There is nowhere better to put the car through its paces than a frozen lake, VW’s German command declared. Quite true, except that it took the best part of a day to get there and, instead of the usual driving gloves and racing boots, the party of journalists needed snow shoes and mittens.
Still, what could be more fun than tearing round one of the coldest places on Earth in the hottest Golf to date? This is the fourth iteration of the R, which originally stood for Rennsport (“race sport” in German) but has since been dubbed Reckless or Raving.
The first version, the R32, introduced in 2002, employed a brawny V6 engine to mark it out from its GTI sibling. This gave it a voice of thunder. Stepping on the accelerator was like shutting Ray Winstone and Bob Hoskins in a shipping container and leaving them to sort out their differences with a shouting match.
This gave it character and earned it a cult following. But there was an unwelcome side effect: the V6 engine drank so much super-unleaded that owners needed to remortgage their house to pay the fuel bills.
The second R32 suffered from the same inherent flaws. The third incarnation, named simply R, performed an about-turn by using a four-cylinder turbocharged engine. And now here we are, shivering in -21C temperatures at a track carved out of snow on a frozen lake, with a fleet of new Golf R models awaiting evaluation. (With, we are hoping, the bum-warmers set to max.)
It features the same 2-litre engine as the Golf GTI, tuned to produce a lot more power — a ferocious 296bhp. When you consider that the R costs about £3,000 more than a GTI with the Performance Pack, is more powerful, has four-wheel drive and gets the sort of body kit that subtly warns Porsche drivers they should think twice before entering into a traffic light grand prix, there is just one question: is the R more fun than a GTI?
It certainly sounds a fun car. The engine and exhaust have been tuned to make the driver’s ears prick up, using artificial sounds piped into the cabin from a speaker hidden away behind the dashboard. It’s realistic and can be adjusted to your taste, using Driver Profile Selection, a system also found in some other Golfs. It may sound like something the insurance industry would use but is actually a menu within the infotainment setup that offers four modes: Eco, Normal, Individual and Race. The last of those is only in the Golf R; as well as turning up the volume of the exhaust and engine, it sharpens the responses of the steering and throttle.
Putting the R’s full range of abilities to the test is not practical on a frozen lake, so final judgment will have to be reserved for when it’s possible to test the car on British roads. But our Arctic jaunt revealed that the manual gearchange is good, the engine pulls effortlessly from low in the rev range and the car positively flies when it gets into its stride. Passengers will feel that giddy sensation in their stomach when a Golf R driver floors the throttle.
According to VW, the R is 11 seconds faster on a flying lap of the Nürburgring than the GTI, which is an appreciable difference for drivers who like to dabble in the occasional track day.
The R’s four-wheel-drive system uses a Haldex clutch that can run the car in front-wheel drive for greater efficiency when, say, you are on the motorway. The moment it detects wheel slip at the front axle, up to 99% of power can be diverted to the rear wheels.
On a frozen lake this can be jolly good fun. Even with studded tyres the Golf R’s nose runs out of grip quickly, but rather than ease off the power to regain traction, the trick — according to Anton Marklund, a Swedish rally driver who is our instructor for the day — is to go against natural instinct and mash the throttle, kicking the tail into a lurid powerslide and doing your best impression of, well, a Swedish rally driver.
The car can then be held at quite naughty angles to the direction of travel. You have to learn to look out of the side windows, focusing on where you want to go, rather than which way you’re pointing, or you’ll end up beached on a snowbank.
All of this is possible only because the Golf R is the sole car in Volkswagen’s range that allows the driver to disengage the electronic stability control fully. It’s another pointer to how VW is trying to make its cars more stimulating to drive. Further helping the R’s quest to be fun are sports seats and a driving position that feels low, helping you tune in to what the car’s doing as it drifts from one turn to the next.
Whether faced with ice-covered racing circuits or slalom courses and drift circles, the R copes admirably. But none of this is helping me to decide whether it’s better than a Golf GTI. Faster? Yes. But more fun? Impossible to say.
When I put this to the man in charge of Volkswagen’s R brand, he admits that it isn’t the right time or place to drive the car to the limit of its capabilities. What is clear is that VW has made improvements over the previous model, with larger helpings of power and speed, sharper steering and the sort of sound that suggests the man in charge is succeeding in his mission to build cars with more character.
The fastest snowmobile you’ll ever drive
- 1984cc, 4 cylinders, turbo
- 296bhp @ 5500 rpm
- 280 lb ft @ 1800rpm
- 6-speed manual
- 0-62mph in 5.3sec
- Top speed:
- 155mph (electronically limited)
- 39.8mpg (combined)
- Road tax band:
Audi S3 quattro, £30,640
For Matches the Golf’s power and four-wheel-drive hardware Against Not as fun to drive as you’d hope
BMW M235i, £34,250
For Great fun on winding roads Against If you want four-wheel drive, this isn’t the car for you