At the end of last week, I hitched up the family GTI and pointed it north toward the Smithers Winter Driving near Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. The Mackinac Bridge was partially closed due to high winds, so I got to do a bridge crossing under partial closure, which may have been my first such crossing. I did it for a chance to drive the 2022 VW Golf R, which, when it goes on sale, will very likely be the best hot hatch you can buy here in North America.
If you haven’t already heard, it’s got that little two-liter four making 315 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque. Or you get 280 lb-ft if you do the right thing and order it with manual. It’s both the standard-equipment transmission for the North American, and exclusive to the North American market. (VW says the manual transmission setup is limited to 280 lb-ft, I’d imagine the folks at APR would be happy to help you find out for sure.)
A 300-odd HP engine is good, a standard six-speed is great, but neither are the star baker. That’s the all-wheel drive system. There’s a Nürburgring mode (softer suspension, sportier everything else) and some other modes, but most importantly there’s a drift mode that allows you to drive looking out the windows instead of the windshield. While prior R-badged Golfs spun up the rear wheels with a puny little Haldex system that used brake-enabled torque vectoring to direct power to the wheels with grip, this one gets a twin-clutch situation, similar to the one in the Bronco Sport and Focus RS.
With a Haldex system, the rear differential is open, which means power will be applied to the wheel with the least grip. Imagine you’re stuck in the snow and you’re hitting the gas. The one wheel that looks pressed against the ground, like it might have grip, is totally stationary. The one that’s kind of half-suspended on your neighbor’s mailbox post is just spinning away. Brake-based vectoring would try to solve this problem by applying braking to the spinning wheel, meaning more torque would be required to keep it rotating. Since both outputs of an open differential always receive the same torque, braking the tractionless wheel means you’d also be applying more torque to the wheel on pavement, propelling the vehicle forward. This has some limitations, and can create some heat in the brakes, which you’d imagine is bad for braking.
The other issue with the Haldex setup is that most of the time, the car is front-wheel drive. There’s a clutch that has to actuate before the rear wheels get power, meaning your front wheels have already gone slippy before the computer tells the clutch to turn the rear wheels on. It’s a relatively cheap way to offer all-wheel-drive and offers some fuel efficiency benefits, but a real track day hero like you is going to want something a little more sporty. Something like the setup you get in the new Golf R.
With the new Golf R, we say goodbye our dowdy biological father Mr. Haldex and hello to our cool stepdad, Mr. Twin Clutch. Instead of a clutch that sends power to the rear axle to be distributed by the open diff (with input from the brakes) you get two clutches in the rear, one for each of the axle shafts. In VW’s setup, that means you can send up to 50 percent of engine power to the rear axle and, depending on what you’re trying to do, you can send some, or even all of that power to either one of the rear wheels. If you want to go around a corner fast, putting some extra sauce on that rear outside wheel helps push you, like paddling a canoe. If you want to go around a corner sideways — and you don’t want to set up a flick, kick the clutch or pull the handbrake — a system like this helps initiate oversteer. On loose surfaces, this can mean a faster car, as we found testing a Focus RS in drift mode at Team O’Neil Rally School a few years back. As always, catching it/looking cool will be up to you.
The program at Smithers was limited to driving a Euro-spec Golf R on a damp skidpad, an ice/slush skidpad, damp autocross and ice/slush slalom. There was only one Golf R present, so we didn’t get to drive it on the road, and there was no track, so we didn’t get to drive it on the track. (I did get to slide around in an ID.4, which is a good car to drive and nice inside. I forgot to look in the frunk.)
For the Golf R, I can say that acceleration was impressive, even in on damp concrete. VW claims 0-62 in 4.7 seconds and it may be faster than that. On the non-ice surface, whipping shitties required a little more attention than it would in say, a WRX STI. If you tuck the wheels all the way in and floor it, you get that terrible “CHUNK CHUNK CHUNK” understeer. If Tanner Faust comes on the radio and says, “try it with less angle” you get a nice slide. This wasn’t a problem on the ice where sliding is as easy as selecting the right mode, turning off stability control and punching it.
The car I drove was Euro-spec, so it was equipped with VW’s DSG dual-clutch transmission. What can you say? You click the thing, the gear changes. Incredible. This car was equipped with an Akrapovic titanium exhaust that popped and snapped looked cool. It’s option in Europe, but not in the US where offering a $3,800 exhaust on a hatchback that’s already ahead of the $40,000 mark doesn’t make sense, at least to VW. We also don’t get the good headlights and taillights because our government hates us.
I don’t have a ton to say about the brakes as I didn’t really get to work them, but I can tell you the cross-drilled front discs are 14.1 inches across and the hat is aluminum. Kinda cool. Oh, and the pedal feel is automatically adjusted for different speeds. Hm.
My initial response to photos of the Mk 8 Golf was concern — there’s an awful lot going on with the surfacing — here’s an image (rendering?) from VW’s site:
In real life, it’s a sharp car. The headlights look less narrow, the surfacing is much more subtle and the rear wing is big, but inoffensive. Here we are in real life, under natural light:
Phew, it’s a Golf.
The seats were comfortable and well-bolstered, the dash has screens running from where the gauge-cluster should be to the center of the dash. I found navigating the menus intuitive, but I had a limited time in the car and I wasn’t going to spend it dicking around with the radio. We’ll get to it in the full review, I promise.
It’s not completely unreasonable to think of this one as more “little RS6 Wagon” than “faster GTI.” Of course, you’re not getting a V8, it doesn’t look as cool, and the interior isn’t exactly as nice. A lot of the basics are there, though, and you do get a stick. VW says this Golf R will be a little more expensive than the Mk 8 version, owing to better standard equipment. It’ll be about 100 pounds heavier as well.
I haven’t been in the practice of recommending the last several Golf Rs. The GTI was so good that it was hard to imagine taking the price and weight penalty to get all-wheel drive, especially when the system didn’t offer the same performance benefit that you’d get from going to a WRX. For the first time since the Mk IV, I’d be less apt to automatically recommend forgoing the R. For a buyer who could afford both, my early thought — not having driven the GTI, or done an extended drive in the R — is that the Golf R is worth it. Unless, of course, the new GTI turns out to be pure magic, or the Golf R drastically under-performs the expectations I built during an admittedly short drive in admittedly unusual circumstances.
It’s a really good time to be shopping for a hot hatch, with the Veloster N, Honda Civic Si and Civic Type R, and the Mini JCW GP offering pure driving satisfaction at a number of different price points. With the addition of the new 4Motion system — and the subtraction of the Ford Focus RS from the U.S.-market — the Golf R will very likely occupy the top of the hot-hatch hierarchy in the US when it goes on sale later this year.