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2022 Volkswagen Golf R drifts in with manual transmission

Arriving in the US in late 2021, the most-powerful Golf ever offer buyers a choice of manual or dual-clutch gearbox, plus there's a drift mode.

Picture this little blue guy pitched sideways, powering out of a corner, all four wheels scrounging for traction.


Volkswagen has been doubling down on a fuller range of SUVs and making major investments into electric cars as of late, and both developments are seen as being core to ensuring its financial future. Even so, it's heartening to see that the automaker isn't prepared to abandon its core audience of driving enthusiasts. The latest evidence? This 2022 Volkswagen Golf R. Set to return to showrooms late next year after going on hiatus, this blue bolide (no, not that one) will bring 315 horsepower to the all-wheel-drive hot-hatch party. What's more, VW is bucking industry trends by committing to the availability of a manual transmission in the US and Canada (a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox will be optional). Did I mention there's a new Drift mode?

Volkswagen says that the new hatchback will not only accelerate to 62 mph in 4.7 seconds en route to a top speed of 155 mph, it'll be capable of lapping Germany's legendary Nurburgring racetrack a whopping 17 seconds quicker than its predecessor. (In racing, a couple of seconds is a substantial gap.) And while we firmly believe 'Ring lap records have become unnecessarily glorified in car culture, the yawning chasm between the times of this new Mk8 Golf R and its immediate predecessor sounds telling. That Golf gulf points to a substantial improvement not just in power, but in handling agility, as well. In fact, as Karsten Schebsdat, Golf R's head of driving dynamics, said in a teleconference earlier this week, "We can definitely say it's [the Golf R's] biggest step forward with respect to performance that we have ever made from one generation to the other." That's good news.

2022 Golf R performance specs and mechanical changes

Equally good news is VW's apparent focus on making the 2022 Golf R more fun to drive. Historically, while the Golf R has enjoyed a reputation for being more powerful and polished than its less-costly GTI sibling, it's also generally been viewed as less frisky and ultimately, less fun as a driver's car. Thanks to a new, electronically locking, torque-vectoring rear differential, updated adaptive dampers and a new Vehicle Dynamics Manager (VDM) control unit to tie it all together, the German automaker says it has tuned this new Golf R to be both sharper and more alive. With a quicker variable-ratio power steering setup and a rear diff that can route up to 100% of the available torque to either axle as standard equipment, the Golf R's handling is claimed to be both more neutral and responsive, but the proof will be in the driving.

The heart of this high-performance matter is a retuned version of VW's evergreen EA888 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. In addition to those 315 horses, this engine delivers 310 pound-feet of torque (increases of 27 and 30, respectively). For comparison's sake, those output figures best the 306 hp and 295 lb.-ft. of the 2021 Honda Civic Type R as well as the 310 hp and 290 lb.-ft. of the 2020 Subaru WRX STI. That said, while a Nordschleife time of 7:51 riding on Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires is very impressive for this new VW, it must be also be noted that this time is still well shy of the front-wheel-drive Honda Civic Type R, which did the deed in 7:43:08. Furthermore, North American models won't even be offered with Bibendum's super-sticky rubber. Instead, US and Canadian models will be fitted with one of the following tires: Bridgestone Potenza S005, Goodyear Eagle F1 Super Sport or Hankook Ventus S1 Evo 3.

The interior boasts a huge infotainment upgrade. That little gear-selector nub is for the optional dual-clutch transmission.


The Golf R comes with various drive mode settings, including Sport, Comfort and Race (the car always defaults to Sport mode upon startup). These options cover everything from throttle mapping and shift schedules to steering weight and immediacy, as well as damper tuning, differential locking behavior, gauge cluster layout and even interior and exterior vehicle sound. New for this generation are a pair of unusual sub modes, Special and Drift. The former replicates the ideal tuning chosen for the Nurburgring, and selecting this option displays an outline of the Nordschleife while softening up the dampers and reprogramming the VDM for increased lateral leeway. The latter mode is a dedicated setting designed for maximum sideways action. VW officials say this function is not for use on public roads, and in fact, the infotainment system will show a confirmation prompt before activating this smoke-happy setting.

With the extra power, VW saw the need for additional braking, so the front rotors are 14.1 by 1.3 inches (the Mk7 Golf R's were 13.4 by 1.2 inches) clamped down on by two-piston aluminum calipers. An R-specific master cylinder helps deliver proper braking response and feel. The suspension has been tweaked, as well, with the front McPherson struts getting a stiffer and lighter aluminum subframe, firmer stabilizer and spring rates (up 10%) and a lot more camber baked in. Out back, the multilink setup has repositioned control arms and revised wheel mounts, as well as 10% firmer springs and stabilizers, among other alterations.

Supportive Nappa leather seats have blue logos.


2022 Golf R appearance

Visually, the 2022 Golf R continues VW's tradition of making this model a paradigm of understated performance. You won't find any towering wings or showy ground-effects kit -- VW is quite happy to leave such things to the Type Rs and the WRX STIs of the world. In fact, the Golf R looks a lot like the new GTI (which, in turn, looks a lot like the GTI before it). You can spot this model on the street by its subtle blue crossbar grille, which sits above an R-specific front bumper with integrated splitter and larger air intakes. A glance at the R's profile will note satin-silver mirror caps, model-specific 19-inch wheels and blue-painted brake calipers. Out back, there's a fresh rear spoiler and a unique rear bumper fascia with twin exhaust outlets bookending a gloss-black diffuser. VW says that the new look reduces lift on both ends for better responsiveness and stability while adding a skosh more drag.

The Golf R's inside once again sides with evolution over revolution, but there are meaningful changes, including a reconfigurable digital gauge cluster and a 10-inch Discover Pro touchscreen infotainment system. Sports seats done up in nappa leather with matching blue stitching come standard, as does a sport wheel which maintains the new haptic-feedback touch controls common to other Mk8 Golf models. Faux-carbon trim as well as brushed-finish stainless-steel pedals are also standard. It's all quite handsome and quite subtle stuff.

Coming late 2021.


2022 Golf R pricing, availability and fuel economy

It's too early to know about pricing or fuel efficiency, although VW is telegraphing that the new Golf R's substantially increased performance and content will nudge pricing upward. (For its most recent model year in the US, the 2019 Golf R started at just over $40,000.)

The most frustrating part in all of this? Availability. That 2022 model-year designation probably tipped you off: It's going to be a long time before you'll see one of these new Golf Rs on the street in North America -- a full year from now, more or less. On the plus side, VW officials tell Roadshow that the new Mk8 Golf R and GTI models will come to market more or less simultaneously. Typically, US and Canadian buyers have had to wait a long time between these two models. On the negative side, the US has historically been the GTI and the Golf R's single largest sales market, so this wait is a particularly bitter pill to swallow when Europeans will be able to get their mitts on both models very soon. 

Additionally, this protracted run-up also muddies the waters a bit on where the Golf R may stack up against rivals when it finally arrives in 2021. We're expecting to see a new WRX and its higher-performance STI derivative sometime next year, and the latter is rumored to receive in excess of 400 hp. It's possible that this high-wattage Subaru could hit the market at the same time as VW's new Golf R. The arrival of an even higher-performance Subaru WRX STI may rain on the Volkswagen Golf R's parade a bit, but if anything, with two new high-performance sport compacts hitting the market, driving enthusiasts will come out the winners.

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