2022 Volkswagen GTI front
Photo: Volkswagen

After a pandemic-forced hiatus, auto shows are returning, giving the public a chance to see upcoming models, like the eighth-generation Volkswagen GTI and the high-performance, premium Golf R unveiled in Chicago.

The regular (read: non-sporty) Golf will no longer be sold in the United States, reflecting the market shift to SUVs. (Volkswagen buyers interested in a small hatchback will likely be drawn to the Taos and Tiguan.)

The march of progress can be seen in the sleeker profile that edges away from the boxy shape that helped define earlier Golf-based models. Power has increased, and the interior design is more modern, complete with the latest infotainment system from VW.

The new GTI will be built in Germany, whereas the previous version was assembled in Mexico. It will be available only as a four-door since the two-door version became less popular.

What hasn’t changed is its position as the performance-oriented version of the Golf, a car distinguished among small cars by its sophistication. The outgoing GTI was fun to drive, civilized, and well finished with upscale materials.

The original GTI pioneered the hot hatch segment, being the feisty interpretation of the Rabbit at the time. More recent generations continued the theme, with the cars growing in sophistication and refinement, keeping pace with the demands of the GTI’s customer base.

Here is what we know so far.

What it competes with: Audi A3, BMW 228i, Honda Civic Si, Mini Cooper S, Subaru WRX
What it looks like: Sportier Golf with sleepy headlamps
Powertrains: 241-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with front-wheel drive; 315-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with all-wheel drive; 6-speed manual or 7-speed automated manual transmission
Price: $30,345-$43,645
On-sale date: Fall 2021

CR's Take

The all-new Volkswagen GTI builds on the long-running tradition of elevating a mild hatchback into a fun-to-drive, yet sophisticated, practical alternative to sports coupes. The improvements aim to sharpen the handling, up the power and upgrade connectivity and infotainment. This is taken to new heights with the Golf R, and along with it, so goes the price. The GTI can be seen as a bridge between a boy-racer Honda Civic Si to a mature sports sedan like the BMW 3 Series, and the Golf R is once again a special model tailored to a Volkswagen enthusiast that craves power, refinement, and exclusivity.

Outside

2022 Volkswagen Golf R
Volkswagen Golf R
Photo: Volkswagen

The new GTI largely retains its dimensions, but it is lower and a hint longer than before. The wheelbase is unchanged. This gives the GTI a more aggressive stance, accentuated by large optional 19-inch wheels with low-profile performance tires. (The base configuration will use 18-inch wheels with all-season tires and 17-inch ones in Canada.) Twin chrome tailpipes again adorn the GTI’s tail.

The front has a grimacing look, with the headlights having a pinched appearance. Traditional fog lamps are replaced with two clusters of five LED lamps, creating a rather unique appearance.

Golf R models are distinguished by more aggressive front and rear bumper covers, blue accents, unique wheels, four exhaust tips, and large rear spoiler.

Inside

2022 Volkswagen GTI interior
2022 Volkswagen GTI
Photo: Volkswagen

The interior looks like it belongs in an upscale sedan, rather than a feisty hatchback. The leather-trimmed, three-spoke steering wheel hosts numerous buttons for navigating menus and set cruise control, as well as touch-sensitive sliders for some audio adjustments. A heated steering wheel is now standard and with the optional leather seats buyers get heated and ventilated seats.

Drivers can personalize the displays, including adjusting the color range of the background lighting. An available head-up display is shown through the windshield.

The rather clean, businesslike dash design holds a large 10-inch infotainment screen that looks like an extension of the instrument panel. Unfortunately, it forces the center dash vents to be too low. We’ll have to assess the air conditioning distribution when we get our own GTI.

Plaid seat surfaces are available in a nod to the original GTI. This design is called Scalepaper, and it has red seams with grey and black plaid. Another throwback element is the golf-ball shifter atop the manual stick shifter.

What Drives It

2022 Volkswagen GTI badge
2022 Volkswagen GTI
Photo: Volkswagen

Following tradition, the GTI is powered by a turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Power has increased from 228 in the current model to 241 horsepower in the 2022 GTI. The Golf R gains 27 horsepower for a peak of 315 hp. True to form, these hatchbacks come standard with a six-speed manual transmission. A seven-speed dual-clutch automatic is optional.

A new Vehicle Dynamics Manager control system manages the electronic differential and the optional adaptive suspension. The driver can select among four main driving modes (Eco, Comfort, Sport, and Snow) and further fine-tune the performance to suit their tastes and road conditions through the Individual menu. Volkswagen claims the GTI will have an even sharper driving character than the current, entertaining model. The company says that the chassis will virtually eliminate understeer, the common condition when a front-drive model plows into turns when driven above the limits of grip. A neutral behavior, where the car neither resists turning in nor rotates the rear end, is the balance sought after by most driving enthusiasts.

Volkswagen says that the new GTI out-handles the seventh-generation model, citing quicker lap times on a road course and higher speeds in lane change evaluations. Unlike the outgoing GTI, the stability control has a sport mode with reduced intervention, and it also allows for its deactivation unless the car’s brains detect an emergency situation.

To enhance traction and handling, the Golf R uses a new all-wheel-drive system that can route up to 100 percent of the power to the rear wheels. Further, it is engineered to direct more power to the wheel on the outside of a turn to enhance road-holding grip.

Safety and Driver Assist Systems

Forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane keeping assistance, blind spot warning, rear cross traffic warning, and adaptive cruise control will be standard.

Needless to say, we are eager to put our hands on the new GTI, and we will buy one for testing as soon as it goes on sale.

2022 Volkswagen GTI rear
2022 Volkswagen GTI
Photo: Volkswagen