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car review

2022 Volkswagen Golf R.Emily Atkins /The Globe and Mail

Diamonds are the glittering result of hot carbon atoms under pressure. The 2022 Volkswagen Golf R is a shining result of pressure, too, as the manufacturer whittles down its lineup of cars in favour of SUVs.

The Mark 8 Golf R is a polished, accomplished and refined version of the manufacturer’s hallowed hot hatchback. Like a well-cut gem, the R is now sleeker than its predecessors, faster and more capable.

For VW performance-driving enthusiasts, this is good news, but comes as the car maker eliminates the basic Golf TSI from the North American lineup. According to the company, the decision is strictly business.

Sales of the Golf have been declining since 2010, when the Mark 6 Jetta arrived less expensive than the Golf and began to steal buyers, said Thomas Tetzlaff, VW Canada’s manager of media relations. And now, with the company’s new focus on meeting market demand for SUVs, a choice had to be made.

Manufacturing capacity in Mexico is focused on building the new compact Taos SUV, meaning there was no longer a line available to build Golfs for the North American market.

“With Golf demand in decline and Taos being a viable alternative for those customers, it made all the sense in the world to halt production of the Golf in favour of our newest compact SUV,” Tetzlaff said.

Unlike the plain Golf, demand for the performance Golf R and its stablemate, the GTI, remains high. The manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $44,995 means the 2022 R requires a serious commitment. That’s a pretty significant price for a hot hatch – a segment that’s traditionally appealed to younger, less affluent buyers.

But the R appeals to a more mature, well-heeled set. These are drivers who have grown up with pocket rockets, perhaps, and still feel the need for speed but with a few more refinements.

That’s where the R shines. It has dual personalities. On the one hand, it can be your grand touring car, road-trip ready and comfortable, with semi-autonomous driving features and modern conveniences such as automatically dimming high beams, automatic wipers, directional headlights and a well-designed, comfortable interior.

But its other personality is unleashed with a couple of touches. Turn on Race mode or engage Drift mode and your street car is transformed into a torquey, rocket sled with go-kart handling. It’s giggle inducing, and begs to be driven on a race track.

The manual transmission on our tester is near perfect, beautifully smooth and quick to shift. Even with winter tires, turning is precise and you can accelerate out of corners far more quickly than you’d expect. The car’s driving dynamics are superb, in part thanks to a new torque-vectoring system that will direct all the power to a single rear wheel when needed.

There really is no competitor that matches the Golf R. The Mercedes AMG A 35 has a similar engine with a touch less horsepower, but doesn’t offer a manual transmission and is somewhat less refined, even at a suggested price of more than $50,000.

As a happy driver of a 2012 Mark 6 Golf R, I took a look at the two side by side. The Mark 8 has almost 60 more horsepower and the driving dynamics are remarkably similar. But if you don’t need advanced safety systems and modern technology to make you happy, buying a used R might be the way to go.

The driver’s seat is power adjustable, but does not offer a high degree of comfort or support, with a short seating area and insufficient bolstering.Emily Atkins /The Globe and Mail

There’s a lot to be said in favour of the simplicity of the older models. In particular, they win hands down over the 2022′s button-free controls and fully digital cluster. This is the one place where VW needs to go back to the drawing board.

Trying to use the controls while driving is like playing touch screen roulette. Aim for an icon with your finger and hope that’s the one you hit as the vibrations and bumps of the road are translated by the car’s stiff suspension into broad movements of centimetres, not millimetres. It’s a frustrating game, and not recommended while driving.

No such issues plague the analogue 2012. A recent search found them priced between $15,000 and $25,000 on the used market. However, one might be harder to secure than a new Mark 8. There are very few for sale.

And if you do find one, it will likely have been driven hard, with potential maintenance issues lurking.

My car, with 150,000 kilometres on it, has been costing about $500 a year for age-related challenges like broken springs and oxygen sensors. On the other hand, I have benefited from VW’s former 12-year surface rust warranty, with new doors all round.

Opting for a new Golf R is the sensible option. You get a new car, full warranty, no surprises, more power and better safety. Plus, you can choose which of the two personalities you want to drive on any given day.

Tech specs

2022 Volkswagen Golf R

  • Base price: $44,995
  • Price as tested: $46,245
  • Engine: 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder
  • Transmission: six-speed manual or seven-speed direct-shift gearbox
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 kilometres, combined city and highway): 10.2
  • Alternatives: Mercedes AMG A35 4Matic, Subaru WRX STi

Looks

Sleeker and more sculpted, the 2022 Golf R still echoes the distinctive shape of its forebears. The new edition’s roof slopes slightly downward at the rear, removing some of the boxiness of its predecessor, while retaining the spoiler and vertical rear window. It looks faster now, and more aerodynamic.

Interior

Distinctly VW, the Golf R is austere, clean and visually quiet inside. Customizable, coloured ambient lighting allows for an injection of personality that can range from wild to demure. The driver’s seat is power adjustable, but does not offer a high degree of comfort or support, with a short seating area and insufficient bolstering.

Distinctly VW, the Golf R is austere, clean and visually quiet inside.Emily Atkins /The Globe and Mail

Performance

The little EA888 two-litre engine in the Mark 8 has been tweaked again to deliver a powerful 315 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque. That’s a sizable increase over the Mark 6, with its 256 horsepower and the Mark 7 with 296. But what matters is whether you can feel it, and the answer is yes. The car is still remarkably smooth and refined, but when you goose the throttle, it responds vigorously.

Technology

The 2022 Golf R is loaded with advanced safety systems and semi-autonomous driving features such as automatic cruise control, lane keeping and autonomous braking. Thankfully, these can be restricted to make the driving experience more direct, as they can be intrusive. Digital connectivity includes Apple and Android hands free, although both refused to continue playing music after a call was made.

Cargo

Cargo capacity remains limited, although with seats folded down there is plenty of room for a bike or two plus gear. As it always has, this small car suits a single, active person or a couple, but would be a tight fit for a family.

Cargo capacity remains limited, although with seats folded down there is plenty of room for a bike or two plus gear.Emily Atkins /The Globe and Mail

The verdict

The 2022 Golf R outshines its predecessors with refined looks, better power and technology. These benefits outweigh minor design flaws and leave no doubt that this is a superior hot hatch, and worth the money.

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