2015 Volkswagen Golf R

Three cheers for the handbrake. For driving enthusiasts who live in climates where the winter months produce seemingly endless days of snowy, icy conditions, nothing cures the seasonal blues quite like finding yourself on an empty road, pulling the handbrake, halting the rear wheels and happily drifting around a turn. Hooligans, we are. And it's all great fun.

Upon sitting in the 2015 Volkswagen Golf R for the first time, I immediately noticed its handbrake – or, should I say, lack thereof. Like many modern cars, its parking brake is electronic and can only be applied when the brake pedal itself is depressed. While I initially thought this would be a total buzzkill during my recent Ice Capades adventure in northern Sweden, the truth is, after a few minutes behind the wheel, I couldn't have cared less. This car is a silly, little monster, perfectly tuned for wintertime fun.

The story you are about to read is a First Drive in perhaps the most literal sense. Yes, it is the first time Autoblog has driven the new Golf R. But if I called this a road test, I'd technically be lying. The term "road test" implies a car was tested on a road, and while I spent many hours behind the wheel of the hot new Golf R, at no point was any of my driving done on an actual road, paved or otherwise. My seat time was limited to courses carved out on a frozen lake, where the Golf R's electronic wizardry, combined with state-of-the-art studded winter tires, would be the only tools I needed to see what this car is all about. Spoiler alert: it's a riot.

2015 Volkswagen Golf R
2015 Volkswagen Golf R

Our classroom would be a lake with just under 30 inches of solid ice on the top.

Arvidsjaur is a small city in the Lapland province of northern Sweden, situated some 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle. The name might not ring a bell, but if you've been following the pages of Autoblog, you've likely seen photos of this place without even knowing. Because of its proximity to the arctic climate, Arvidsjaur is a major hub for the European automotive industry; many automakers use this area as a home base for cold-weather prototype testing. So if you've ever seen a frosty set of spy shots, chances are they were snapped near Arvidsjaur. The city's population actually increases during the bitterly cold winter months, since so many engineers take temporary residence in the area. In fact, many locals flock to warmer climates in the winter, and rent out their homes to automotive engineers. During the 24 hours I spent freezing my butt off up there, I spotted groups of test cars from Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen. It's sort of like Detroit in that regard, only colder... somehow.

Beyond cold-weather development, many automakers use the Arvidsjaur region to school enthusiasts in the art of winter performance driving. Volkswagen is one of those companies, and that's exactly how I found myself on an airplane destined for the regional airport northwest of Arvidsjaur. Our classroom would be a lake with just under 30 inches of solid ice on the top, and our teachers were made up of Europeans trained in the art of winter rally instruction.

First, let's start with a quick refresher course. The 2015 Golf R builds upon Volkswagen's storied hotter-than-GTI history, with models like the Golf VR6 and R32 paving the way for what is now the most powerful version of the company's stalwart hatchback. The US-spec MkVII Golf R debuted at the Detroit Auto Show earlier this year, and the car will officially hit our shores in the first quarter of 2015 with pricing expected to fall very close to the $36,090 of the MkVI four-door model. So please note, the car tested here is actually a European-spec model.

2015 Volkswagen Golf R2015 Volkswagen Golf R2015 Volkswagen Golf R2015 Volkswagen Golf R

Despite its lower stance, aggressive fascia with LED running lamps and 18-inch wheels, I have to admit, the new Golf R doesn't look quite as handsome as its predecessor – my eyes feel the same about the base Golf and GTI, too. Even with its clean, taut styling, the front and rear fascias look a little droopy from some angles. And while the previous Golf R slid under the radar with a bit more subtle ferociousness, there's a healthier injection of boy-racery in this new model. That said, the enhanced styling further separates the R from its lesser kin; you certainly won't mistake this for a regular-strength GTI out on the road.

There's a healthier injection of boy-racery in this new model.

