2022 Volkswagen Golf R Review: Deft Handling, Smudgy Driver Interface

VW invites you to discover automotive fingerpainting.  Choose your canvas, a snakey roadway is perfect.  Your paintpot is a turbocharged 315-hp Golf R.  Get in.  Adjust the shell-like front throne.  Grab the steering wheel.  Apply the pedals.  Press start.  Zero-to-60 mph is yours in less than five seconds.  

This $44,640 R-tist went to an automotive art school.  You feel like Jackson Pollock as you pour it down the road.  It inspires confidence with proper steering effort, unflappable chassis and prompt directional changes.  Plus, the R stops as well as it goes due to two-piece, cross-drilled front rotors clamped by blue calibers via a firm brake pedal.  

Stir the six-speed manual transmission; the engine’s power band and idle-speed modulation make clutch-work simple.  Stop before applying the electric parking brake; it’s aggressive.  Try the foot-brake enabled hill-holder. 

Touched by a Demon

There’s a fly in this car’s painterly ointment.  Much like kids who over-express themselves while finger-painting, VW mucked up its driver interface with a touch/talk/video display scheme.  This replaces conventional gauges, buttons and dials.  While the steering wheel’s touch-action “switchgear” is nicely illuminated, you can inadvertently brush sensors.  Likewise, tapping the infotainment screen’s virtual home button while driving is like operating a vending machine while twirling a hoola hoop.  

VW’s Bizantine climate setups could cause a mental meltdown.  It has three folders:  Classic View, Smart Climate and Air Care.  There’s a cold/hot-feet setting.  If your brain’s overloaded by choices, leave it in automatic. 

Fingers Crossed

There is a blast of sorts:  finger-dialed chassis/engine drive modes.  These settings make driving, as with painting therapy, pleasurable.  May I direct you to the blue R logo on the steering wheel’s left side?  Rub it.  Then, the touchscreen’s drive mode menu expands:  race, drift (serious tire painting), sport, comfort and individual.  Want Eco?  Sorry Charlie, this isn’t your auto.  The R, however, prompts you when to shift or coast for best fuel economy.

You can vary engine sound, idle speed, dampers and therefore chassis dynamics.  VW’s sound effects are acoustically satisfying, neither too loud nor blatantly fake.  The engine hums pleasantly at highway speeds.

The Golf R’s snubbed suspension seems resilient despite rolling on 235/35R19 tires.  Body roll is minimal.  This car’s stout body feels like it’s an ingot.  A creative driver gets support—switches for power seat controls. The split-folding rear seat with ski pass thru is upright but supportive for two.  Aft passengers back get face vents, seat heaters—and yes there’s a touch panel.

The R’s driving dynamics paint a pretty picture.  It’s an inspiring machine with GT-car provenance.  Its driver-control interface, however, muddles the picture, as touchscreens, touchpads and talk replace snickety switchgear.  The EPA fuel economy numbers are 20-mpg city, 28 highway and 23 combined.  I averaged 27 overall.  This VW requires premium fuel.

Body Language

The R’s thin horizontal grille punctuated by the brand’s rondel has Golf designer genes.  Front inlets are more than eye candy including brake ducts.  The LED headlamps effectively illuminate scenery.

Inside, VW went hardcore with hard plastics.  Typical VW niceties such as cloth-covered A pillars, plentiful soft-door card areas and an overhead eyeglass bin are conspicuously absent—even the hood’s hydraulic lift is awol.  VW offsets this with interior ambient LED lighting and an R puddle light. There’s no spare tire.  You can slide a road bike (wheels attached) into the rear hatch and then close the lid.    

The R can park itself.  Touch a dedicated spot and you’ll receive directional instructions while the R twirls the steering wheel.

Finger Pointing

VW’s R brushes with greatness; it’s got poise and power.  Its low profile evokes practical Golf design language.  VW’s touch interface, however, feels wrong.  Wireless Android Auto and CarPlay are standard.