Cold is a relative term. As in, 'you're really going to eat that cold pizza?' Or, 'boy, she gave you a cold look.' For the real definition of cold, though, go to the Swedish town of Arjeplog, where the local paper's main headline is "A Large Area with Few People." It is precisely the large area, few people and bitter cold that has made this small town on the edge of the Artic Circle a prime winter testing grounds for the auto industry.
Volkswagen took us to this land of frozen lakes to drive the all-new Golf R, which in the way January in Sweden defines cold, the R is the definitive hot hatch.
It's a heritage that spans more than two decades. The Golf R is the descendent of the 1991 VR6 (which was the first to introduce V6 power to the compact hatchback), the 1999 Golf V6 4Motion and most recently the 6-cylinder powered Golf R32 and 4-cylinder R. In its most recent iteration, VW sold more than 5,000 units of the Gen 6-based car.
Now with the seventh generation Golf on the horizon, the U.S. will again get a hot R version, which is slated to go on sale by the end of the year. This car features 290 horsepower from its turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine, the all-new EA 888. This 34-horsepower gain in output is complemented by an increase in torque from 243 lb-ft to 280, which is delivered from 1,800-5,000 rpm. This more muscular 4-door hatch is capable of 0-60 mph acceleration of under 5 seconds and is offered with a choice of either a 6-speed manual or dual-clutch automatic. While delivering blistering performance, the Golf R is actually more fuel-efficient with an EPA Highway rating of 31 mpg, an increase of 4 mpg.
The 4Motion all-wheel-drive system also returns with a new fifth generation Haldex differential that is faster acting than the previous unit.
Based on VW's new MQB architecture, the 2015 Golf R rides on a 103.6-inch wheelbase, a gain of 2.1 inches. Overall length is also increased to 168.4 inches, up 2.6 inches. The Golf's later iteration is clean, with tailored lines and short front and rear overhangs. The rear pillar features a small kink in the base that recalls a design cue from first and fourth generation Golfs. The R is also equipped with standard Bi-Xenon headlamps, U-shaped LED running lights, more aggressive front and rear fascias, and quad rear exhaust tips to differentiate the car from the GTI.
Inside, the Golf R has a handsome interior that matches the exterior. The quality of the materials is high, the leather-clad sport bucket seats supportive and comfortable, the sport steering wheel is thick with a squared-off bottom and is also covered in leather. Available options include navigation, a Fender premium audio system, keyless entry with pushbutton start and park distance control.
The Golf R features a strut-type front and multi-link rear independent suspension and has a ride height nearly an inch lower than the standard model. The 5-spoke 18-inch alloy wheels are fitted with 225/40R18 tires. Dynamic Chassis Control with adaptive shocks is an option, while the Electronic Stability Control features a Race mode that allows you to select limited or no intervention from the ESC.
We had only a limited opportunity to drive the Golf R on public roads with studded tires (where it comported itself as a comfortable and easy-to-drive hatch), most of our time was spent drifting and sliding the cars during a series of exercises on a frozen lake. This series of tracks, circles and braking routines was designed to highlight both the responsiveness of the new Haldex differential, as well as the car's ability to distribute torque front-to-rear and side-to-side quickly. Not only did this help with the car's grip on a slippery surface, it made it easy to control the car's oversteer with the throttle. The electric variable ratio power steering was also quick and accurate in its response, allowing the car to be placed in a lazy drift with minimal corrections.
There are three basic driving modes to choose from, Normal, Race and Economy that remap the throttle response, ESC and when equipped with the adaptive suspension, ride comfort. There's also an override for the car's start/stop system, another aid in boosting the R's overall fuel economy. In Eco or Normal mode with ESC fully engaged, it's easy to pick up on how quickly both brake intervention and throttle cut-off is engaged when sliding around on the ice. Race mode raises that threshold, and that intervention can be further minimized by pushing down on the ESC button once. If you were looking for a quick way around the track without being sideways most the way, the limited ESC in this sport mode was quite effective. Hold the button down for several seconds and ESC is removed entirely. But the Golf R, thanks to the new Haldex system and the ability to transfer torque cross-car, felt predictable, easy to control and simply a blast to drift and slide, inducing oversteer and understeer by simply playing with the gas pedal.
The only problem with the 2015 Golf R will probably be the wait for it go on sale. Expect it to be priced in the same $34,000 neighborhood as its predecessor, not a bad price for a comfortable family compact with the heart of a rally car.
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