For years, us North Americans could only watch longingly as driving enthusiasts in Europe got access to all sorts of hot hatchbacks that never made it to this side of the Atlantic.
Taking the hot-rod approach of adding power and performance to an otherwise plebeian machine is a concept that never grows old, and Volkswagen has done it well for decades, first with the Golf GTI, and eventually taking it to the next level with the Golf R.
While North Americans can no longer buy the basic commuter car on which it’s based, the 2022 Volkswagen Golf R is offered with a manual transmission that’s exclusive to this part of the world. So it’s time for Europeans to look at us with envy as we enjoy the most engaging and fun version of the grand-daddy of hot hatches.
As the team in Wolfsburg, Germany, was putting the finishing touches on the new Golf R, Canadian and Americans product planners noticed no stick shift mentioned anywhere in the preliminary spec sheets. With at least 50 per cent of Golf R buyers here choosing to manually shift their gears instead of opting for the excellent dual-clutch automatic, there was some cause for panic.
To quell the rising concern, VW’s engineers went back to their parts bin and pulled out the same six-speed from the previous Golf R. There was, however, a small hiccup: the transmission is only rated for a peak of 280 lb-ft of torque, but the overhauled 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder now generates 295 lb-ft of torque (to go with 315 hp). The solution was to detune the torque to 280 lb-ft when the manual transmission is specced, as it is here. [No good deed goes unpunished. – Ed.]
This is sure to rile up the armchair racers, but the stick-shift Golf R is less about sprint times than it is the bliss of actually driving a car as rewarding as this. Frankly, even in this slightly detuned state, the Golf R is still abundantly quick, with a smooth, generous boot in the back, whether pulling away from a stop or passing slower traffic.
Driving Feel: 8.5/10
These days, stick shift cars are few and far between, and automatics have become very, very good; so much so, in fact, that there are times when I’ve found myself preferring two pedals to three (sacrilege!). Simply offering a manual transmission isn’t good enough if the gear changes feel clunky or the engine revs hang between shifts, ultimately diminishing driving pleasure rather than adding to it.
The Golf R’s shifts are direct, with clearly defined gates; the clutch is light, but still engages precisely; and best of all, the revs drop as they should between shifts. Buyers who aren’t solely interested in setting the quickest lap times would do well to opt for the six-speed Golf R since it feels like a genuine, premium sports car every time it’s driven.
Of course, a powerful engine and sweet-shifting gearbox are only part of the joy here. The Golf R’s 14-inch front and 12.2-inch rear brakes deliver serious stopping power, with a great initial bite and smooth, progressive braking.
But the big story here is the Golf R’s handling. The progressive steering is quick and precise, and offers a decent amount of road feel by modern electrically boosted standards. Thanks to tenacious all-wheel drive traction, the VW claws its way out of every corner, no matter how silly the driver gets (and believe me – I got silly). Even more impressive is that during my test week, Mother Nature provided road surfaces that varied between dry, wet, and covered with snow, and under all circumstances the Golf R never missed a step.
For 2022, Volkswagen has employed a clever new rear differential that can direct all the rearward torque to one back wheel or the other. The goal here is to actually upset the R’s formidable stability and enable the tail-end to swing wide in a drift drive mode. The reality is that the Golf R’s all-wheel drive is still a front-biased system that can only apportion up to 50 per cent of the torque to the rear, so drivers raised on power-sliding rear-drive BMWs or pick-up trucks will find a wholly different experience here. Still, the brief instances of oversteer are a fun little treat not previously offered.
Beyond the mechanical goodies, Canadian Golf Rs are very well equipped with standard stuff like keyless access, head-up display, wireless smartphone connectivity, tri-zone climate control, leather sport seats, adaptive cruise control, and onboard navigation, all of which are usually options in much costlier cars.
In addition to the frisky drift mode, the Golf R has a dynamic chassis control system that lets the driver select between varying levels of suspension firmness, and in its comfort setting it manages to take the edge off all but the nastiest of road imperfections. Wind and road noise are also nicely suppressed, and the enhanced engine sounds are just loud enough to remind occupants that this is a driver’s car, even if the sound is more industrial than musical in its tone.
