2022 volkswagen golf r
James Lipman

The weekend before last, for just a breath or two, I nearly experienced one of the greatest drives of my life.

Road & Track hosted a cars and coffee at the Malibu Racquet Club. If you weren’t there, well, you should’ve been (Main takeaways: Shelby’s 289 Cobra is religion on wheels; the wealthy play a racquet sport named after a gourd). It was one of those peerless California mornings, lax and vibrant as a Dr. Dre beat. Cruising weather.

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Our “job” that morning was to get from Santa Monica up to the Racquet Club before the event. I set off, nothing but a pristine empty highway in my crosshairs. Over my left shoulder, the mighty Pacific sat still as a statue, reaching out with its wide arms to cradle Catalina Island’s dim silhouette. At the first stop light, I flicked the turn signal on and rolled down all four windows in the 2022 Volkswagen Golf R. I opened the sunroof to soak up every last photon.

The light went green and I merged the Golf R on to historic Highway 1, dangling my arm out the open window. In that moment, the world was right, life imitating surf rock.

Then an “Eco Tip” popped up on the Volkswagen’s dash and snapped me out of the dream.

2022 volkswagen golf r
James Lipman

Roll up the Golf’s windows to increase efficiency, it informed me. I considered the information and dutifully rolled up the windows. Minutes later, another message popped up. It noted one more wasteful extravagance: the open sunroof. I closed the panel and shut the sunshade for good measure.

Then another tip. Upshift to save fuel. I slotted sixth gear from third. Another message. Instead of keeping the engine on boil, ripping off heel-toe downshifts before each stop light, perhaps the eco-conscious gentleman shouldn’t depress the clutch pedal above 1300 rpms.

“Stop having fun. Shun the sunshine. Drive your $45,000 hot hatch like some joyless rolling pillbox,” it begged. The sublime moment had slipped away. I asked nothing of the Golf R that morning, except that it allow a moment of intense clarity in an existence otherwise smothered by monotony. The VW couldn’t do me that courtesy for more than a block or two. I showed up to cars and coffee with a frown.

This seems like a pedantic fixation. After all, you can turn off these Eco Tips somewhere in the Golf’s frustrating and complex infotainment system. But this endless string of nannying messages illustrates the broader character of the Golf R: It’s no longer trying to involve a driver in the way the older models did, or in the ways its many competitors currently do.

2022 volkswagen golf r
James Lipman

Unfortunately, it’s not just Eco Tips. The whole mix of this Golf R has strayed from that old perfection. This Golf R feels far too interested in isolating its driver from feedback and enjoyment, even as its on-paper capabilities soar. Worse still, the infotainment and control setups, along with the constant nannying, feel actively hostile to enjoying the act of driving. It’s a damning mix for the 2022 Golf R.

I did not arrive at this conclusion in a vacuum.

After cars and coffee in Malibu, some of the R&T staffers headed out to the canyons. We had – if not quite apples-to-apples competitors of the Golf R on price – the VW GTI’s closest rivals, vehicles both engaging and practical. We’d brought along a flavor for every taste: the handsome 2022 Honda Civic Si (with whooshy turbo noises!), and the rowdy Hyundai Elantra N. Each model should tempt shoppers on the hunt for a VW Golf R, aping the R’s formula of economy car gone knife-edged, but at far lower prices.

So we shuffled the pack of sport compacts up from Malibu to the Angeles Crest Highway’s front door, then kicked the bastard clean off its hinges.

The Crest allowed us room to hustle the cars. More importantly, it provided a sandbox for back-to-back comparison. In the case of The Crest, that meant a heavenly mix of fast sweepers and slow blind hairpins, cracked asphalt mixed with stretches of glass-smooth pavement, rockslides to dodge and a snowy road closure that turned us back the way we came.

On paper, the Golf R should’ve run away with the exercise. Its 315-horse, 2.0-liter turbo four offers far more power than either of its competitors. The R’s all-wheel-drive also promises to put that power down better than the front-wheel-drive imports. With an MSRP of $43,645 (our tester was slightly more), the VW should have felt far more refined and luxuriant in the process. This should have been a stomp.

2022 volkswagen golf r
James Lipman

But when our trip up The Crest was complete, nobody would’ve taken the Golf R’s keys to have and to hold if presented with the other two options. Later in our trip, when the 2022 Subaru WRX joined our test (also sampled back-to-back with the Golf R), the R fell even further down the list.

Mostly because the Golf R offers less feedback to its driver than the Hyundai, Honda, or Subaru. The Hyundai in particular seemed to revel in Angeles Crest’s corners, providing better feedback than all comers through its leather-clad steering wheel. Through every phase of cornering, the Hyundai made the Golf R feel lifeless by comparison; that progressive, split-second weighting of the wheel at corner entry; how the wheel loads up further when you ask more and more of the front tires; the jostling feedback as you near the tires’ limits; the sensation of slip when you ask too much; The Hyundai beamed all that information from the front tires to your brain stem. The steering served merely as conduit.

