Review: 2022 VW Golf GTI 2.0T SE (DSG)
For 39 years, VW has been spicing up its utilitarian Golf hatch with a GTI version for the United States. The result is perhaps the least polarizing of all enthusiast cars, as it is based on a hatchback designed for a life of commuting, grocery-running, parent-visiting, passenger-toting, highway-cruising, and parallel parking. Other “hot” hatches have come and gone—Lancer, Focus, Veloster—but the GTI has remained, a master of feisty, all-round usability.
Mechanically, the eighth-generation GTI is only a half-step change from its predecessor (2015–2021), which suggests that VW has refused to fix what ain’t broke. The Mk. 8 ultimately possesses a tinge of bittersweet: Customers, spoiled for choice in high-riding, ruggedized crossovers, still want to buy this low-slung, manual-equipped hatchback—and, despite a portfolio glutted with profitable crossovers, VW still makes it. The Volkswagen Group even kept the GTI around when it axed all lesser Golfs from its U.S. catalog for 2022. Despite this, the Mk. 8’s interior can’t hide compromise. Though a cost-cut and touchscreen-dominated cabin doesn’t dilute the Golf’s beloved personality, that interior risks distracting from it.
First, the good things, the vast majority of which are shared with the Mk. 7. Four passenger doors plus a hatch, underpinned by Volkswagen’s modular, front-drive MQB platform. A turbocharged, 2.0-liter, iron-block four cylinder (dubbed EA888 in VW-speak). An available six-speed manual on every trim (S, SE, and Autobahn, same as before).
The sheetmetal now looks bulldoggier, but the mechanical changes under those panels are incremental. The “Evo4” version of the EA888 is now blessed with a higher-pressure fuel system and 4.3 more pounds of boost: Horsepower increases by 13, to 241, and torque grows by 15 lb-ft, to 273. An electronically locking differential, optional on early Mk. 7s and standard on late ones, is standard here.
Fun fact: Any GTI you buy in the states is now built in Germany, not Mexico, as with the Mk. 7. Unsurprisingly, price jumps—$1855 from the 2021 to 2022 model year. Our mid-level, automatic-equipped, plaid-upholstered SE tester stickered at $35,095 while carrying just one option: Moonstone Gray paint, a trendy nonmetallic shade similar to rain-dampened asphalt. Destination charge counts for the remaining $995. (As of this writing, that fee has jumped by another $100, according to VW’s online configurator.)
As you’d expect with a hatchback, the GTI proved an accommodating hauler. With rear seats folded, it swallowed a load or two of moving boxes (Home Depot, mostly size medium), plus a vacuum cleaner, a broom, a trash bin, and a sloppily rolled oversize sleeping bag. No shins were banged on bumpers in the process, either. (Adult rear-seat passengers fare equally well when entering and exiting.) Inflatable stand-up paddleboard (deflated), the paddle, and an electric pump, rear seats upright? Not an issue—there’s even a 12-volt socket in the passenger-side trunk wall to power said pump. Interior cubbies behind each rear wheel even accommodated chunky 32-ounce Hydroflasks, restraining them from rolling about like grenades.
On back roads, the GTI is equal parts friendly and spunky. It doesn’t sound or ride much like Volkswagen’s all-wheel-drive Golf R hot rod, minus that car’s whooshing turbo noises and seam-hunting suspension. If you just want to cruise around, crank the stereo, and stick a hand out the window, the GTI’s powertrain complies, no drama. Not that experimentation isn’t rewarded. A tug of the shifter into Sport prompts the transmission to hold gears, leaving you free to go hunt for the powerband sweet spot. The suspension falls on the taut side of everyday comfortable. The high-ceilinged cabin feels airy and open-eyed.
This car does a great job of meeting the driver where they are. Not only will it run to the pharmacy without complaint; it will put a smile on the face of a novice and engage a GTI devotee with years of track experience.
In most circumstances, anyway. To Volkswagen’s credit, the development budget favored performance. Screens are cheap to make. In three or so years, when VW needs to attract new GTI buyers, the car’s large flat panels will be easy to update in ways customers will notice. But financial logic or that front diff lock aren’t likely to cool your temper when you briefly deactivate the entire air-conditioning system and the software is so maddeningly unintuitive that you can’t reawaken it.
There is too much screen here. A near-complete absence of buttons. Not all touchscreens are distracting; a good infotainment system, like a good smartphone, can be executed to demand a minimum of user attention. If you’re willing to adapt to a digitized ecosystem, the learning curve with most of them tapers quickly. This car, on the other hand, could (did) make a 25-year-old reviewer with ten unbroken years of Apple product ownership feel illiterate in the language of icons, submenus, and swipes. Those of older generations may feel alienated, if not insulted, no matter their patience.
The system’s pain points did narrow after a week. If you have an iPhone, you spend a lot of time in the friendly confines of Apple Carplay, for one. But you also come to learn the infotainment system’s confusing hieroglyphics: that square symbol means home, power button means all climate control off, and no other icon will reactivate the system. You become a veritable ninja at the tap-tap-tap process required to deactivate the annoying auto stop/start system each trip. One time’s the charm, once you decode the black-plastic steering-wheel buttons, to deactivate the prudish “ecotips” that intrude at the top of the GTI’s digital instrument panel. Yes, I do indeed want to cruise at 75 with the windows down and the AC on low, set 68 degrees. Let me be captain of my own damn destiny.
Other irritations faded much slower. The groove of tappable, brushable dash controls that’s used to modulate volume and temperature? Why isn’t it backlit, so you can see it at night? Why does the climate-control system demand you take eyes off road for anything more than “warmer” or “cooler,” anyway? Headlights tell the same story: “Auto” keeps you safe from tickets, but the front lights are adjusted not by dial, but by a smooth tab of glossy black plastic with no indents or ridges.
The GTI’s good name has been built over an unbroken stretch of nearly 50 years (39 in American history). Five or six years of a gimmicky interior won’t ruin that. It may, however, frustrate first-comers who would have found a Mk. 7 satisfying and without a single grumble. That interior might prompt internet-research fiends to shop lightly used Golf 7s instead of buying a new 8. (There are certainly enough 7s out there—VW built over 80,000 for the U.S. alone.)
Or they’ll chase alternatives. They might, just might, look at the Hyundai Veloster N, which is several thousand cheaper… and has exactly one model year to live before Hyundai discontinues the model entirely. The newly introduced Honda Civic Si has a far more intuitive and upscale interior and starts below $30,000, though many enthusiasts will dismiss its powertrain as lacking the GTI’s spirit. The Acura Integra A-Spec is the GTI’s freshest and most promising contender: Though Acura restricts the manual transmission to a single, $36,895 configuration, the car comes with an electronic locking diff (a feature Honda refused the Civic Si) and an interior that, though shared with the Civic, at least has a few real buttons.
The VW’s cape may have a wrinkle or two, but the GTI’s understated and well-rounded talent remains intact. You’ll only want something better if you’re willing to compromise—on door count, cargo space, or performance. For now, bless the Wolfsburg gods that the GTI is still an option on our shores. Probably the best one, too.
2022 VW Golf GTI 2.0T SE (DSG)
Price: $35,095 / $36,485 (base / as-tested)
Highs: Down to clown, or not, at any time—even with an automatic. Spacious, quiet, fuel-efficient.
Lows: Chunky-monkey frowny LED face. Infotainment system distracts more than satisfies. Interior materials feel cheapskate.
Summary: A frustrating infotainment system in a lackluster interior irons a few wrinkles into this vaunted all-rounder, but the good stuff remains.