Oh, and there's one other little asterisk attached to any claim of this being a full review: We really only drove it on ice—up near the Arctic Circle, in the Lappland region of Northern Sweden, on a frozen lake around Arvidsjaur, an area that German automakers favor for cold-weather testing.
And that it was. The temperature was a cold -20 degrees Fahrenheit the night we arrived, and a blustery 3 degrees when we headed out on the lake the next morning.
Why on the ice? Partly, it served to show off just how well the Golf R’s 4Motion all-wheel drive system can fit the traction needs of the moment; and partly, it emphasized the differences between stability modes and driving, including a snarling new Race Mode.
Drifting on studs, on inches of ice
And it was just a (frozen) blast to get the Golf R out on the ice—with studded Lappi Winter Tyres that are legal only in a few mountainous regions of the U.S., seasonally. With this setup, VW was able to show off that Golf R now has a stability control system can be completely turned off (not reactivated the moment you tap the brakes, like the last generation), and that it also has a Sport Mode that allows lots of freedom to drift and rotate before the system calculates a little nudge in the right direction.
Ice driving demands both finesse and, at times, some aggressive maneuvers affecting steering and loading. Thankfully the Golf R's 4Motion all-wheel drive system is ready to play both sides; as we experienced on the ice, it's ready to respond quickly and send up to 100 percent of power to the rear wheels if needed, or vary the power almost infinitely and discreetly from the front to rear, depending on the conditions and what you dial up with your right foot.
That's allowed through Haldex 5 hardware that includes a multi-plate viscous clutch, actuated by oil pressure. An electrohydraulic pump primes the system at 30 bar (435 psi), so that it essentially decouples the rear wheels when cruising, yet the valve controlling distribution can respond almost instantaneously, sending more power to the rear. Due to new controls that now incorporate more parameters such as wheel speed, steering angle, and of course throttle input, as well as sensors for the stability control, the all-wheel drive system can respond more proactively than ever before. Meanwhile, sophisticated electronic systems (under several sets of acronyms that you really don't need to know) pulse the brakes to moderate power left to right.
Fire and ice, finesse and flick
What we were particularly impressed with is how the all-wheel drive system appears to reward finesse, while also delivering the sort of abrupt changes in power distribution and loading that someone might want and need on ice or other slippery conditions. By the end of our day out on the frozen lake we were quite confidently throwing the Golf R sideways and relying on our sense of balance, and the steering and throttle, not the stability system (when the worst that can happen is to stuff it into a snowbank, which we didn't, you can get a little more adventurous).