ROSAMUND, California -- The long line of Volkswagen Golfs waiting to get into the track includes every generation of the blessed box from VW. Even after 40 years, the handiwork of Ital Design's Giorgetto Giugiaro still looks great, no matter which generation of the car you choose.
We're here at Willow Springs International Motorsports Park for VW Fastivus, an annual celebration of speed, a track event that attracts Volkswagen enthusiasts from all over Southern California. There are about ten similar VW club events around the country, but this is the most serious since it offers the opportunity to drive foot-to-the-floor around the wide, fast, 2.5-mile loop here known as Big Willow. John Acton of VWVortex.com says Fastivus is the place where real VW insiders show up, a simple gathering of VWs turned into Fight Club.
The people at Volkswagen of America sure think it's the place for VW believers, because they regularly employ Fastivus for a little informal design research, as if it were a high-speed focus group. That's why they've brought along a European-specification version of what will become the 2015 Volkswagen Golf R, which won't even go on sale in the U.S. until spring 2015. And we get to drive it.
Part Golf Syncro, part Golf R32The 2015 Volkswagen Golf R is the latest production car by Volkswagen R GmbH, which is noted these days for producing the VW Polo R that competes in the FIA World Rally Championship. Like Audi Quattro, BMW M and Mercedes-Benz AMG, Volkswagen R is a motorsports outfit that has taken to building specialty cars. And just like its rivals, R GmbH creates cars that offer unique performance in a premium package.
So it's no surprise that the 2015 VW Golf R is kind of what you'd get if you built a Golf into a GT car. It's got all-weather all-wheel drive, a complete complement of electronic features, plus luxurious trim for the interior. If you were driving a VW to Berlin from Wolfsburg in the dead of winter, the 2015 Volkswagen Golf R is what you'd pick as your ride.
This is a big deal to Volkswagen of America. VWoA's vice president for customer experience, Bob Martell tells us, "The Golf R is a gateway into the brand, the car that brings us buyers from BMW and the Japanese brands." The Golf R is Volkswagen's own Honda Civic Si, Ford Focus ST or Subaru WRX STI, a car that keeps faith with brand loyalists even as it attracts outsiders who are looking for the next big thing.
The next big thing has 296 hpAt Fastivus, the topic of conversation is the Golf R's version of the VW EA888 engine. Generally speaking, a lightweight configuration (thin castings, half as many crankshaft counterweights, plastic oil pan), low-friction strategies (roller bearings on the balance shaft), and direct fuel injection set apart this engine from VW's previous EA113 design. It features double overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust cams plus two-stage valve lift on the exhaust side and rocker-type cam followers.
For the 2015 Volkswagen GTI, the turbocharged and intercooled version of this engine has been tuned to develop 210 hp @ 4500 rpm and 258 lb-ft of torque @ 1500 rpm. More boost (17.4 psi peak boost from a larger turbo) and a higher grade of pistons and exhaust valves permit the Golf R engine to develop 296 hp @ 5500-6200 rpm and 280 lb-ft of torque @ 1800–5500 rpm.
Here at Fastivus, we have the chance to drive the Golf R side by side with the 2015 Volkswagen GTI, and even though both cars share the same six-speed manual transmission, the engines couldn't feel more different. The GTI engine delivers plenty of power, yet it's done at a peak of 4500 rpm. The Golf R gets to spin tighter to peak power between 5500 and 6200 rpm, and the result is a far greater sense of urgency in the engine's performance as the tachometer needle sweeps across the dial.
The Golf R's engine apparently works great with VW's new, quicker-shifting, six-speed, dual-clutch DSG transmission with launch control, as it gets the car to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds. Nevertheless, Dr. Hendrik Muth, manager of VWoA's division of performance products, has made it clear to his colleagues in Germany that the kind of VW Golf enthusiasts who attend Fastivus prefer manual gearboxes. As a result, the Golf R will arrive in the U.S. with the choice of either the DSG or the manual transmission. With the six-speed manual (actually, it's a little bit like a four-speed as far as performance is concerned, since the top two gears are tall overdrive ratios), as well as a short-throw shift linkage and a reinforced clutch, a Golf R gets to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds.
This is not your papa's Golf SyncroBack in 1986 when all-wheel drive seemed all shiny and new, the Volkswagen Golf Mk 2 Syncro went into production in Europe. It was meant to be a snowdrift-busting traction monster, the answer to the famous advertisement for the VW Beetle that mused, "What does the snowplow operator drive to work?" Of course, AWD has come a long way since then, and the 2015 Volkswagen Golf R shows us just how far.
As before, the newest Golf R features the latest BorgWarner-built Haldex 5 AWD system. In everyday cruising, the Haldex 5 sends 100 percent of engine torque to the front tires to maximize fuel efficiency. But as more engine torque is called upon by the driver, the Haldex's electronic brain does the math by registering axle loads, tire slip and steering angle, then commands the fast-acting electro-hydraulic center differential to continuously vary torque distribution to enhance rear traction with a torque split that is biased to the rear wheels by as much as 100 percent.
