Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: January 14, 2022
For years, the Volkswagen Golf R has been the definitive hot hatch not just for its accessible performance and all-weather traction, but also for its relatively attainable price tag. With just over 300 horsepower, it made drivers feel like heroes behind the wheel, and when parked next to a Honda Civic Type R or MINI John Cooper Works, it appeared understated, elegant, and flew under the radar - a sleeper aesthetic that hits all the right notes. Well, Volkswagen is back for more with the new eighth-generation Golf R. That means more power, more tech, and an aggressive new body kit that includes a large rear spoiler, quad exhaust tips, and blue brake calipers.
The 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder has been beefed up to produce 27 hp and 30 lb-ft of torque more than before, for a grand total of 315 horses and 295 lb-ft. For comparison’s sake, that’s also 74 hp and 34 lb-ft more than the Golf GTI we reviewed last week. The R offers a choice of a 6-speed manual or a 7-speed dual-clutch DSG automatic, with the latter sprinting from 0-100 km/h in a speedy 4.7 seconds, significantly quicker than the GTI’s 6.4 seconds.
The R will route that output to all four wheels via its new all-wheel drive system, which now uses a new torque-vectoring rear differential, giving it the ability to send up to 100% of torque to either of the two rear wheels. That manifests itself in many real world applications, such as reducing understeer, allowing better corner turn-in and exit, and something that Volkswagen calls Drift Mode. What this does is change up the stability control and differential to provoke the rear end to slide out, but doesn’t decouple the front axle like higher-end performance cars such as the BMW M5 and Mercedes-AMG E 63.
Our previous experiences with the Golf R have always been met with understeer when pushing past eight-tenths of its grip limits, where the tires just begin to give up. Below that ceiling, the Golf R feels like its cornering on rails. There’s so much grip as it effectively shuffles power to the proper wheels, whether its at the outer front or inner rear. The systems manage it all for you while you just play with the gas and brake pedals.
Steering is tight and gets heavier not only in weight, but also in feel as you dive into the sportier driving modes, and there are a lot to choose from, including that Drift Mode we mentioned. Trust us, we haven’t had this much fun driving in the snow for quite some time. The rear happily swings around and the turbo-four revs up to the moon as you kick up white powder while doing donuts. It doesn’t rev as quickly as the four-cylinder in the CLA 35 AMG but it’s still wickedly sharp, decisive, and eager to hit the redline. The Golf R is a willing and capable car that takes performance seriously, but it doesn’t forget to have fun. After all, R stands for rambunctious, right?
There’s also a Nurburgring driving mode, which seems like a bit of a far stretch as I doubt 99% of Canadian owners will ever take their Golf R to the Eifel mountains, but who doesn’t want to feel a bit of that track day hype. This mode turns up the performance to the elevens, ensuring the gearbox shifts at the optimal RPM, turning up the exhaust noise, tweaking the throttle mapping for more aggressive power delivery, and firming up the steering for accurate placement.
In all, it really doesn’t matter which you choose because no matter what mode you are in, the turbo-four scoots you forward without delay and the gearbox remains rapid-fire quick, never skipping a beat or falling asleep at cruising speeds. But it’s the ride quality is what made us fall in love with the Golf R. Smooth and polished, yet firm enough to ensure only the most minimal of body roll seeps through. It’s such a usable and daily drivable hatchback that sometimes you forget there is so much performance lying underneath its Teutonic epidermis. If we were faced with a five-hour road trip, from Toronto to Montreal for example, we would be choosing the Golf R over the Civic Type R and MINI JCW any day of the week.
It’s quite fuel efficient too - we managed a yield of 10.5 L/100km over a mix of both city and highway driving, but if you thought you could slip in 87-octane fuel like you would the GTI, you would be mistaken. The R requires 91-octane, but those extra horses are worth every penny.
Now that we’ve established that the Golf R is the superior product in relation to drivability and performance, let’s talk about the other areas, because when it comes to the user interface and connectivity, we would probably choose the MINI instead. You see, Volkswagen has packed so much tech into the Golf that it kind of forgot how to design and integrate an effective infotainment unit to control it all. Yes, there’s a head-up display and Apple CarPlay, but its overreliance on digital screens and touchscreen inputs is infuriating.
There’s no physical button or dial for the volume, fan controls, or the heated seats. Instead, each have a designated panel for finger activation, and they are not even noticeably highlighted on the dashboard, so you end up pressing them like you’re playing the piano. Worse yet, none of the panels light up at night, and it’s maddening because you have no idea what you’re pressing until you see the temperatures change up on the screen. It doesn’t help that the screen lags as well, especially when turning on the heated seats.
Unlike the Volkswagen Taos, even the steering wheel buttons on the Golf are touch sensitive, and though they have shallow grooves separating them, it’s still easy to press the wrong one - if you have large thumbs, best of luck to you. Overall, the connectivity features are wonderful but the user interface is half-baked, and is not a pleasant experience that we ever warmed up to due to its lack of accurate touchpoints. And for the skeptics who say we just have to ‘get used to it’, we spent nearly 1,000 kms with the new Golf GTI and Golf R over the span of three weeks, and still haven’t bridged the learning curve.
On the bright side, the overall cabin aesthetic is pleasing and minimalistic. The sport seats with integrated headrests are comfortable and supportive for long journeys, and matches the supple ride quality to provide the optimal road-trip companion. We’re not sure what happened to the gear shifter with the 7-speed DSG models, as it’s now been shrunken down to a little stump, Porsche 911-style. It’s not the most satisfying thing to clunk into gear, but it undoubtedly frees up precious real estate for storage space, which goes a long way for a small compact hatch.
The eighth-generation Golf R puts all of its marbles on performance, and it pays off with one of the most engaging hatchbacks we’ve driven in recent memory. Its infotainment and interface foibles are in dire need of an overhaul, and might be a dealbreaker for some, but once you accept its faults, you will find a willing and capable Golf that will consistently turn that frown upside down. Just don’t change the cabin temperature.
Model: 2022 Volkswagen Golf R
Paint Type: Pure White
Base Price: $46,395
Price as Tested: $47,645
Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged inline-four
Horsepower: 315 hp @ 5,600 rpm
Torque: 295 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch DSG automatic
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, AWD
Observed Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 10.5