Volkswagen’s GTI and Golf R have long set the standard for spicy hatchbacks, and the new 2022 versions are as well assembled and fun to drive as ever, not to mention as practical as a shipping container full of closet organizers. So why weren’t they Car of the Year finalists? Simple: They fell victim to their own history of excellence.
The previous-generation cars were especially adept at serving as both daily drivers and hair-on-fire canyon scorchers, and they were a blast in either situation. The new models, when measured against our COTY criteria, simply didn’t advance their own art enough—despite some key mechanical changes in the R—while regressing in critical areas.
We all loved the GTI’s heritage cues, including its plaid seats, shift-knob dimples, and traditional red trim, and the R’s more mature blue twist on the same aesthetic was also well received. The exterior design, a crisper, techier take on the GTI’s/R’s familiar two-box shape, was perceived as premium and nicely executed but not necessarily groundbreaking.
Mechanically speaking, the GTI is largely the same model as before, and it’s now the entry-level Golf hatch in America, as VW yanked the workaday models from our shores. The R evolved more, its AWD system no longer sporting a Haldex center differential in favor of a torque-vectoring rear diff.
Both are powered by the familiar EA888 2.0-liter turbo-four, a smooth firecracker of an engine that makes a bit more power than before; it drew nearly unanimous applause from our judges. “I love how much torque this engine has”—a meaty 273 lb-ft in the GTI, 280 or 295 in the R—features editor Christian Seabaugh said, and both versions have a rorty, impish exhaust note that’s fun to summon by exploring the tach’s upper reaches. Doing so was a snap thanks to our test cars’ six-speed manual transmissions, a North America exclusive in the R.
That said, our group had a clear preference for the front-drive GTI. Most felt the all-wheel-drive R leaned too hard toward truffle-sniffing understeer on the winding-road circuit and figure-eight course, despite having—and sometimes even while using—its all-new Drift mode. The GTI is lighter on its feet and more willing to rotate, and it offers more steering feel than its R sibling, too.
Yet what really sank the VW bros’ chances as finalists was regression in clutch feel and overall ergonomics. Multiple judges commented that each car had a difficult-to-locate clutch takeup point, making off-the-line starts more of an exercise in guessing than a whip-crackin’ good time.
Much worse, though, are the horrible capacitive controls inside. They’re sprinkled everywhere, including below the touchscreen, on the center stack, and on the steering wheel spokes, and our drivers activated various functions accidentally multiple times per stint. The steering wheel controls were triggered by a couple of us during hard lapping, for example, and the HVAC and volume controls were actuated, well, basically any time anyone used the touchscreen. The latter are placed precisely where you want to rest your thumb or the heel of your hand while working the display, which you must do to select drive modes or do practically anything else.
In adding needless technofluff to its hyper-fun hatches, Volkswagen also added an irksome layer of annoyance to what otherwise remain great all-around packages. While the GTI especially is still elite in terms of driving dynamics and fun per dollar, the fact these Golfs took one step forward and one step back wasn’t going to secure them our Golden Calipers.
View every 2022 Car of the Year contender here
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