2015 Volkswagen Golf R Euro Spec First Drive
To Drive is Lovely; To Drift, Divine. Also Divine: Turning ESC Off!
I'm a mere 60-some miles shy of the Arctic Circle and the car's display indicates that outside temperatures are registering double negative digits. I believe it -- approaching the car earlier, I could feel the air freeze in my nostrils with every intake. Snow is falling lightly, melting as it hits the 2015 Volkswagen Golf R's warm engine hood. I've been instructed to not shut the car off outdoors, as restarting it in these temperatures can be a pain. Ahead of me, the Arvidsjaursjon Lake in Northern Sweden is frozen over, the icy top carefully maintained to a near 2-foot thickness. That ice floor, I'm told, is nearly thick enough to handle a jumbo jet landing.
But I'm not here to land jumbo jets. I'm here to get an idea of how the 2015 Golf R (that's the MK7 model, for those keeping track) drives by drifting around courses carved into the frozen lake. Real-world impressions won't happen today, but I'm hoping to get a glimpse at the new Golf R's character and have some fun doing it.
While the new car might not look totally different than the outgoing one, it shares many of the basic changes, as do all MK7s: a longer wheelbase and overall length, a significantly more expensive-looking cabin, and a new engine. And oh, what an engine. Based on the EA888 2.0-liter turbo-four found in the GTI, the Golf R's engine keeps the same displacement while swapping out the turbocharger for a larger unit and doing all the necessary internal work (new cylinder head, pistons, injection system) to build an estimated 290 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque in U.S. spec. (Euro spec, like the car I'm driving, is said to be good for 300 hp.)
While Europe will get the Golf R in two- or four-door versions, we'll only see the four-door at launch in the U.S. Rumor has it that a two-door version hasn't been completely ruled out for the States, but it's not what I'd call likely, either. Buyers do – fortunately -- still have a choice of transmissions. Both a conventional six-speed manual and a six-speed dual-clutch unit will be on offer, and Volkswagen says the DSG should achieve slightly better acceleration (0 to 60 mph in around 4.9 seconds). VW has also introduced a new generation of its 4Motion AWD system, with a quicker-responding Haldex coupling allowing for faster torque biasing between front and rear wheels. In fact, VW says nearly all of the engine's torque can be sent to the rear wheels if necessary. Torque vectoring (called XDS+ in VW terms) is also introduced on the new Golf R, acting as a pseudo-LSD by using the brakes to shift power from side-to-side.
All this, coupled with slightly less weight and slightly more power, will make the new Golf R even more fun to drive than the outgoing version, says VW. Still, the most entertaining change to the car is an electronic stability control program that can, at long last, be completely shut down (yes, even on the U.S. version). VW's gun-shy position towards fully defeatable ESC finally shows some signs of being overcome, though the change is not scheduled to be found in any other VW model for the foreseeable future – not even the MK7 GTI. Speaking of the new GTI, the Golf R is supposed to eclipse that car's Nurburgring times by a whopping 11 seconds. The 2015 Golf R is also said to be some 15 seconds quicker at the same location than the outgoing R.
Oh, and there's a new Audi-like Driving Profile Selector with Normal, Individual, and Race modes. Race mode sharpens the DSG's shift points, tightens the steering weighting, and opens the car's exhaust baffles to get more of that growly EA888 sound into ear canals. The Individual mode allows for user-customizable settings at the push of a button. The system also works in conjunction with the optional DCC dynamic chassis control system, which offers varying levels of damper tuning. Order the DCC system and an extra Comfort mode becomes available and Race mode will stiffen the dampers.
Put it all together, turn the ESC all the way off, and how does the Golf R feel around the ice course? Shockingly entertaining. Most corners are entered relatively slow, allowing the nose to get to the apex. Once the apex is hit, it's power on with just enough opposite lock to kick the tail out and hold it there until exit. In these icy conditions, with all four snow-studded tires engaged virtually all the time, the Golf R is happy to engage in tail-out antics, sashaying through S-bends with its tail wagging right, then left. It all feels very rally-racer, and it's easy to imagine myself as Markku Alen or Hans Stuck (the latter was on-hand to offer casual observation) at some alpine rally event. With practice, it becomes easy to make subtle mid-corner attitude adjustments with just the throttle alone. With Sport mode engaged, the car was still willing to wag its tail but wouldn't allow the lurid slides possible in the full-off position.
In Race mode, the exhaust has a throaty growl under acceleration and the engine feels very lively, revving smoothly and offering strong low-to-midrange power. (Max torque is available from 1800 to 5000 rpm.) The steering is quick, allowing for quick corrections, and the manual shifter has good feel to it, ratcheting between the first three gears with nary a miss. (All the available cars were manuals.) Pedal weight is a little light, in traditional VW fashion, but the seats are grippy while still offering a good level of comfort.
Of course, the huge question is how the Golf R will feel on dry roads on summer tires. Volkswagen says that it's worked to virtually eliminate understeer in the car, and while that held true on ice, it's unclear whether it will hold true on sticky tarmac. The 2015 Golf R is still a year out from U.S. delivery, but it's expected to cost not much more than the old Golf R when it arrives. Figure $36,000 with a good amount of standard equipment. Price-wise, it should align well with the upcoming Subaru WRX STi, the car that VW claims is Golf R's biggest competition. Will the Golf R resonate with the performance-hatchback market that Subaru has abandoned? VW certainly hopes so.
|2015 Volkswagen Golf R|
|BASE PRICE||$36,000 (est)|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, AWD, 4-pass, 4-door hatchback|
|ENGINE||2.0L/290-hp/280-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4 (est)|
|TRANSMISSIONS||6-speed manual; 6-speed twin-clutch auto|
|CURB WEIGHT||3100-3300 lb (mfr)|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||168.4 x 70.5 x 56.5 in|
|0-60 MPH||4.9-5.3 sec (mfr est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON||22/28-31 mpg (est)|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||109-120 / 153 kW-hrs/100 miles (est)|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0.77-0.80 lb/mile (est)|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||January 2015|