While the Volkswagen Golf GTI has always brought sports car thrills to the masses, the Golf R – now in its third-generation – is something altogether more extreme. We braved temperatures of -25C in Arvidsjaurin, Sweden - 110 miles south of the Arctic Circle - to get our first taste of it on a test track carved into a frozen lake.
With a heavily reworked version of the GTI’s 2.0 TSI engine, producing 296bhp and 380Nm of torque (identical to an Audi S3, 69bhp more than a GTI with the performance pack and 30bhp more than the previous Golf R) this latest version is the most powerful, and fastest production VW Golf ever.
Order the six-speed DSG gearbox and it can cover 0-62mph in 4.9 seconds (the six-speed manual we drove takes 5.3), before slamming into the limiter at 155mph.
Maximum torque is produced right from 1,800 to 5,500rpm – something that’s particularly poignant when driving on ice. Even in third gear, on tight corners, with studded winter tyres, there’s plenty of grunt to unstick all four wheels and let you slide gracefully from apex to exit. All that torque also means throttle response is electric, while in-gear performance is on a different planet to the GTI.
Those quad exhausts aren’t just for show either. Select the ‘Race’ driving mode (a new setting in addition to Sport, Normal and Individual that brings even sharper throttle response, adds weight to the steering and if you order the £815 DCC adaptive dampers firms up the ride, too) and the booming engine note takes on a deeper and harder edge.
The reason our first encounter with the Golf R was on ice, rather than a public road, is down to another feature that debuts on the R. Whereas the ESC system on its predecessor would reengage whenever you touched the brake pedal, this time around it can be switched off completely – a first for any Volkswagen. The upshot is that huge power slides are possible, and easy to hold.
The principle is simple; you brake for a corner, transferring weight to the front of the car, turn in and get back on the power to get it oversteering like Sebastien Ogier in his VW Polo R WRC rally car.
Of course, on dry tarmac you’ll need to be travelling much faster and be braver to pull the same shapes, but it’s an opportunity to see how the range-topping Golf behaves beyond its limits. And we’re happy to report its natural balance and composure is sensational.
If you’re don’t want to turn off the electronic aids entirely, even in ESC Sport mode the system allows plenty of slip. Rather than cutting in crudely when you get enthusiastic with throttle, it leaves you well alone when you’re in control of the slide, and nudges you back into line seamlessly when things get too lairy.
There’s other electronic trickery at work too, including VW’s latest XDS+ system that brushes the brakes on the inside wheel during cornering, tightening your line and killing understeer.
To pass judgment on the ride quality, refinement and brake feel, given that we haven’t driven the car on tarmac yet would be crazy, but the steering certainly felt natural and direct. A variable assistance electromechnical system (the ratio increases the further off centre you turn the wheel), it requires just 2.1 turns lock to lock, compared with 2.8 on a standard Golf.
As for your gearbox options – while the DSG version is 0.4 seconds faster from 0-62mph, 1.1mpg and 6g/km cleaner and more relaxing on a traffic-clogged commute, the manual version we tried is not only £1,415 cheaper, but makes the whole experience more visceral.
Suspension that drops the car 20mm lower to the ground than the standard Golf, and 5mm lower than the GTI, reduces body roll and improves the looks, while the new MQB platform under the skin reduces weight by 45kg compared to the outgoing model – to 1,476kg with a manual gearbox. That’s still 94kg more than the performance pack-equipped GTI, but the extra agility and crispness to the turn-in is tangible.
Buying any Golf is about flying under the radar, and the R is suitably understated. A chrome bar across the grille, four exhausts, bigger wheels and a sprinkling of badges are about the sum of it, but set against a pure-white backdrop it’s definitely a handsome car.
The interior, too, isn’t far removed from the standard range (although the gearlever is 8mm lower, we’re told) but when quality standards are already through the roof, who cares? Sport seats hold you firmly in place, your feet rest on aluminium pedals and, really, that’s all you need.
To call a hot-hatch that starts at £29,900 for the three-door manual version, and rises to £31,970 for the five-door DSG, good value might seem absurd, but when you compare it to the £38,190 A45 AMG, £31,365 BMW M135i, and £31,260 Audi S3 Sportback, it undercuts them all, and only costs £3,120 more than a Golf GTI in equivalent spec.
Each of the above have their individual merits, but considering the Golf R can do everything the regular Golf can, and dance like a WRC car on ice, it has to be the ultimate all-rounder.