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Auto review: VW Golf R-aises the bar -- a lot

Henry Payne, The Detroit News on

Published in Automotive News

BRIMLEY, Mich. — Smithers Winter Test Center is a long way from the winding canyon roads of the Angeles Crest Highway, where California auto enthusiasts push their steeds. Or Nürburgring’s “Green Hell,” Germany’s epic track where manufacturers benchmark their latest weapons. Or Pontiac’s M1 Concourse, where weekend warriors can push the envelope of their daily sports car.

Heck, Smithers is a long way from anywhere.

Sprawling across 800 acres of frigid tundra 28 miles west of Sault St. Marie in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, it is a cold climate testing ground for automakers. Earlier this month, I mercilessly flogged Volkswagen’s state-of-the-art performance car, the 315-horsepower Golf R, around Smither’s vast ice pads.

WAUUGGH! WAUUGGH! WAUUGHH! went the turbocharged 4-cylinder engine as I flung the hatchback around a sloppy, slush-rutted autocross course. The all-wheel-drive system strained to gain traction. The Pirelli winter tires flung slush onto my windshield. Yet, incredibly, this muscular compact is as confident on ice as it is on dry asphalt.

It’s a testimony to the lengths VW has gone to build perhaps the best hot hatch ever conceived.

The Golf R line (R for Racing) needs no introduction to auto enthusiasts. It took Golf's iconic GTI performance model and injected it with steroids. Since its introduction as the R32 in 2004 with a ferocious inline-6 cylinder under its hood, V-dub’s premier all-wheel-drive compact has been the industry baseline for uber-hatchbacks.


But it wasn’t until the seventh-gen 2015 model that Golf R really went mainstream, hitting record sales numbers. Just as consumers were giving a cold shoulder to hatchback cars and embracing hatchback SUVs, R was hitting its stride.

With the 2022 Mark 8, Golf R has gone to an even higher level with torque-vectoring AWD and interior tech to die for.

The torque-vectoring comes courtesy of a rear twin-clutch pack that allows R’s electronic brain to throw 100 percent of rear torque to either wheel. RROOWWRGGH! barked the Golf as I slung it sideways around an icy skid pad in Drift mode, the front end towing the apex while the rear kicked its legs out like Rogers in an Astaire spin.

Transition to Smithers’ wet concrete skid pad and the Golf R will do the same, albeit with a greater commitment to throttle to rotate the 3,400-pound beast on the grippier surface. All playing aside, the system’s true calling is found in the dry slalom in Race mode, where the rear end follows the front like a shadow — the outside wheel speeding up with each flick of the steering wheel to maintain better traction and a tighter turning radius.


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