The R's cabin is exactly what you'd expect from any hot Golf: simply laid-out controls, high-grade materials, sport seats and a clean, yet modern design. There's ample room for four adults (and a fifth, if you really need it), and the hatchback shape is just as functional as ever. Heads-up: the Golf R will be offered in two- and four-door variants overseas, but we'll only get the latter in the US. Volkswagen says demand is simply too low for the two-door. Even in Europe, that model only accounted for something like 20 percent of overall sales with the previous R. No matter – the four-door hatch is really what you want out of an everyday car, anyway.

One of the best things about the Golf R – or Golf, or GTI, for that matter – is how truly premium the interior feels. I could totally live with this car every day, simply because when you're slogging through traffic or driving like a sane person, you'll find the seats comfortable, the stereo good, the tech plentiful, and the cockpit nicely insulated from wind and road noise. In terms of daily-driver ability, no hot hatch does the refinement thing quite like the Vee-Dub.

2015 Volkswagen Golf R2015 Volkswagen Golf R2015 Volkswagen Golf R2015 Volkswagen Golf R

Dimensionally, the new Golf R rides on a two-inch longer wheelbase than the model it replaces. Length has also been increased by about two and a half inches, and the new R is about two-tenths of an inch wider than before. Most importantly, thanks to the car's new scalable MQB architecture, the 2015 Golf R is some 100 pounds lighter than its predecessor. And with more power under the hood, that means the car's performance numbers are better than ever, while still returning improved fuel economy.

The car's performance numbers are better than ever, while still returning improved fuel economy.

Motivation comes courtesy of Volkswagen's new EA888 2.0-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine. US-spec cars are estimated to produce 290 horsepower between 5,500 and 6,200 rpm, and 280 pound-feet of torque, with a flat curve that extends between 1,800 and 5,500 rpm. Euro-spec cars get an additional 10 hp, but the same amount of torque. For the first time, however, the US model will be available with a choice of either a six-speed manual – now with a shorter-throw shifter – or DSG dual-clutch transmission. With the stick, Volkswagen estimates the Golf R will hit 62 miles per hour in 5.1 seconds, but if DSG is your thing, you'll be rewarded with a 0.2-second quicker acceleration time. Estimated fuel economy comes in at a very respectable 22/31 miles per gallon (city/highway) with the manual transmission, and 22/28 mpg with the dual-clutch.

Aside from more power, the big item that separates the Golf R from your stock GTI is 4Motion all-wheel drive with a fifth-generation Haldex coupling system. Long story short, torque is transferred with greater quickness, and the new XDS+ cross differential system reduces understeer by braking the inside wheel during cornering. On dry pavement, this means turn-in should be a whole lot quicker, and here on the ice, it meant torque could easily be shuffled between all four wheels to provide proper power application at all times.

2015 Volkswagen Golf R

Race mode amplifies the exhaust sound, and man, does this thing sound furious.

What's more, the Golf R can be ordered with a dynamic chassis control (DCC) system, with built-in, driver-selectable profiles. Think of it like Audi Drive Select – drivers can switch between Comfort, Normal, Race and Individual modes, the latter of which lets you individually tune things like suspension damping, steering and throttle response. It's all incredibly simple to use, and housed within the infotainment display. Race mode also amplifies the exhaust sound, and man, does this thing sound furious. There's a deep growl at all times, and even as the revs climb, the R sounds more vicious than ever.

Stock cars come fitted with attractive five-spoke, 18-inch alloy wheels wrapped in 225/40R18 summer tires. But for the sake of winter performance, those rubbers were swapped out in favor of smaller-diameter 17-inch alloys, fitted with 225/50-series studded winter tires. I hardly need to explain why winter tires are better for snowy/icy conditions – the wider, deeper tread better allows you to cut through the snow – and the studs on these shoes better allow the Golf to claw through the ice. And claw it did.

