I've always been a Volkswagen GTI person. (I appreciate simplicity, refinement and a touch of plaid detailing in my sporty cars.) As such, the loaded, high-powered and more expensive Golf R always felt like overkill to me. Last winter, I drove a Euro-spec version of the all-new 2022 Golf R in a slushy parking lot in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The car impressed me, but left me with the same impression. (Why the hell does anyone need a Nürburgring drive mode?)
Here in 2022, Volkswagen finally loaned me an American-spec version with a manual transmission to drive around in February. I drove the highway and delightfully curvy back roads to Hell, Michigan; I shuttled my kids to their grandparents' house after a snow storm in it. And after all that...you can call me a Golf R convert.
There are few, if any, sports cars that can do everything a Golf R can do. And these days, with new car prices skyrocketing to crazy heights...if you can find a new Golf R for at or near MSRP, it's not that bad of a deal.
The base model Golf may be the best all-around affordable car ever built. The GTI is that Golf, but more fine-tuned and packing a bit more pop — and the Golf R is an apex predator GTI. There just aren't that many cars that can let you tear it up on a track day, drive home safely in a blizzard, help your friend move — and avoid attention from Johnny Law while doing so.
Usually, when I describe the fancy tech features a sports car packs, I also explain how you won't experience them unless you're on track. With the Golf R, however, those features exhibit themselves the first time you turn the car. The Golf R's new torque-vectoring AWD can send 100% of the torque to either rear wheel, allowing for both phenomenal grip and impossibly tight cornering. And you pair that precision with a muscular 315-horsepower output from the 2.0-liter engine.
But, like every Golf, driving the Golf R feels remarkably intuitive. VW has mastered the clutch tuning and smooth shifting for its manual transmissions. The suspension is stiff, but not stagecoach-firm in everyday driving. This VW s a car that almost anyone can hop into and drive well; indeed, being too easy to drive is probably the one criticism I could come up with for it.
And there was a reason VW had us up to the U.P. to (attempt to) drive the Golf R in winter conditions last year. It's the best car I've driven in the snow in some time. Even the most adept crossovers and SUVs have their moments of slippage, but the Golf R on winter treads was an absolute monster. It kept its turns clean and stayed remarkably sure-footed, almost like you were driving on clean pavement. It's not just a sports car you can drive in the winter; it's a sports car you should drive in the winter (on the right tires, of course).
The Golf R has more or less the same interior as the GTI — so, done on the cheap, with a few essential expenditures. The R gets fancy Nappa leather seats and a perforated leather steering wheel. Beyond that, it's the same annoying digital cockpit, haptic button array and airline-grade plastic as its cheaper Mk8 sibling.
Now in my second time around with it, I finally understood the proper way to work VW's infotainment setup. Turning the stereo off completely limited distractions, and using my right hand to shift cut down on the number of accidental climate control adjustments.
The Golf R is big enough to do family duty in a pinch; I fit two convertible car seats in the back without issue. I carted around my family of four in reasonable comfort, with only mild complaints from my wife about how tiny the car was. Fitting a stroller in the trunk would be the only primary concern for families.
The Golf R has one of the more boring car configurators out there. There's one, fully-loaded Golf R available. You can have a manual or — for an extra $800 — a dual-clutch automatic transmission. You choose between Lapiz Blue Metallic, Deep Black Pearl and Pure White. That, but for floormats and cargo accessories, is the Golf R. It starts at $43,645 plus a $995 destination charge.
The main external Volkswagen Golf R rivals are the Subaru WRX STI and the Honda Civic Type R. Advantage VW there, since neither of those cars is currently on sale for 2022. Internally, the price difference between a Golf R and a top-trim VW GTI Autobahn ($37,995) is about $6,000, so some buyers may be grappling with that decision. And a buyer who doesn't want the manual could opt for more premium branding with the similarly-powered and -priced Audi S3 ($45,200).
Powertrain: Turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four; six-speed manual (or seven-speed DSG); all-wheel-drive
Torque: 310 lb-ft
0-60 mph: 4.7 seconds
EPA Fuel Economy: 20 mpg city, 28 mpg highway
Looking for a great new ride? Start looking here.