Back in the 80s, when Volkswagen first introduced the Golf GTI to American buyers, they ran print ads calling that first “hot hatch” a “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.” It was a cool premise: Who wouldn’t want a sporty five-door that could ace turns like a 911 Porsche, but still cart the kids to school come Monday morning? Those were simpler times. Today, carmakers have mostly folded their tents and decided to cave to American demands of bloated SUVs. Yes, we (thankfully) still get sports cars, too, but those seldom have the practicality of a hatchback and four doors. Thankfully, there’s the Golf R, a 315hp “wolf” with AWD clawing its way forward to a 0-60mph sprint in 4.4 seconds.
That’s a full second slower than a Porsche Cayman GT4—but you could buy two Golf Rs for the price of that one Porsche, and have more than $10K left over. But this latest VW is more than just a steal. It’s a brilliant package that more enthusiast car shoppers should understand exists. Here are three reasons why the Golf R is the new reigning champ of stealth performance.
2022 Volkswagen Golf R Is the ‘Hot Hatch’ You’ve Been Waiting For
AWD That’s Not About Snow
Prior Golf R’s had all-wheel drive. But so what? That old system wasn’t nearly this versatile. While all-wheel drive typically only matters as a means of getting un-stuck in snow (or in a 4×4, rock crawling) the new 4Motion in the Golf R can send full power to either rear wheel.
By reading the steering angle and positioning of the car in a corner, Golf R can send up to 100 percent of all power to the outside rear wheel. That has the effect of tightening the radius of a turn, which is really handy when you’re powering the car just past the apex of a corner.
We found this out the fun way, by driving the R at 9/10ths through the hills of Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina—on wet asphalt. There, even though we were racing around on summer rubber, which doesn’t grip all that great at near-freezing temps, the 235/35 R19s held fast enough just because of all that over-driven juice from the AWD 4Motion system. Every time we feared overcooking a corner, subtle braking and, yep, getting back on the gas, pushed us through.
There’s a Setting Just for Drifting—And You Can Turn Off Stability Control
To properly drift a car not only takes serious skill, it demands the right tools. Sure, a race car with all stability and traction controls excised does the job fine—save that you probably want that tech for daily driving safety. VW’s drift mode (which has a warning that says you have to be off public roads to deploy it), recalibrates throttle inputs so it’s easier to keep the engine at higher revs, and tells the gearbox to hold those revs for the same function. Then, the aforementioned 4Motion function powers that outside rear wheel as you crank the steering inputs in a circle. Bingo! You’re drifting like a pro!
If you plan to race, the driver can turn off all stability and traction control functions (they’ll re-awaken in a full slide), and sub-menus let you specifically dial in more precise combinations. For instance, if you like a heavier steering feel closer to a race mode, but softer suspension because you live in ‘Merica, where the roads are beat to hell, that’s entirely up to you. We love this, because even in cars with “sport” etc., modes, it’s too rare that they let you mix and match to this degree.
An Engine That’s Mellow, Not Hyper
Yep, Volkswagen’s yanking 315 horses from a relatively tiny, 2.0-liter four-cylinder, and a whopping 280 pound-feet of torque, too. (You’ll get 295 pound-feet from the DSG automatic.) Peak torque hits just around 2,000 RPM and hangs on to just about 5,000 RPM, and that lets you upshift earlier, so you’re not flogging the engine for all it’s worth to get the R flying. Both second and third gears are plenty tall, too, with the 6,500 RPM redline not hitting in second gear until you’ve tagged 70mph.
You can bang from gear to gear gunning for the moon—but you don’t have to. The R’s joys can be be found just tootling around, and that more flexible torque curve offers power more broadly, so keeping the turbocharged engine on the boil isn’t a chore. It’s fun.
Oh, and should you want the six-speed manual gearbox instead of that automated DSG seven-speed, it’s not a pain to own, even in traffic. Shift lazily. The R won’t shudder because you’re pulling uphill at 35mph in third gear.
Great Steering and Manual Modes
Okay, say you do want the DSG because you live where traffic stinks—DSG lets you just roll in “Drive” when you’re slogging through stop-and-go highway clots.
Fortunately, when (if?) the road ever does open up, VW now allows the driver to customize how DSG performs. Start using the manual paddles that halo the steering wheel and, should you choose, DSG won’t shift itself back to automatic mode. If you don’t shift, the car won’t shift for you. This, by the way, is what Porsche offers, too, and it’s great to see Volkswagen follow suit.
Speaking of which, few brands have managed to make electronic steering feel as analogue as Porsche. But VW’s R is getting close, via a clever trick. They bunched the teeth of the steering gear tighter right at the center of the rack, then spaced them more widely at the far ends. Think of this as leverage: You don’t want to apply a ton of brute force just steering off center, when small inputs to initiate a high-speed turn should be all about finesse. You need just the opposite response when you have to crank the wheel right to the end of its limit, like when you’re parallel parking, and those wider-spaced teeth allow more leverage per input for those slow-speed efforts. So the steering feels precise when you want it, but not heavy when you don’t. Pretty sweet, in other words.
You’re waiting for something we don’t dig? Okay, here’s one. The cheaper GTI can be had with cloth seats, but the R only comes with Nappa leather. We favor the fabric, even though, yes, the R’s chairs are dang comfortable, too.
[From $43,645; vw.com]Learn More
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