Even more magic lies within the Golf R's AWD system, since brake-based electronic front and rear differentials can vary torque from one side of the car to the other depending on available traction, such as on icy surfaces. Moreover, VW's XDS+ feature uses the ABS system to electronically brake the inside wheels during fast cornering, which reduces understeer.
Of course this is all probably of less import on the high-speed, paved corners of Big Willow than the snow-covered roads of Sweden above the Arctic Circle, where the Golf R was introduced to the European media this past winter. Yet VW has also gone to some lengths to make the Golf R more permissive in the fun zone even on asphalt.
You can set the electronic chassis control to three different modes that affect suspension action (Comfort, Normal, Sport), and damping is adjusted both in compression and rebound. The electronics also allow you to configure a variety of driving parameters including throttle action and steering, and "Race" is one of the modes. (The Performance Package version of the 2015 VW GTI makes available the same technology.)
A whole different packageThere's plenty of stuff that sets apart the 2015 Volkswagen Golf R from the 2015 Volkswagen GTI.
First of all, there is all the bodywork stuff. The front features headlights with U-shape LED running lights and a different grille. The rear has Euro-style, smoked LED brake lights and an R-design aero diffuser. And then there's the twin-pipe, four-outlet exhaust. (Don't worry; the accessory catalog has a more visually appropriate twin-outlet design that emerges from the center of the rear aero diffuser.)
When it comes to hardware, the suspension has a more supple calibration enhanced by the R's slightly heavier weight compared with the GTI. The ride height is 0.2 inch lower than the GTI, and the Golf R rolls on your choice of 18-in or 19-in wheels (19-in Cadiz-style wheels with 235/35R19 Bridgestone tires are seen here). The standard brake package is the same as the extra-cost performance package available for the GTI, with 13.4-inch rotors in front and 12.2-inch rotors in the rear, and the brake calipers are painted black.
Finally, the VW Golf R's interior aspires to a traditional elegance, as you can see in its monochromatic, leather-wrapped style.
You have to be a little conservative as you speculate about the kind of configuration in which the four-door version of this car will arrive in the U.S. next year, since these luxury details add to the bottom line, and pricing for this car will be of some interest. VWoA had unexpected success with the last Golf R, of which 5500 examples (500 more than anticipated) were sold between 2012 and 2014. The 2015 Volkswagen Golf R is coming here sooner rather than later because VWoA hopes the car will expand the Golf brand in a premium direction, only without too much of a premium price.
The same thing, only more of itFor all the different bits and pieces, the 2015 Volkswagen Golf R is actually more like the VW GTI than ever. The Golf Mk 7 platform derived from VW's new MQB modular architecture has given the new car a longer wheelbase (2.1 inches longer) that now measures 103.6 inches, and this in conjunction with more sophistication has made the GTI feel calmer and more poised on the highway, much like the Golf R.
But what the Fastivus guys like about the 2015 VW Golf R is that it has everything. It hasn't been stripped down and sanitized for your protection. They love that it is the ultimate Golf, because the VW Golf is the car that they love most in the VWoA lineup, even though it makes up a paltry 8.7 percent of the brand's sales in the U.S. For them, the culture of innovation should come from motorsports, so they embrace the idea of R GmbH. The only way the Volkswagen Golf R could be better would be if it were the Volkswagen Golf R 400 concept just presented at the Beijing auto show, a 394-hp terror that can get to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds.
As for us, we've had too little time with the VW Golf R to draw any real conclusions. But we've had a fine time nevertheless, and to be in the middle of 400 VW Golfs and about 800 people is a fine way to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Volkswagen Golf as any. If we had a car company and were looking for a focus group with which to conduct some design research, we'd like it to be like the people at VW Fastivus. Given the choice between a daunting day while trying to thread the needle in fast, fast Turn 9 or a sun-and-fun show-and shine car display in the park, VW Golf guys choose driving, not sitting.
2015 Volkswagen Golf R (4dr)
|Engine||2.0L, turbocharged DOHC I-4|
|Power||296 hp @ 5500-6200 rpm|
|Torque||280 lb-ft @ 1800-5500 rpm|
|Steering||Electronically assisted, variable-ratio rack-and-pinion|
|Front suspension||MacPherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|Rear suspension||Multi-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|Brakes||Ventilated discs, ABS|
|L x W x H||168.2 x 70.8 x 56.7 in|
|Track F/R||60.6/59.7 in|
|Passenger volume||93.5 cu ft|
|Cargo volume||11.0 cu ft|
|0-60 mph||4.9 sec|
|Top speed||155 mph (electronically limited)|