Latest VW Golf R plays ‘Whack-A-Mole’ with potential owners
Possessing something of a fascination for prior iterations of VW’s hottest hatchback, Iain Robertson admits to concerns related to carmakers engaging with motorsport competitors and, when it involves the ‘R’, his fears may be realised in Technicolor.
Before his conceit became more widely known, Colin McRae, doyen of electronic racing/rally games and, at the time, a contracted driver for Ford Motor Company, was commissioned by his employer to apply the ‘finishing touches’ to the Focus RS model. How many times the illustrious but now deceased Scot circulated the Lommel test facility is unknown but, as the venue operates a number of gruelling and destructive test track routes, you can be sure that he will have exploited them to an absolute maximum.
He was/is not alone in the vehicle manufacturing world for being engaged, as part of his sponsorship contract, to add some defining elements, often to the dynamic cocktail employed by the carmaker’s own engineering team. I never asked Richard Parry-Jones, the renowned chassis team leader at Ford of Europe, what his view was of such marketing gestures but you have to believe that, as long as he was taking a Ford salary concurrently, he would never have uttered a derisory word! After the fact…well, that is a different situation altogether.
Ford was ever-so-keen to highlight to motoring journalists the wholesome, ‘rally-defined’ handling characteristics of its new RS. I still recall the test drive route, from Newcastle Airport, across the high Pennines, to Malcolm Wilson Motorsport, in Cumbria. A testing route at the best of times, for me to discover, quite early on, the RS’s propensity to understeer (it was front-wheel drive) and the overly stiff but undriven rear axle that demanded attention, or else lurch haplessly into a rocky roadside gully, were unexpected and unwelcome traits. Ford’s PR response was ‘Well, at least it was fun!’…yes, as long as you have your life insurance package secured.
While McRae’s Lommel laps were extensive and expensive, replicating real-life roads, with all their imperfections is a different scenario. In addition, McRae, as with any professional driver, will have compensated for any first lap ‘errors’ from an innate sense of balance. Any and everything for an easy ride.
In conversation with great friend and Saab Brand Ambassador, Erik Carlsson, a several times rally winner for the Swedish brand, he informed me that, while he would provide demonstration drives for guests attending Saab events, his role was not fuelled by testosterone. His words still echo in my auditory canal: “If a race or rally driver tells you the car is great, do not believe him!”. Also having passed away more recently, not from crashing an unlicensed helicopter but from a blend of old age and the loss a year earlier of his beloved wife, Patricia, Erik was correct.
Thus, it irks me slightly that racer, brand ambassador (another one!) and a test and development driver at Volkswagen, Benjamin Leuchter, has had ‘significant input’ into the development and fine-tuning of the Golf R. As he stated (please pardon my cod-Deutsch accenting): “Mein verdict ist clear: ze Golf R is ze stand-out model in ze pwoduct line! Wiz ze new all-veel dwive, vich distributes ze power perfectly across ze veels, und ze two neue dwiving modes, ze Golf R offers a hugely fun dwiving expewience.” Yup. Okay.
According to the actual engineer in charge, Jonas Thielebein, “Our goal with the Golf R was to make its driving characteristics as neutral as possible. In other words, we want to ensure that the vehicle does not under- or oversteer; it should be as straightforward as possible to control at all times.” In essence, a new rear axle drive distributes the power not just between the front and rear axles but also between the two rear wheels. It is a torque vectoring system but, as Jonas continues, “The selective wheel torque control allows you to take the car to new limits. Even at high speeds, the vehicle handling remains as neutral as possible.”
While the pursuit of impeccable chassis dynamics is every carmaker’s aim, it worries me that the driving capabilities of the typical Golf R user will not match the potential confidence-inspiring strengths of the car. Physics will always play a deciding role and while the car’s ‘limits’ may be higher, the temptation to breach them can be higher still…the resultant ‘incident’ is likely to be driver related but encouraged (unwittingly) by the carmaker. VW should not play these games. If anything, dial down the settings, so that the feckless driver will encounter the ‘excitement factor’ somewhat lower down the order. Besides, attempting to attain the ‘driftability’ of a Golf R is not something that is encouraged on the public highway but you can guarantee it will be tried and, believe me, I am not wishing to ‘nanny’ in this respect but, rather, to save the lives potentially of others.
By the by, if unhappy with the stock R offering of 316bhp and almost 310lbs ft of torque from its 2.0-litre turbo-petrol engine, which delivers a 0-60mph time of around 4.7s and a top whack of 155mph (limited), it is possible to opt for the R Performance package that hikes up the top speed to 164mph. The extra cost package also adds a chunkier rear roof spoiler, 19.0-inch diameter ‘Estoril’ alloy wheels and two additional, selectable driving modes, the first of which is ‘Nurburgring’, while the second is the aforementioned ‘Drift’ function.
Interestingly, the conventional shift up/down functionality of the DSG gearbox, complete with its in-built safety features, has now been altered to enable selected gear lock instead, a factor that pleases Mr Leuchter no end. While VW is puffing out its chest proudly with the raft of technological enhancements (for which you, as customer, will pay for through the eye teeth), just remember Erik Carlsson’s words of wisdom…unless, of course, your intentions are to take to the circuits with your new Golf R.
Conclusion: Regardless, short of making a Golf R from ‘unobtainium’, one has to wonder about how far up the tree VW is prepared to hike its better models, while managing selectively its remit in the ‘People’s Car’ arena. Too far, for sure.