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The 2022 Volkswagen Golf R looks staid, drives like a hooligan

In the past, the arrival of a new generation of Volkswagen Golfs would be big news. But VW’s post-dieselgate pivot to electrification and the advent of its new purpose-built EVs, together with a global pandemic and ongoing supply chain problems, have all conspired to take a little wind out of those sails. And sales.

Here in the US, the Golf never really achieved the levels of egalitarian chic that it did in Europe, to the point that VW of America has dropped all the lesser models in the line. Instead, we’re just getting the Golf GTI and its more powerful all-wheel drive (AWD) sibling (the car you see here today), the $43,645 Golf R.

Volkswagen first bolstered the Golf range with a Golf R in 2002—the R32—which shoehorned VW’s VR6 engine and an on-demand AWD powertrain into an Mk4 Golf. The R32 reappeared with the Mk5 Golf; for subsequent generations, it dropped the numbers and just became the Golf R.

This AWD überhatch has always been a bit more upmarket than the hot hatch GTI—more subtle than a boy racer-mobile to look at and more refined to drive. At least until now. For the Mk8, the Golf R has had quite the personality change compared to the older model we tested in 2019.

It’s the Golf R’s AWD system that represents the biggest change from previous generations.

You can’t really see any of the stuff that makes a Golf R special when you look at its exterior.

We have experienced similar torque-vectoring diffs in a number of other vehicles, particularly the Ford Focus RS and its drift mode. (However, the Ford unit comes from GKN; VW sources its version from Magna.)

Well, the spirit of the Focus RS is actually alive and well in the new Golf R.

Drift mode should only be engaged if you have a wide-open space to play with.

The Special drive mode is also just for the track—and perhaps one track in particular. VW has optimized the Golf R’s brains in this setting for the famed Nürburgring Nordschleife, a 12-mile (22-km) race track in Germany that some know as the “green hell.” VW says that in Special mode, the torque vectoring is optimized for the Nürburgring’s corner profiles, and the suspension is softer than in Race because of the track’s bumps.

I did not drive the Golf R at the Nordschleife, sorry to say. Nor did I drive it on track anywhere, so I can’t report on either Drift or Special modes.

It’s a competent everyday car that’s easy to see out of, with control weights that don’t require unreasonable effort.

This is the dash in R Mode. In other modes, you can make it display one or two round dials instead.

But within the Golf R lurks another personality that only comes out when you’re getting up toward the car’s limits.

The variable-ratio steering even manages to convey some feel of the prodigious grip available to the front tires, which is a rarity in this day and age.

Sadly, we can’t really go around driving at 9/10ths every day.

The manual also drinks more gas, averaging 23 mpg combined (10.23 L/100 km). The seven-speed DSG does better at 26 mpg combined (9.05 L/100 km).

The interior remains as spartan as ever.

VW all but abandoned buttons and knobs for the eighth-generation Golf. Instead, the car shares the same capacitive controls as the electric ID.4 crossover. Happily, though, the infotainment system doesn’t exhibit the same lag that afflicts some screens on the ID.4.

Finally, as you should expect in 2022, the Golf R comes with a full complement of advanced driver assistance systems. Others are active safety features like blind-spot monitoring and emergency braking, and all are standard.

Golfs have always offered plenty of utility, and that has not changed for generation eight.

That describes the market for AWD überhatchs, too—these days, the pickings are slim.