We have no choice but to warn you that this entire review is one big tease. The pair of 2022 Volkswagen GTIs we tested have German front license plates, a forewarning of sorts, since the eighth-gen GTI is still months away from going on sale in the US, along with its higher-performance sibling, the Golf R. If you can keep it in your pants, though, the reward will be worth it, because VW's latest hot hatch is such a delight.
The Volkswagen Golf is not a car of radical reinvention, and the 2022 GTI's style more than reinforces that notion. From the rear, the hatchback looks more like a refreshed seventh-gen, with some more polygonal taillights and some additional bumper creases. Only forward of the A-pillars do you begin to see some true newness. But I'm still not fully sold on the sloping-brow front end, which gives the car a dose of Geico caveman aesthetic. The full-width running lights and quintuple-hexagon fog lights are cool additions, though. The 19-inch alloy wheels look great, too, and while they're pretty large for a compact car, they don't look like caricatures, leaving more than enough space for some sidewall meat.
There's more revolution than evolution inside, and said revolution clearly came for the buttons, because they're almost all gone. Touch-sensitive panels now cover the steering wheel and dashboard, eliminating nearly every piece of physical switchgear. Provided you're cool with that, it makes for a clean, uncluttered look. While the general shape of the dashboard has changed, the interior feels just about as roomy as it did before, with ample glass making way for ample sunshine and strong visibility from all sides. The GTI's plaid seats are back and just as comfortable and supportive as ever; leather is overrated, folks.
Other parts of the interior are a little hit or miss. While the center console's armrest storage is still small, VW straight-up made the cup holders worse. Now, two drinks are relegated to this weird indentation where a small button pops out a spring-loaded cup holder for smaller-diameter beverages. The problem, though, comes with trying to fit a second drink in there; while it's possible, anything larger than the smallest Red Bull can is going to smash uncomfortably against the drink next to it, which can spell trouble. Some of the plastics feel flimsier than on its predecessor. Take the "phone house" ahead of the shifter, for example; while we love that it holds a phone in place and out of view, its lid feels like it's always about 3 seconds from snapping off. The use of piano-black trim on every surface meant for touching means fingerprints will almost always be visible.
Those touch-sensitive bits can prove tricky in other ways. The GTI's steering wheel buttons are clicky, but they're also capable of working by a light touch alone, so you can drag your finger along the volume slider and make larger adjustments more quickly. However, accuracy is not great, so your eardrums might get more than they bargained for. Also, VW didn't think to illuminate the volume and temperature sliders at the bottom of the screen, making any adjustments way more frustrating at night.
VW's latest infotainment system is a solid step forward, with a fresh aesthetic and an admirable boot time when cold. There's a home screen that can display multiple types of information at once, and a quick tap of the home button on the left side of the screen makes jumping between pages sufficiently easy. Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are nice touches, especially if you've been lagging on updating your phone cords, since the 2022 GTI is a USB-C-only affair. The gauge cluster is a screen, now, too, carrying some fun graphics while allowing for a great degree of customizability. An available HUD brings relevant information much closer to my eyes, although we wouldn't exactly call it necessary given how well the gauges convey things.
All those cares melt away the second you start driving the 2022 VW GTI in earnest. High-quality caning has always been at the heart of the GTI experience, and the eighth-gen car makes no major alterations in that regard. It's more fun than some sports cars costing twice as much, and it all starts with the GTI's turbo four-cylinder gas engine, which in its latest iteration produces 242 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque, all of which is routed to the front wheels through a standard limited-slip differential and either a six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch transmission.
Using a light foot and short-shifting around town returns smooth, gradual forward motion, but dig a little deeper into the pedal throw and the 2.0-liter EA888 will throw an absolute wall of torque at you, pushing the hatch forward with surprising haste. The clutch pedal is nicely weighted and has a definitive bite point, making for smooth starts and shifts, and the lever itself offers just the right amount of notch as it slinks between gates.
As for the DSG-equipped car we tested in California, it's more proof that Volkswagen's dual-clutch unit is one of the best. Yes, it still has a tendency to jerkily engage first gear when starting off, but from that point on, shifts are seamless and quick. The steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters themselves are pretty small, but they offer instant response. If paddles aren't your thing, you'll be happy to know the DSG 'box will hold gears as long as you want in Sport mode, with the cutest little farty brapp with each upshift.
The GTI is positively sublime in the switchbacks. Adaptive dampers eliminate any hint of body roll without making the ride so stiff as to be annoying, and the mode switch also adds a nice bit of weight to the electric power steering. Combined with the aforementioned limited-slip diff, the new GTI is noticeably more agile while cornering. The seventh-gen car was no slouch while carving through California canyons, but the new car is simply more eager to dive into hairpins and offers better traction on corner exit. Honestly, the new GTI is closer to last-gen Golf R levels of on-road excitement.
Yet, when it's time to chill, rolling in Comfort almost feels like a different car entirely. The stiff damping ceding to a smoothness that dispatches annoying bumps and jostles with very little movement transferring to the occupants; over Michigan potholes and California highway expansion joints, the GTI is a doll. Cabin isolation feels a step above its predecessor, too. In fact, the whole shebang feels significantly more adult without losing sight of the GTI's inherent playful nature. If there's one formula that we're happy to see over and over again with little adjustment, it's this one.
We're so far away from the 2022 GTI's US launch that the EPA has not yet released fuel-economy figures, but that's what the trip computer is for. Over a couple hundred miles of mixed city and highway, we see around 26 or 27 mpg, which is what the feds rate the outgoing GTI in combined use. Longer stretches of freeway push the needle north of 30 mpg, provided you stop glomming on the throttle just to feel the torque do its thing.
Even with some newfound power and features -- and, assumingly, the slightly higher price tag to match -- the GTI's competition remains about the same as usual. The Honda Civic Si is due to enter a new generation in the near future, and while it's still available in two body styles (coupe and sedan), it's not as fun to drive as the GTI. The Hyundai Veloster N gives the VW a pretty solid run for its money, but it's not available as a true five-door and its cabin simply isn't as nice. If you want an interior more closely resembling a luxury car, you can step it up with the Mazda3 Turbo, which isn't a performance variant per se, yet it still moves like one.
The wait will be worth it for the 2022 Volkswagen GTI. The parts that were given a dose of radical reinvention don't get in the way of the driving experience, which remains as exhilarating and redeeming as ever. There's a good reason this is the hot hatch by which most are compared, and it doesn't appear that trend will be changing any time soon.