In the auto industry, public relations is jokingly (usually) referred to as the ‘dark side:’ a cog in a machine designed to dispassionately promote an automaker’s products. It’s rare enough to meet a PR rep who is also a serious car enthusiast (though they exist), let alone one with a personal connection to the company they represent.
It was therefore hard to know what to expect from Volkswagen Canada’s introduction of its latest Golf R – a high-performance variation on the brand’s compact hatchback – as the company’s personnel managed the fallout from a scandal over faked diesel engine emissions tests. Clearly, a new Golf R was a welcome distraction for VW Canada’s PR rep; indeed, we were ready for some positive talk about a company from which both sides expected better, and we got it.
A high-performance version of the compact hatchback that occupies the rung above the GTI in the brand’s hierarchy, the Golf R traces its roots to the 2004 R32, named for its 3.2L V6 engine. That moniker was shortened to ‘R’ in 2012, when VW replaced that V6 with an up-rated version of the GTI’s 2.0L turbo four-cylinder. For 2016, the Golf R (based on the latest Golf, introduced in 2014) boasts 292 hp, 280 lb-ft of torque, all-wheel drive, and a choice of six-speed manual or dual-clutch automatic transmissions (the last-gen car was manual-only).
Rather than subject us to the 80 km/h speed limits on the suburban roads west of Ottawa, Volkswagen took us to Calabogie Motorsports Park, where we were encouraged to test the car’s responses on that facility’s excellent and challenging racetrack.
Test location aside, VW made it clear that the Golf R is not a track car. Rather, they told us, it was conceived as a car that was equally suited to track days or daily commuting, with the added practicality of a hatchback body style that gives up none of its usefulness in the conversion to hot(ter) hatch. (Canada gets only a four-door body for the Golf R, a decision that will no doubt annoy some sports car purists, but adds to the car’s aforementioned daily-driver friendliness.)
Forbidden Fruit: First Drive: 2016 Volkswagen Golf R Variant
Dedicated track car or not, we (needless to say) had good, clean fun throwing the Golf R around at Calabogie. Setting the pace for our follow-the-leader laps was retired race driver Patrick Carpentier, whose patience we appreciated as he gave us time to get used to the car’s dynamics at about 8/10ths of its abilities (about as hard as we felt comfortable pushing it, given our limited track experience).
There’s the expected bit of understeer when powering through corners, but lifting off the throttle mid-turn (or adding some mid-corner braking) allowed the rear to rotate just enough to be entertaining. (For the record, we were instructed to leave the stability control turned on, and were happy to oblige.)