Beyond that, the sport seats offer tremendous lateral support, but they’re also comfortable; and while front and rear seats (and steering wheel) are heated, the fronts are also cooled, too.
Part of the Golf R’s comfort comes from its rather boxy, hatchback shape that provides excellent outward visibility, and really decent headroom front and rear – traits not usually associated with performance cars. Having four doors means easy access for driver and passengers, and the hatchback format lets bulky items be transported with ease, especially if the split-folding rear seats are flattened.
Minus the extra ground clearance, the Golf R offers all the practicality of a subcompact crossover, including its all-weather drivability, making this sporty VW a fairly unique choice within the overall automotive landscape.
Fuel Economy: 7/10
With a combined fuel consumption rate of 10.2 L/100 km, the Golf R is competitive with many small crossovers in terms of efficiency, too. The dual-clutch seven-speed improves efficiency by more than 1.0 L/100 km, averaging 9.1. Range from the 55-L fuel tank is decent, though it should be noted that the Golf R requests premium-grade gas.
User Friendliness: 6.5/10
Volkswagen’s interior designers tried to give the new Golf R (and GTI) a futuristic feel, with controls that look slick but are somewhat lacking outright usability. Specifically, the oversimplification of physical buttons results in more time spent tapping the touchscreen for various climate functions. Worse still, nestled on a ledge directly below the screen is a haptic panel for temperature and volume controls that’s tedious to use compared to traditional dials and buttons, and more than once I found the volume or temperature being adjusted inadvertently when steadying my hand to use the touchscreen. Even more perplexing is Volkswagen’s decision to not illuminate this touch panel, meaning adjustments at night are strictly guesswork.
In fairness, like most modern cars, once the initial setup is completed and shortcuts programmed to frequently used features, there’s little need to go hunting for functions.
This latest generation of the Golf R looks squatter and angrier than any of its predecessors, but it still bears an unmistakable resemblance to those that came before it. The headlights connect via a unibrow LED strip that helps distinguish this as the latest variant, while the R badge on the back is now centred below the VW one.
Compared to the youthful Hyundai Veloster N and garish Honda Civic Type R, the Golf R continues to be the grownup’s choice in the category, with a far cleaner and more sophisticated design than its peers. The spidery 19-inch wheels fill out the fender openings and look great.
Inside, the Golf R’s maturity continues with premium materials used throughout helping to set it apart from the more juvenile competitors. It’s simple, tasteful, and comfortable enough that it works whether ripping around a racetrack, taking a long road trip, or shuttling around clients.
Volkswagen has loaded the Golf R up with a host of air bags, but also provides plenty of active safety features, too, like LED lights with automatic high-beam control, rain-sensing wipers, parking sensors, and blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, plus emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection.
At a starting price of $47,745 before tax but including a $1,750 freight charge, the 2022 Volkswagen Golf R is no econo-box, but given the extensive standard equipment list, performance capabilities, and overall refinement, it strikes as a very good value. Where German car companies typically attract buyers with modest starting prices and then nickel-and-dime for even the most rudimentary features, Volkswagen Canada has loaded up the Golf R, with only the $1,250 panoramic sunroof and $1,400 automatic transmission as options.
Volkswagen’s Golf R has always been a highly desirable hot hatch, and this latest rendition is no different – it’s just more polished. Whether a buyer’s plans are for weekend track days, road trips, or just the urban commute, this sportiest Volkswagen makes a fantastic driving partner, meeting each of those needs remarkably well. It’s a genuine sports car, yet a seriously practical one at the same time, and a few ergonomic quirks shouldn’t detract from what’s an otherwise excellent grand touring and sporty machine. The fact that we still get a stick shift here is simply icing on a very delicious cake.
|Engine Cylinders||Turbo I4|
|Peak Horsepower||315 hp|
|Peak Torque||280 lb-ft|
|Fuel Economy||11.8 / 8.3 / 10.2 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb|
|Cargo Space||564 / 977 L seats down|
|Model Tested||2022 Volkswagen Golf R Manual|
|Price as Tested||$49,095|
$1,250 – Panoramic sunroof, $1,250