatch, and only comes in one fully-loaded trim. There's also nothing in the hot hatch segment that can touch it in performance in the US right now without going for a used Ford Focus RS or Honda Civic Type R. The next-generation Type R is a discussion we'll have when it actually arrives for us to drive, not just ogle online.
Whether you should buy a Volkswagen Golf R or not boils down to the type of driver you are. If there are regular track days in the cards or you're happy to take advantage of the sophisticated drivetrain's assistance, it's an absolute weapon of a car. If the price makes you wince, or you're more interested in having fun in a hot hatch with less technology helping out, the Golf GTI still exists, and so does the excellent Hyundai Veloster N.
The R is rapid, point-to-point, and makes heroes out of ordinary drivers. It may not be the most organic-feeling sports car, but it's immensely capable and serves a purpose in the current automotive climate.