When we last encountered the 2015 Volkswagen Golf R, it was on a frozen lake in Sweden nearly a year ago. This time around, the driving experience was a bit more real world with actual tarmac beneath the wheels instead of ice. As this 292-horsepower, all-wheel drive hot hatch demonstrated, it's every bit as fun with grip as it is without. 

The day after the main press day at the Los Angeles Auto Show, VW took a small group on a drive from downtown to the outskirts of Bakersfield where the on-road experience would be capped off with some hot laps on Buttonwillow Raceway's 2.6-mile circuit. 

GTI on steroids

Sitting atop VW's performance portfolio, the 2015 Golf R is the most powerful roadgoing model ever offered by the German automaker. Benefiting from the all-new 7th generation Golf architecture, the new R model is wider, longer and roomier than the previous model and its turbocharged 2.0-liter inline four nearly matches its output of ponies with torque that's rated at 280 lb-ft, all of which is available at a relatively low 1,800 rpm. The Golf R is capable of 0-60 mph acceleration of just 4.5 seconds and a limited top speed of 155 mph. And on top of this impressive performance is that fuel economy is improved, DSG models are rated at 23 mpg city/30 highway, while the 6-speed manual posts 23/31 mpg.

That output is delivered to all four corners through VW's 4Motion system and is balanced between the front and rear axles with a faster-acting 5th generation Haldex center differential. Further refining that power delivery is the XDS+ cross differential system that acts like a limited slip diff in transferring torque across the axles to minimize both under- and oversteer conditions.

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Potent combination

The surefootedness of the 4Motion system on the 2015 Volkswagen Golf R is further complemented by the ability of the turbocharged engine to spool up and deliver peak torque quickly. It not only makes this hatchback quick off the line, but the broad torque band allows the engine to pull strongly even in higher gears. Around the twisty Buttonwillow track, corners that in some cars would need to be taken in second or third gear could easily be negotiated (and sailed through at higher speeds) in third and even fourth gear on the six-speed manual transmission. The Golf R is neutral in its handling, has direct and communicative electric variable-assist steering and tremendous non-fade braking ability.

While the base model, which stickers at $36,595 plus $820 destination, rides on 18-inch wheels, a step-up model with navigation costing $39,090 plus delivery, adds adaptive shocks and 19-inch wheels. The additional grip of the larger wheels and the tauter feel of the adaptive suspension give this pricier R a bit more edge, but for most drivers, the base model offers the kind of performance and predictable road manners that is equally enjoyable.

Racer's edge

The VW Golf R's looks back up its performance credentials. The nose has a more muscular and aggressive look thanks to a large chin spoiler and a large lower opening flanked by additional inlets and driving lights. The standard Bi-xenon headlamps boast LED daytime running lights, the lightweight alloy wheels have a distinct pattern, while the rear of the vehicle is fitted with a spoiler, diffuser and chromed quad exhaust tips. Inside, the racy looks are carried over with aggressively bolstered sport seats trimmed in leather, a squared-off sport steering wheel and R-specific instrumentation.

The 2015 VW Golf R goes on sale after the first of the year and all models will be equipped with the twin-clutch DSG transmission (our drive was of Euro-spec models with 6-speed manuals). Next summer, when the 2016 models arrive, buyers will be able to opt for the manual for about $1,000 less than a DSG-equipped car. With aggressive looks, stellar all-wheel drive performance and the utility of a hatchback, the 2015 VW Golf R will give rivals like the Subaru STI and Mitsubishi Evo a run for their money. At the same time it's the perfect hero car to top the all-new Golf range.

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See full review and pricing information for the 2015 Volkswagen Golf or build and price your own to unlock its Fair Purchase Price, 5-Year Cost to Own, and more. 

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