Up Close With the 2022 Volkswagen Golf GTI and Golf R: Getting Back in the Race

volkswagen-golf-r-2022-01-angle--blue--exterior--front.jpg 2022 Volkswagen Golf R | photo by Christian Lantry

While the new eighth-generation Volkswagen Golf GTI and Golf R debuted in their European specs in 2020 ahead of the COVID-canceled 2020 Geneva auto show, we’ve had to wait until the 2021 Chicago Auto Show for the U.S.-specific versions to make their debuts, both as 2022 models. VW pulled the wraps off the pair in the Windy City, and we were there to check them out.

Related: More Chicago Auto Show Coverage

On paper, the performance upgrades to both hot hatches should help them make up ground, as rivals like Honda Civic Type R and Hyundai Veloster N have arrived in the years since the previous-generation GTI and R debuted as 2015 models. The rest of the updates are more of a mixed bag, however, as both models see more advanced tech but also an outbreak of capacitive-touch controls.

The Good News

Both the GTI and Golf R use updated versions of Volkswagen’s EA888 turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. The GTI now makes 243 horsepower (up from 228) and 273 pounds-feet of torque (up from 258) on premium gas. The hotter Golf R finally crests 300 hp, up 27 from the seventh-generation R, for a total of 315 ponies. Torque is transmission-dependent with the R (both the Golf R and GTI are available with a six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch automatic), with the manual producing 285 pounds-feet and the dual-clutch making 295. The R’s 315 hp makes it the current most powerful hot hatch available in the U.S., besting the Civic Type R’s 306.

Rather than just beef up the power, however, VW went further. The front-wheel-drive GTI gets a new electronically controlled torque-vectoring limited-slip differential intended to reduce understeer and improve handling. The Golf R gets a new AWD system that can split power evenly between the front and rear wheels and also send 100% of the rear power to an individual rear wheel for improved cornering. Both models get updated vehicle dynamics settings, as well. 

We’ll have to drive the two to see what these improvements do to the already enjoyable driving experiences in both hatchbacks, but both seem more competitive now.

The Less Good News

Inside, Volkswagen’s updates are welcome and … less welcome. The new standard 10.25-inch digital instrument panel — VW calls it Virtual Cockpit — looks sharp and makes the cars feel more high-tech, as does the optional 10-inch touchscreen display.

Unfortunately, most of the controls in both hatches are now capacitive-touch buttons, including on the steering wheel. We’re not fans of this approach, particularly on the steering wheel, where misinputs are increasingly common. It does, however, create a more futuristic appearance, which can be initially appealing to buyers.

Also a bit disappointing is the gear selector in the dual-clutch models, which felt small and kind of flimsy in my hand. It does have something of a cool factor, however, having been borrowed from current-generation Porsche models.

Three Steps Forward, One Step Back

It seems likely the much-needed performance upgrades will be more important to shoppers than our gripes about the controls or gear selector, but we’ll have to drive them before we can judge just how impactful the upgrades really are. For now, however, it seems like the Volkswagens are back in the race. We’ll see how well they can keep up.

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