ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The hot hatch, a faster, sportier version of an ordinary hatchback, is more of a European thing than something we long for in America.
But there are some devotees, and I became one last week as I ripped up a twisty, leaf-strewn road in the Smoky Mountains. I was behind the wheel of the grandaddy of hot hatches: The Volkswagen Golf GTI.
The brand-new 2022 version is the 8th generation, or Mk8 in Golf enthusiast parlance, of the car, and the US is only getting two versions. There's the Golf GTI, and the even faster, jumped-up Golf R. The regular Golf has been banished from our shores, thanks to Americans only wanting to buy SUVs and crossovers.
But for those enthusiast few who want a practical, wildly fun-to-drive ride that fits the city or the burbs, VW is happy to sell you the new GTI. Starting at $30,540, the GTI makes 241 horsepower and 273 lb-ft of torque from a 2.0L turbocharged inline-four. For a front-wheel-drive car, this is plenty, and the GTI is only too enthusiastic about zipping through traffic or hugging those mountain curves.
And the Golf is fun too, with a silly but fantastic golf-ball shape to the shift knob and a superb plaid cloth option for the seats that is a throwback to the original Golf. Volkswagen even gave me a pair of socks with the same pattern to test with the car.
There's a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, but you should opt for the six-speed manual, not just because I want to "Save The Manuals." I want to do that, but the stick is far more fun and avoids the most annoying part of the DSG automatic.
If you're in the automatic and you are driving along at 45 mph and plant your foot — perhaps to pass someone or merge onto the highway — the car hesitates. "Is Sir sure you would like to accelerate? Oh, alright then." And then it takes off. But that pause, which also occurs from a dead stop, is at best annoying and at worst alarming when turning left in front of oncoming traffic.
It has the added benefit of making life difficult if someone tries to steal your car since apparently many folks these days don't even know how to drive a manual, which is a shame because it's such a good stick. The golf-ball shifter slots beautifully into each gear, as if it was getting sucked in with a magnet. The clutch is easy and crisp, and predictable. The whole experience is lovely. VW reps told me that some 40 percent of GTI owners opt for the manual. Maybe there is hope for the next generation.
A torque-sensing limited-slip differential — a bit of fancy hardware upfront that helps keep the drive wheels doing what they're supposed to — is standard. So is adaptive cruise, a lane-keeping assist, and other safety stuff (on the DSG automatic-only, however).
But the essential part of a hot hatch is to be practical, which is why the seats fold down to deliver spacious cargo space and why it gets an impressive 34 mpg on the highway according to the EPA (28 mpg combined and 24 or 25 city depending on manual or automatic respectively).
But suppose you want to throw value-focused practicality out the window and go all out. In that case, there's also the new 2022 Volkswagen Golf R. This is the hottest hot hatch, with an upgraded engine making 315 hp and 295 lb-ft — only this time it's going through a torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive system that is astonishingly good on those leaf-strewn roads.
It has significantly upgraded front brakes, a sexy quad-exhaust, visual tweaks on the exterior, and an R-specific leather interior. I do wish the checked plaid cloth was an option on the R, but I'm just nitpicking now.
The GTI began to see some brake fade under extremely enthusiastic driving; the R took the punishment and asked for more. It also has a Drift drive mode and a "Special" mode inspired by the Nurburgring race track in Germany but can't be called Nurburging Mode for legal reasons. Changing drive modes also changes all the ambient lighting in the car (of which there is a lot) to different colors. Red for sport, Green for Special, etc.
The Golf R comes in one fully-loaded trim at $44,640 for the manual and a bit more for the automatic. But go for the manual. It's a far better driving experience, and you'll look and feel much cooler.
And really, go buy a Golf. The hot hatch is a rapidly dying breed, and we should all do our part to keep them alive. And make sure to go to the Smoky Mountains during autumn to find some leaf-strewn roads. You won't regret it.