If you like traditional cars, there’s one upside to the boom in SUV sales. In a market where SUVs are most buyers’ first, second and third option, plain old sedans and hatchbacks have to offer something special or face extinction.
A day driving a European-spec 2022 VW Golf R high-performance compact on an icy test track is evidence of just how much better that pressure can make vehicles.
The 2022 Golf R won’t be for everybody when U.S. sales begin in the fourth quarter of this year. No circa-$45,000 compact hatchback is.
But it’s the best enthusiast version yet of one of the world’s favorite compact cars, honed to a razor’s edge with advanced all-wheel drive and a performance-tuned chassis.
I drove a 2022 Golf R with the standard 315-horsepower turbocharged 2.0L engine and optional seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission on an icy and rutted test track in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, hours north of the highway sign declaring you’re now closer to the North Pole than the equator.
Pushed hard, turned fast and foot to the floor, the Golf R’s polished chassis and handling should make enthusiasts pause before ordering performance compacts like the BMW M240ixDrive, Honda Civic R, Mercedes-AMG A 35 and Subaru WRX.
Meet the Golf Mark VIII
VW has pared the U.S. Golf lineup way down from the multimodel family that tried to offer something for everyone.
If you want vanilla, go to another ice cream stand. The Golf ice cream stand no longer offers vanilla. Starting later this year with 2022 models, the goal is attracting buyers willing to pay a premium for performance, dynamics and exclusivity.
For 2022, VW will sell just two Golf models in the U.S.: the top-of-the-line all-wheel-drive R and the less expensive, but still performance-oriented, front-wheel-drive GTI.
They will be the first — and apparently only — versions of the all-new eighth-generation Golf Mark VIII sold here.
Both should go on sale in late 2021. Details on specifications, prices, features, EPA fuel economy ratings, etc., will be available closer to then.
The cars share the MQB architecture that underpinned the 2021 Golf. Dimensions won’t change much, though weight is expected to fall 100 pounds or so when engineering on the U.S.- spec model is complete.
My first drive had a razor focus on the Golf R’s new all-wheel-drive system, drivetrain and running gear. I also had a little time to appreciate what appear be excellent displays and controls.
It gets high marks across the board.
Before we even get into the sophisticated AWD system, some credit to the Golf R’s aerodynamics. The new body, which includes a big rear spoiler, increases aerodynamic drag slightly, but adds plenty of aero downforce to the front and rear axles.
Downforce keeps the car from getting "light" as wind whips by above and below at high speed. The result is more stability and improved steering response because all four wheels are just a bit more securely planted on the road. New springs also contribute to the result.
The Golf R’s ride height is 0.8 inch lower than a standard Golf.
The R gets the most advanced 4Motion all-wheel-drive system VW’s ever offered in the United States. Many AWD systems use brakes to slow the inside wheel to help with cornering at speed. That works, but using the brakes to slow one wheel isn’t ideal in a high-performance car.
Instead, the Golf R’s torque vectoring system has a pair of clutches on the rear axle that can send 100% of the rear axle’s power to either wheel.
That speeds up the outside wheel in fast corners and on curves, resulting in neutral handling and the ability to control slides and use the throttle to do a lot of the steering.
You have to turn the stability control off to enjoy the full benefit, but torque vectoring allows so much steering with the throttle that I relied on it exclusively as I piloted a deep blue Golf R around a tight autocross course, through figure eights and drifting in a tight circle on wet ice.
The steering is responsive, with a meaty steering wheel equipped with haptic controls that seem pretty intuitive, based on brief experience.
A six-speed manual is standard in North America, not offered anywhere else in the world.
The optional seven-speed DCT transmission was quick and smooth. It’s controlled by an intuitive toggle in the center console.
The interior features soft-touch materials and simple, intuitive controls.
The instrument panel and touch screen are both crisp and clear.
As with all Golfs, the practical hatchback layout delivers plenty of passenger and luggage room in a compact body.
Other standard features on the Golf R include:
—14.1-inch cross-drilled front disc brakes
—Blue brake calipers
—DCC adaptive dampers
—Digital instrument display with R-specific graphics
—10.25-inch touch screen
—Nappa leather sport seats
—30-color ambient light palette
—Multiple drive modes, including "drift" and a Nürburgring-inspired "special" mode
European models are rife with options, and the sky’s the limit on cost. The optional — and wonderful sounding — exhaust system on the car I drove costs 3,800 euros in Europe. If you think a $45,000 compact hatchback is a tough sell in America, you’ve obviously never tried peddling $4,500 quad exhaust pipes.
More information about U.S. models, including driver assistance systems, will be available closer to sales date.
2022 Volkswagen Golf R at a glance
Estimated price: $45,000
All-wheel-drive, five-seat compact hatchback
On sale Q4 2021
Engine: 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder engine
Power: 315 hp @ 5,600-6,500 rpm; 310 pound-feet of torque @ 2,000-5,600 rpm (280 pound-feet with manual transmission)
Transmission: Six-speed manual standard; seven-speed dual-clutch automatic in vehicle driven
EPA estimated efficiency: NA
EPA estimated annual fuel cost: NA
Curb weight: NA
Passenger volume: NA
Cargo volume: NA
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