Dan Read23 January 2014

First drive: VW Golf R...on ice

Our first test of the most powerful production Golf ever. On a frozen lake in Sweden.

What's this?

The fastest, most powerful Golf ever, that's what. Golfs started getting R treatment in 2002 with the V6-engined R32 and since then the power has kept on coming. So now we're up to this one - the fourth R generation - with a 2-litre turbo making 296bhp, that's 29bhp more than the last R and a healthy 70bhp more than a GTI. It also comes with the newest version of VW's 4Motion four-wheel-drive system, and MQB chassis goodness as per all Mk7 Golfs. That puts it in the dropzone of superhatches like the Audi S3 and Merc A45 AMG.

Give us more numbers.

In double-clutch DSG form it'll crack 62mph in 4.9 seconds, or 5.3 should you go for a good old stick shift like the car we have here. It weighs 1476kg, which is 46kg less than the Mk6 Golf R, but 93kg more than a GTI with performance pack.

What else is new?

All Rs get XDS Plus. XDS is the electronic differential system you'll find on a GTI, only here, the ‘plus' bit brings the rear axle into play. 4WD. You can have active suspension, to soften or stiffen the dampers, although this isn't fitted to our test car. It does, however, have the standard-fit Driver Select System, which has a Race mode for added noise (there's an artificial sound booster) and weightier steering. Incidentally, the rack is just as quick as a GTI's, at 2.1 turns from lock to lock, which should be good for skidding around a frosty pond all day...

You're on a lake?

Correct. Unless you have a quiet corner of Swedish Lapland at your disposal, this test may not seem entirely relevant. But this is where VW wants to show us the car for the first time, and I s'pose it gives us a chance to really see the diff at work, to turn the traction control completely off - that's a first for any road-going ESC-equipped Volkswagen - and muck around for a while. This could be a very good thing. Or bad. There are moose on the loose up here, and they plod out from the pines without warning.

Give it a go...

Let's start with a second-gear sweeper. Brake carefully. Turn in and let the front wheels do the initial work. Where a permanent 4WD may push you into the corner, the R doesn't. When you've sorted your approach angle, steer a bit more and it'll start to slide. Then, when you need a little power to remedy inevitable understeer - on a glassy lake, that is often - the rear axle is awakened after the briefest of thoughts. So instead of quite literally ploughing into the snowy border, the back end swings in a gentle arc and you're into an elegant four-wheel drift.

You're going to crash now...

I thought so too. But if you think you might spin, a bit of throttle sorts things out - often more so than actually steering with your hands. Honestly, I thought I was beyond the point of no return several times, but once the back tyres are out of luck, the fronts take over and pull you out of trouble. The Haldex differential (now reprogrammed and updated) makes quick - yet dependable - decisions, sending up to 100 per cent of power to whichever end needs it most. Some diffs - and permanent 4WD systems - can be rather aggressive. This one's not, which makes it really well suited to this sort of work. The result is a progressive, controllable and ultimately very friendly car. It's actually really hard to cock things up. I should point out that the studded tyres definitely helped, too.

What happens when you turn the traction control back on?

You'll be wanting to select the new ESC Sport mode. If it thinks you're in control (and unless you're properly clumsy you probably will be) it leaves you alone and allows generous slip. So you can get on with just driving it about fairly normally - brake, turn, aim for apex - and if you slightly misjudge your angles or get too excited with the throttle, it'll gently brake a wheel to coax you back into shape - even if that shape takes the form of a sizeable slide. It works off-throttle too, helping to cure lift-off oversteer. The only slightly intrusive thing is a light clicking noise as it constantly nibbles at the brakes, accompanied by a blinking dash light. But you'd always notice this more on ice than on the road.

What's the engine like?

Strong, with a sort of bassy gurgle. The extra power - from essentially the same four-cylinder turbo as the GTI - doesn't come just from added boost. The cylinder head, exhaust valves, injection valves, valve springs and pistons have all been modded. And it feels bomb proof. After a day of abuse and bashing the rev limiter, it just keeps going. VW claims it'll do 39.8mpg if you drive less frantically. There's plenty of torque - 280lb ft, or enough to bash your bonce on the headrest when it grips and goes after a slide. And out here, torque equals control - sometimes it's better to short-shift and keep it neat, rather than drift around in a flurry of blown snow.

But I live in Luton, not Lapland...

Sorry. We have to wait to see what it's like on real roads (we'll be doing so in the next issue of TG Mag). But we know it works here on ice, and faced with more friction on tarmac it should cope just fine. Especially on sludgy lanes and wet B roads. I suspect the back end will have a less busy existence on tarmac, and its work will be less obvious when drift angles reduce. And we'll have to see what the steering and brakes really feel like with a solid surface underfoot. But it will, most probably, have an awful lot of grip. And it'll be fast - we weren't far off the claimed 0-62mph times on ice, so on the road you'll hit 'em easily. The previous R was a Top Gear favourite and, with these improvements, this one might feel even better.

What's the damage then?

Prices start from £29,900 - that's £2,780 more than a GTI with performance pack. For a good dose of extra power, and extra pair of driven wheels and all that traction trickery, that isn't such a big ask. Especially when you look at the basic price of a Merc A45 AMG...

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