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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.

At Nürburgring, this added grip — along with a healthy gain of 25 horsepower from the 2.0-liter turbo-4 — allowed for an impressive 19-second reduction over a 13-mile lap of Green Hell. Its 7 minute, 51 second lap time is on par with the ’Ring’s reigning hot hatch king, the scorpion-tailed Honda Civic Type R.

Math 101: better grip + more power = faster corner exits.

“There’s tech you always want in a car,” VW racing ace and brand ambassador Tanner Faust says. “The leap from the generation seven to the generation eight Golf R in technology and dynamics is a huge jump.”

Golf R isn’t the first hot hatch to make use of a torque-vectoring twin-clutch rear differential. Ford stuffed it in the 2016 Focus RS that I destroyed Waterford Hills Race Track with a few years back.

Alas, the Focus RS has disappeared from the U.S. market. I envy European hot shoes who will be able to test the Golf R and Focus RS mano a mano.

The Golf AWD system’s full capability is accessed via new cabin-wrapping screens that match the R’s mechanical upgrades with digital wizardry.

Six drive modes are accessed via a convenient “R” button on the square-bottom steering wheel. The feature was pioneered by Porsche and has been replicated by other performance brands including Cadillac’s “V-mode” button. The democratization of autos continues as this whiz-bang feature now finds its way to a 40-grand hot hatch.

Press “R” and thumb through Comfort, Sport, Race, Drift, Special and Individual modes (the latter configurable to your driving style). I liked Race mode, which turned the instrument display into a horizontal digital tachometer like my Lola race car.

Each mode comes with its own dynamic screen graphic. The digital renderings are richly drawn and anchor multiple pages so you can configure the brakes, steering and more. Golfs have been a bit stodgy in their interior tech, and the graphics are a welcome change.

The triptych cockpit display looks like a gamer’s desktop setup. All the latest digital goodies are here, including wireless Apple CarPlay/Android Auto for finding your way to remote places like Smithers.

Elsewhere, the tech is delightfully simple — like a new chicklet-sized shifter (shades of Porsche 911). This being a hot hatch, you have a six-speed manual option, too.

All this is wrapped in a hatchback shell that is dimensionally similar to the Mark 7 chassis and oozes utility: comfy front thrones, useful rear seats for your pals, practical boot for luggage (not to mention tires, ahem, for track days). But don’t let the familiar dimensions throw you.

 

Like the cabin, VW has sexed up the exterior styling.

The low, raked hood is punctuated by menacing headlights and signature R thin-blue grille graphic. The air intake below is a shark’s maw that will get left-lane lollygaggers’ attention when you fill their rear mirrors. Out back, the huge quad pipes are matched by an imposing roof spoiler.

This new commitment to style is echoed by VW’s attractive first EV ute, the ID.4. As is the R’s athleticism, as I confirmed with some laps around the ice in the ID.4.

Shopping hot hatches with my son recently, the Mark 7 Golf R’s athleticism was unmatched. But it also came at a price — $42 grand — at least $5K north of competitors Type R and Mazda3 Turbo. Expect the new R to push $44K when it hits lots this fall.

Available in one, loaded trim, R costs about the same as a rear-wheel-drive ID.4, but with lots more gas-fueled range, performance and fun. Typical of government nannies, the EV has been awarded with a $7,500 tax break. Hmph.

If it were me in charge, I’d give the tax credit to the car that’ll puts the biggest smile on your face. Call it the Grin R.

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2022 Volkswagen Golf R

Vehicle type: Front engine, all-wheel-drive, 5-passenger compact, hatchback

Price: est. $44,000 (final pricing in fall closer to delivery, European version as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder

Power: 315 horsepower, 310 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual, 7-speed dual-clutch automatic

Performance: 0-62 mph, 4.7 seconds (mnfr.); top speed, 155 mph

Weight: 3,450 pounds est.

Fuel economy: EPA 23 city/30 highway/26 combined (auto as tested)

Report card

Highs: Carves ice as well as track apexes; big interior tech upgrade

Lows: Price bump from last gen

Overall: 4 stars

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