Volkswagen Golf R: Skidding around the Arctic Circle

Strong points
  • Smooth, powerful, strong engine
  • Balanced handling
  • Meticulous finish
  • Built solidly
  • Comfortable and ergonomically sound
Weak points
  • Limited quantity
  • Only one version
  • High price
  • Dull silhouette
  • No DSG gearbox
Full report

The Golf R is a rare vintage, and Volkswagen thinks it’s best served chilled. Or better yet, on ice. And not just any ice. The manufacturer even chose the rarest of dates on the calendar, February 29, to let us drive this new Golf R on the plotted, watered and cleared trails of a Swedish lake.

When we finally arrived at the village of Arjeplog (pronounced Ar-yay-plog), after three consecutive flights and a 90-minute bus ride, we were a mere 56 kilometres from the Arctic Circle. Latitude: 66 degrees north. It’s a village in Swedish Lapland with a population of 1,947 that swells to about 4,000 during the Arctic winter, when automakers converge on the area to develop and test their products in extreme winter conditions. The streets of Arjeplog are overrun with prototypes often disguised to fool spy cams.

German cousins

I got to drive a European production version of the Golf R because it’s also the car of choice for the snow and ice instalment of the Volkswagen Driving Experience, the manufacturer’s driver teaching program. The other German labels also have programs, including its sister-brand Audi, whose cars were housed alongside the VWs in Sweden. All of the school’s Golf Rs are “metallic Aurora blue”, the only colour exclusive to this model. The other colours are “candy white,” “deep pearl black,” “tornado red” and “metallic carbon grey.”

In Canada, the most powerful Golf was unveiled at the 2010 Montreal Auto Show with the promise that it would become available soon. Spring is on the way and, finally, the Golf R is here. At 500 units for the entire country, it’s sure to remain a rare beast. But all 135 Canadian dealerships will have at least one for the official launch slated for March 15.

According to Thomas Teztlaff of Volkswagen Canada, 80% of these cars have already been purchased. The only Golf R sold in Canada is the five-door version. Europeans and Americans will also be able to choose a three-door. For the $39,675 sticker price, it comes with full equipment and no options can be added.

Only a six-speed manual gear box is offered in Canada, and that’s the version I drove in Sweden at the unusual launch, which was just fine by me. The gearbox is straightforward, precise, fast and well-supported by a progressive clutch that’s just light enough. Like the GTI, the Golf R’s pedals and footrest facilitate heel-toe technique and help you find an excellent driving position. It is also equipped with a superb leather-covered three-spoke adjustable steering wheel. The suspension components – springs, shock absorbers and rear anti-roll bar – are reinforced and the body has been lowered by 25 millimetres. The disc brakes are also bigger.

Subtle metamorphosis

From the outside, the Golf R differs from the GTI in its front bumper, more sculpted rocker panels, a chrome dual exhaust nestled in the centre of a rear bumper with diffuser, black rearview mirrors, LED daytime driving lights and black brake calipers emblazoned with the R logo (like the one on the front grille and under the left taillight). Here at home, the Golf R will also come with 18-inch Talladega alloy rims fitted with three-season 225/40R18 tires.

In the GTI’s simple and well-designed passenger compartment, there’s also a RNS510 navigation system, a 300-watt Dynaudio stereo system, remote starter and locks, a transparent sunroof and leather sport seats. The gauges, shifter knob, steering wheel, headrests and aluminum door sills are all exclusive to the Super Golf and decorated with the signature R.

Mechanically speaking – not to oversimplify – the Golf R is the meticulously executed cross between a GTI and Audi TTS. It features a 2.0-L 4-cylinder turbo with fuel injection that produces 256 horses from 4,300 to 6,000 rpm and 243 lbs.-ft. of torque at 2,400 rpm. These figures are slightly lower than those of the European version – 268 horses and 258 lbs.-ft. – because smoothness and a better distribution of torque were favoured for the North American market.

Still, 5.8 seconds should be all you need to go from 0-100 km/hr with the manual transmission, which is comparable to its direct rivals (the Subaru STI and Lancer Evo) and much faster than the GTI’s 7.1 seconds, despite the 90 kilos of extra hardware needed for the AWD system. Its 4Motion is a fourth-generation Haldex AWD system. To eliminate the automatic’s typical lag, its multidisc central differential transmits 4% of the torque to the rear wheels at all times. This proportion can now climb to 100%, depending on conditions, while with previous versions of the Haldex system it was limited to only 50%.

Dressed for the north

To prepare for the frozen trails of Arjeplog, the Golf R was equipped with 225/50R17 winter tires with 250 1.5-mm studs. These tires are made by a Swedish specialist and mounted on Volkswagen’s standard 17-inch alloy rims. The 18-inch alloy wheels on the imported Golf R are much more attractive.

Our test cars in Lapland were also equipped with excellent, extremely sculpted racing seats in front, which have been replaced here by the GTI’s bucket seats. The racing seats with their carbon fibre shell cost about $5,000 more overseas. The importer wisely decided not to include this option as it would have raised the Golf R’s price by 12.5%.

The first trip in the Golf R took us from Arjeplog’s Silver Hatten Hotel to the immense lake where the Volkswagen driving school’s various trails are located. At the wheel, the first thing you notice is the excellent torque and the turbo engine’s flexibility. You also get an appreciation for the exhaust’s smooth, low sounds that are more reminiscent of the TTS coupe than the GTI, despite the fact that they use the same engine.

Like the GTI, the Golf R is solid, comfortable and the ergonomics of the controls are impeccable. We spent an entire day taking it on exercises that were often intense (both for the cars and their drivers), but nothing changed those impressions. On the immaculate expanses of Lake Lullebadne, one of the 8,500 lakes in the Arjeplog region, Martin Escher’s team plotted a 500 x 80 metre rectangle, two skid circles measuring 100 metres in diameter, and three long trails punctuated with turns of every imaginable radius and totalling some 7 kilometres in all.

Slalom, circles and circuits

The Volkswagen Driving Experience’s usual program was modified to help us get a little taste of all the elements in a single day. The day before, after three consecutive flights and a two-hour bus ride, we were treated to a 60-kilometre snowmobile ride, which turned out to be just what the doctor ordered to take on that pesky jet lag. Sweden, at this almost Arctic latitude, is similar to the Canadian hinterland.

We were on familiar ground on the icy trails, under the watchful eye of our instructors. Incidentally, these were Matthias Kahle, eight-time German rally champion, and Ronny Wechselberger, circuit racer, movie stuntman for films like Hanna and The Bourne Ultimatum and Guinness world record holder for parallel parking a car in one try and leaving a total of only 26 cm in front of both bumpers. Oh, and did I mention without touching?

After the standard obstacle course and slalom, we moved on to the skid circles. The goal was to finish full turns in a sustained skid. After several attempts, we finally did it by adjusting the accelerator torque in third gear. So pronounced was the drift that we had to turn our heads fully sideways. And we also buried the grille in one or two snow banks on occasion. Very tough on the plastic grilles, by the way, not to mention on the driver’s pride.

Since the Haldex system varies torque according to the position of the drive wheels, you often have to turn them sharply to maintain oversteer. We spent several hours exploring and often exceeding the feeble grip limits of these narrow icy strips by swaying the Golf R from one turn to the next. At dusk, we sunk back to the comfort of the hotel in Arjeplog.

This brave German compact showed its heart, balance and toughness on the ice in Sweden. It has all the qualities you could hope for in the first Super Golf offered in Canada. It’s a complete, powerful, sophisticated and sporty car that is ready and waiting to take on its rivals.

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