Through the exact same corners, the Golf R’s steering wheel loaded up predictably and darted toward each apex with supreme accuracy. But the R’s wheel felt as efficient and lifeless as a Terminator, regardless of where the car was in the corner. The Golf R’s steering requires roughly the same effort to bend through a high-g low-speed hairpin as a low-speed sweeper. It feels unfussed at all times, detached from the effort every other system in the car is making to claw the Golf R through a corner. That may be passable if you don’t have any competitors nearby. But next to these compacts, the R’s steering falls far short in feedback.

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It’s the same with the Golf R’s other controls. The VW’s clutch pedal felt the least vital of the group, with little information about where in the pedal’s travel the clutch disc will engage. And among the six-speeds equipped to each car, the Golf R’s felt vague and lifeless by comparison. There were no obstructions to operating the Golf R’s shifter quickly, but compared to the Honda’s compact gates and affirmative shift action, the VW felt far less enjoyable to flick through gears.

This may be the first sport compact I’ve ever driven that I’d spec with the automatic, given how lifeless the R’s six-speed feels to row. (To its credit, the VW DSG is one of the better gearboxes available in any car at any price, so that helps).

These are subjective measurements, though. Maybe all you care about are stop light drag races, getting through your commute faster than the other guy. On The Crest at least, the Golf R still lost out to the Hyundai.

Even set to ECU’s sport mode, the Golf R’s all-wheel drive system felt reluctant at times to scrabble out of Angeles Crest’s dusty corners, rather than simply hooking up and rocketing away from each apex. The Hyundai matched the Golf’s pace into and out of every turn. Maybe the Hyundai’s engine is underrated from the factory? Maybe it’s an issue of vehicle weight or tire compound? Maybe I’m a terrible driver? But the Hyundai hooked up equally well on corner exit and even pulled a car length on the Golf as the engines wound out on straightaways.

So if it’s not faster in the canyons than a Hyundai, feels worse to shift and steer than the Honda, and drives four wheels less effectively than the Subaru, what are you paying for in the $45,000 Golf?

2022 volkswagen golf r

I suppose it’s isolation. The R’s steering wheel, clutch pedal, and shifter ask for far less effort than all the others and in turn reward you with less feedback – and engagement – overall. The seats are predictably the best of the bunch and the hatchback configuration provided the most headroom, but these are matters of practicality, rarely metrics that tug at heartstrings.

Other than the seats and steering wheel, the VW’s interior couldn’t outdo the Honda. Perhaps VW buyers want a dark cabin bereft of texture and style. I don’t. To my eyes and hands, Honda executed the Civic Si’s interior with a higher degree of imagination and material quality than the Golf R. Our own Lucas Bell wrote a separate piece showering praise on the Honda (check that out here), which illustrates the concept in finer detail. But to keep it short, the Honda’s simpler layout embarrasses the VW for usability, while looking and feeling of higher quality overall. And of course, at $28,000, the Honda does it far cheaper than the VW.

There are a few high points that separate the R from its rivals. The car’s electronic dampers are peerless: excellent, sumptuously controlled things. (Seriously, they’re fantastic on any rutted road or while pounding curbing at a race track). And from the outside, the Golf’s sleek lines and gorgeous wheels broadcast the right signals when you turn up to the valet stand; This looks like an expensive, well-made thing from every outward angle. People seem to understand that from a glance, whereas, with the others, they may not.

That posturing is extraneous for the type of enthusiast who reads Road & Track though. If “how does the car enrich the act of driving?” and “how does the car make me feel while rocketing up a canyon road?” steer your purchasing decisions, we recommend you cross shop. At the very least, consider the GTI, which replicates the more mature aspects of the Golf R’s character (magic damping, the refined ride, a look of exterior quality, lovely seats) but at a far lower price.

This Golf R presents as more of a conundrum than anything.

If saving every last drop of fuel was my ultimate goal, why the heck would I buy the least-efficient Golf and have it beat me over the head with Eco Tips? Why would I buy a Golf period, with so many hybrids and electrics available? And if isolation and refinement were my main concerns in a hot hatch, why spring for the high-performance R in the first place when the GTI does that all so well?

Unfortunately that high MSRP and some tough competition should steer buyers away from the Golf R. The Hyundai ekes out as much performance as the Golf R on a backroad, but offers more fun while you’re doing it. The Civic treats its buyer to a better cabin and infotainment suite. The Subaru offers all-wheel-drive for those who need it, with a refined engine and as much practicality as the R.

If you’re chasing the sporty Golf equation and nothing else but a VW badge will do, stick with the GTI. And if you’re still tempted to spring for the Golf R, just promise you’ll drive any of these competitors first.