A spin on the ice reveals the new Golf R to be more than an all-wheel-drive GTI, finally.

“Okay, go ahead and switch into Drift mode and turn the stability control off. When you reach the exit of the corner, just nail the throttle and let the car do its thing.” Good advice from Tanner Foust, rallycross driver and former Top Gear USA host. The directions were easy enough to follow, and a moment later, our white 2022 Volkswagen Golf R was sliding gleefully across a wet stretch of concrete in a pleasant, controlled drift.

Drift mode is but one of the many additions Volkswagen is making to the Golf R to distinguish it from the standard Mk8 GTI, both due later this year as the only representatives of the redesigned Golf family. And that's good news, as the Golf R's biggest problem since dropping the “32” way back in 2009 is that it rarely felt like anything more than a fat, all-wheel-drive GTI.

2022 Volkswagen Golf R
2022 Volkswagen Golf R
2022 Volkswagen Golf R

Going For Distance

On the face of it, the Mk8 Golf R doesn't seem all that different from the Mk7. There's still a turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder; a 4Motion all-wheel-drive system; and the option of either a dual-clutch transmission or, for US-market cars only, a six-speed manual. But the devil is in the details.

The all-wheel-drive system features a new torque-vectoring function. Half the car's power can go to the back axle, but the rear diff features two multi-plate wet clutches that can transfer 100 percent of that to either side. Compared to the previous Golf R, the 2022 model sits eight-tenths of an inch lower, while the front wheels have an additional 1.3 degrees of front camber and the front springs are 10 percent stiffer. The rear springs are stiffer too, while engineers tweaked the adaptive dampers at all four corners. There's added front and rear downforce via an R-specific front fascia, a nifty wing, and a larger rear diffuser, too.

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Beyond the dedicated aerodynamic tweaks, Volkswagen engineers paid more attention to the Golf R's style. Matte chrome accents pair with standard 19-inch wheels, while the R-specific fascia drops the foglights and adds blue accent to the grille. The cabin features a gorgeous pair of two-piece sport seats – North American models will feature black Nappa leather with blue accents, although the European Golf Rs we were testing had stunning gray-and-blue upholstery with splashes of Alcantara.

VW engineers totally revised the Golf R's drive modes, too. Drift mode is one of two sub-modes for the Race setting, alongside Special, which tweaks everything it can to optimize the car for a run on the famed Nurburgring. Volkswagen originally wanted to call the mode “Nurburgring,” but the German racetrack took issue with that, so instead we have “Special.” The icon for the drive mode is an outline of the Nordschleife, though.

2022 Volkswagen Golf R
2022 Volkswagen Golf R
2022 Volkswagen Golf R

Thanks Climate Change

The concrete surface Tanner had us drifting across was not where we were supposed to be driving the Golf R. Volkswagen invited small groups of media to the Smithers Winter Test Center, about 30 minutes southwest of Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, to sample the Golf R in the cold, ice, and snow that typify the region even in early March. We'd test out Drift mode and the new torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system on part of the facility's 800 acres, getting a feel for how the advanced 4Motion system shuffled torque from side to side and how simple it was to throw the 315-horsepower hot hatch around.

The UP, as it so often does, had other ideas, treating us to sunshine and 50-degree temperatures as we crossed the Mackinac Bridge, and then to above-freezing temps and rain the following morning when we arrived at Smithers.

2022 Volkswagen Golf R
2022 Volkswagen Golf R

Rather than pristine fields of snow on which to frolic, the four tests Volkswagen laid out for us quickly devolved into slushy messes. The autocross course had ruts so deep we thought we'd break the Golf R's oil pan, and it took but two runs through the slalom to carve grooves so deep the hot hatchback felt like little more than a slot car. Ice was building up so quickly in the wheel wells that every bump we hit caused loud bangs to come from the underbody. The day was not great, but that was no fault of the Golf R.

Still, as a means of feeling out the torque transfer from side to side, there were some things to learn. It was hard to spot on the slop and slush, but on the pavement, the Golf R feels much more neutral. As we circled the figure-eight track trying to provoke oversteer, we discovered a far higher lateral limit overall. You need to want to get the Golf R to kick its backside out – otherwise, it just delivers very neutral, predictable at-the-limit handling, even in slick conditions. And once that slide happens, even a ham-fisted oaf like your author can manage it.

2022 Volkswagen Golf R
2022 Volkswagen Golf R

In the ice and snow, this car is a breeze to steer with its drive-by-wire throttle. While Volkswagen couldn't control the weather's effect on things like the autocross or slalom, the open skidpad it let us loose on was large enough that there were plenty of virgin stretches of snow. With so much open space, we exercised the Mk8 R with long, lazy drifts, keeping the steering wheel pegged and applying throttle to tweak where the car's nose pointed. The throttle's behavior is perfectly predictable, so dialing in extra grunt is the sort of thing you can determine by feel, while the transfer of torque between the rear wheels is largely invisible.

Most exciting, so far, are the Golf R's drive modes. Drift works well to allow some tail-out behavior, but we're reserving the most praise for the Individual setting. It offers a huge range of adjustability for the Dynamic Chassis Control's adaptive dampers. Rather than just soft, medium, or hard, there's a whole damn slider with over a dozen different firmness settings. And if you'd rather not think about it, VW helpfully marks the firmness settings for Comfort, Sport, and Race on the scale. There's a level of configurability here that's unmatched outside of manually adjustable dampers on more purpose-built performance cars.

Waiting Game

Unfortunately, the tricky conditions made gleaning much more detail on the new Golf R nearly impossible. But what this first taste showed us is that an exciting and long-awaited change has finally taken hold. The Golf R feels like it's finally stepping out of the GTI's long shadow and reintroducing the dramatically different character that typified the two R32 generations.

The 2022 Golf R is still several months away from arriving in US showrooms. We won't even get a crack at North American-spec cars until this summer. But this semi-wintry sample proves that even though the eighth-generation Golf isn't coming to America, we're finally getting the R model we've always wanted.

2022 Volkswagen Golf R (German Domestic Market)

Engine Turbocharged 2.0-liter I4
Output 315 Horsepower / 310 Pound-Feet
Transmission Seven-Speed Dual-Clutch Transmission
Drive Type All-Wheel Drive
Speed 0-60 MPH 4.7 Seconds
Maximum speed 155 MPH (electronically limited)
Efficiency TBD
Weight 3,400 Pounds (est)
Seating Capacity 5
Base Price $39,000 (est)
As-Tested Price $45,000 (est)
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