Arvidsjaur, Sweden - Test drives on a lake generally don’t reveal much about a new car. In the case of the 2015 Volkswagen Golf R, a spin on ice more than thirty inches thick—stable enough to land an airplane on—tells you the first thing you want to know about how different the seventh-generation Golf’s supersporty R flagship is from the Golf VI version.

Can you completely shut off the new Golf R’s electronic stability control (ESC) and escape any artificial intervention? 

Yes, you can.

In the previous Golf R, the stability control automatically reengaged at the first tap of the brakes. That didn’t sit well with old-fashioned enthusiasts who prefer to save a car from a slide themselves, even though it surely saved the bacon of many a kid racer.

To give us a taste of the 2015 Golf R’s newfound capabilities, VW let a motley crew of automotive journalists slide and drift the cars on the lake. We also got to follow a rally instructor and pretend to be rally drivers ourselves as winter temperatures hovered between zero and 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Granted, the tires fitted to our test cars are not even legal in most states (studded rubber from Lappi Winter Tyres).

What we learned was this: The steering is quick, making it easy to snap the R into a drift. There is sufficient steering feedback and seat-of-the-pants feel to warn about all the different surfaces and levels of adhesion. The perfectly bolstered driver’s seat holds you in place but doesn’t hinder ingress and egress. The Audi-designed, 290-hp, 2.0-liter EA888 turbo four-cylinder, coupled to a smooth-shifting six-speed manual, puts down much more power than you need through the car’s standard Haldex all-wheel-drive system. The Haldex clutch sends torque front to back, and the brakes control the flow side to side. Stability control is superfluous, even in the lightly intervening ESC Sport mode. It’s a blast. At least, it is if you love driving on ice and snow.

Even with stability control on, the system allows some oversteer, and ESC Sport mode, which intervened once or twice on a couple of tight turns, is even better. But in the end, you, too, would have given in to the delights of a slick track and gone naked, turning off every possible stability control measure. The worst that could happen is that a Touareg would have to pull you out of a snowbank (didn’t happen). That’s how you go skinny-dipping on a frozen lake.

The 2015 Volkswagen Golf R will also be available with a six-speed DSG dual-clutch automatic transmission. It shaves 0.2 second off the six-speed manual’s 5.1-second 0-to-62-mph sprint, VW says, but it also drops the highway estimate by 3 mpg. While the automaker is proud of its automatic and says it will continue to account for at least half of U.S. Golf R sales, all of the test cars on the lake were, tellingly, manuals. Both two- and four-door hatchback models were on hand, but only the latter will be available stateside, at least at launch. Weight is down by about 90 pounds versus the previous model, to a little more than 3000 pounds (closer to 3300 with the dual-clutch transmission). VW’s R GmbH, a subsidiary like Audi’s Quattro GmbH, designed and engineered the car.

We won’t get the Euro-spec Golf R's Eco mode for the driver select system, but we will get Normal, Individual (like Audi’s system), and Race modes. All operate separately from the ESC on/off/Sport system, and the Race setting stiffens the chassis, speeds up the DSG-equipped cars’ shift points, and permanently opens the intake/exhaust resonators. Only the last of these lack subtlety. Although the rally exercise prompted us to mostly use the Race mode, Normal would be good enough for this setting. We’ll have a choice of two levels of leather interiors, both with the same seat design, and will likely have more standard equipment than in Europe, such as the keyless start system.

We won’t get the Euro-spec car’s Eco mode, but we will get Normal, Individual (customizable), and Race modes. All operate separately from the stability control. The Race setting stiffens the chassis, speeds up the DSG’s shift points, and permanently opens the intake/exhaust resonators. Although the rally exercise prompted us to mostly use Race mode, Normal would be good enough for everyday situations.

With the 2015 Volkswagen Golf R, the Subaru WRX STI will once again have a true competitor, even as the Mitsubishi Evo rides into the sunset. The Volkswagen Golf R, which just a couple of generations ago was an overengined German muscle car, has evolved into an attractive hatchback that balances power with handling finesse. At least, as far as a drive on a frozen lake can reveal.

2015 Volkswagen Golf R

On sale:Late 2015

Base price:$34,000 (est)

Engine:2.0L turbocharged I-4, 290 hp@5500-6200 rpm (est.), 280 lb-ft@1800-5300 rpm

Fuel economy (est):22/31 mpg (City/Highway); 22/28 mpg (automatic)


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