My day of winter performance testing started on a large circle course, where continuous drifting was the key to succeeding. As I mentioned, traction control is now completely defeatable. That's really a big deal, simply because this wasn't the case with the previous Golf R. With the system deactivated, getting the Golf's rump to step out is effortless, and with constant steering and throttle modulation, it's easy to hold a long slide.

2015 Volkswagen Golf R2015 Volkswagen Golf R2015 Volkswagen Golf R

It's all up to steering and throttle inputs to keep the power flowing and the car pointed straight ahead.

Following a drifting lesson, we moved to a slalom course where racing instructors demanded I slide the car as much as possible through the cones – a change of pace from a dry slalom, where precision attack is key. This sort of exercise is where a handbrake would have been ideal, to freeze the rear wheels while turning and slide the Golf back and forth. But with the electronic stability control set to Sport and the DCC in Race, there was enough electronic interference to keep things from getting too squarely, letting me absolutely hammer through the slalom, while allowing enough slip to properly free up the rear end when needed.

Braking and cornering exercises were conducted next. Even with studded snow tires, braking on ice can be dicey, and it's wise to be far more judicious about use of the middle pedal in these conditions. Much like the slalom, the lessons learned on dry tracks need to be modified on the ice. Braking happens earlier, and there's less of it. Apexes are hit while going sideways, and regardless of whether or not the ESC is set to Sport mode or turned off completely, it's all up to steering and throttle inputs to keep the power flowing and the car pointed straight ahead. My test car was fitted with the manual transmission, and while the ice courses only really required the use of second and third gears (this isn't a high-power affair), I found the R's clutch pedal nicely weighted, and the short-throw stick was a joy for quickly rotating back and forth between gears. That said, because of the huge torque curve, it was easy enough to stay in second gear most of the time, with ample thrust always available.

2015 Volkswagen Golf R2015 Volkswagen Golf R
2015 Volkswagen Golf R2015 Volkswagen Golf R

The Golf R uses variable-ratio electric power steering, which increases and decreases feedback based on driving mode and speed. In short, the system works well, with plenty of driver feedback. The Golf R was easily manhandled on the ice, where quick spins of the helm are key to quick cornering.

It all felt like bad behavior, and the Golf R eagerly played along.

After the basics of ice driving were checked off the list, a very Swedish lunch of reindeer (like a chewier venison) and fish was served (in a lakeside yurt, to boot). With full bellies, drivers lined up at three different ice courses ranging in length from one to three kilometers. Here, everything taught in the morning would come into play, and as the day went on, corners were executed with more precision, entrance and exit speeds were increased, and smiles were glued to faces.

Sure, this sort of amateur snow-and-ice rallying would have been fun in a host of cars, but with the Golf R's tossable dynamics, excellent steering and fantastic AWD prowess, it was easier and easier to attack the different courses, the car's systems allowing me to be as big of a hooligan as I'd like while still inspiring enough confidence to keep me pushing harder and harder into each turn. It all felt like bad behavior, and the Golf R eagerly played along.

2015 Volkswagen Golf R

Handbrake or not, the R slid with ease and poise.

The main takeaway isn't just that the Golf R is good on the slick stuff. The hatch demonstrated itself to be a willing performer, raising the bar over what you'd expect out of a normal GTI. The performance delta over a GTI is huge – far wider than the gap between, say, a Subaru WRX and STI (currently, anyway – the 2015 STI has not been driven yet). Having all-wheel drive is really a benefit here, and handbrake or not, the R slid with ease and poise, never feeling too powerful or acting like a complete handful.

Wintertime driving, to enthusiasts, is far more exciting than you'd think. And tossing the Golf R around the frozen lake north of Arvidsjaur proved its all-season prowess is top-notch. Considering just how good this thing was on the ice, I can only imagine it'll be a total hoot on dry pavement – and I'm eagerly awaiting the chance to experience that when the northern US finally thaws. But as long as I have snow, this hottest Volkswagen will easily earn a place as one of my favorite cold-weather rides.