The Volkswagen Golf R is one of the performance-car world’s great stoics. The highly evolved hot hatch has traditionally used its all-wheel-drive system to keep its tires stuck to the pavement and its tail obediently following its nose. Like Formula 1’s Kimi Räikkönen and commercial air travel, the Golf R is capable of traveling very fast with very little emotion.
That changes with the 2022 Golf R. A new all-wheel-drive system plus Drift mode help the fifth-generation R car cut loose by breaking traction at the rear tires. To prove that it works, Volkswagen invited us to play in Michigan’s frozen Upper Peninsula, a place so far north that it’s routinely left off maps of the United States. Although we’ve already briefly driven the Golf R in Germany, I’ve been stuck driving a desk in my basement for the past 12 months. I was happy to make the 700-mile round trip for about 20 minutes of seat time before the Golf R goes on sale in the U.S. later this year.
VW’s new all-wheel-drive system is still called 4Motion, but it trades the outgoing model’s Haldex clutchpack for a rear end with two clutches. These rear-drive units are becoming common in transverse-engine, all-wheel-drive vehicles of every shape and size, from the Chevrolet Trailblazer to the dearly departed Ford Focus RS. Each rear half shaft is connected to the driveshaft with a dedicated clutchpack that determines how much torque each wheel receives. By varying the pressure in the clutchpacks, the Golf R’s dynamics computer can shuffle the torque distribution between the right- and left-rear wheels. In the most extreme cases—say, when you activate Drift mode and stomp the throttle with the steering wheel turned—the car sends all of the torque to one side of the rear axle to help the car rotate.
There’s one key difference between the Focus RS (which also had a Drift mode) and the Golf R. The Focus RS’s rear axle was geared to spin the rear wheels faster than the fronts. That makes it possible for the rear tires to get more torque than the front tires—an uncommon feat in a transverse-engine vehicle. The Golf R runs the same gear ratio at each axle, so it can only send a maximum of 50 percent of the engine’s torque rearward. From the behind the wheel, however, that difference is subtle.
You start the party in the Golf by pressing the R button on the steering wheel to activate Race mode, then select Drift mode on the center touchscreen. The stability control automatically switches to its more lenient ESC Sport setting, which helps meter torque to sustain a drift, but you can also run with the safety nets and helpers fully disabled for a greater challenge.
The Golf R drifts, but it’s not as simple as cranking the wheel and matting the accelerator. Even on slick surfaces, you’ll have to be deliberate in your inputs and know what you’re doing to slide the Golf R sideways in a fit of opposite-lock glory. You search out the tires’ cornering limits first and then punch the throttle. Or you initiate the drift with a small Scandinavian flick. If you just stand on the accelerator without enough yaw, you’re just as likely to plow snow in a fistful of understeer. Based on this, we predict you’ll eventually be able to find more salvage-title Golf Rs that have been nosed into things than crashed ass-end first.
Of course, if you’re buying a car specifically for its ability to drift, you should cross all transverse-engine, all-wheel-drive cars off your list right now. You want to go sideways? Buy a Mustang GT or a Camaro SS for essentially the same price as a Golf R. Those rear-drive cars don’t have a drift mode, because simply starting their engines primes them for opposite lock. They slide around eagerly and easily once you disable stability control. Want to know what else drifts better than the new Golf R and is just as fun going sideways? An electric rear-wheel-drive Volkswagen ID.4 that VW had modified so that we could fully deactivate its electronic nannies.
The Golf R’s Drift mode, of course, is meant to be a fun party trick for track days and empty parking lots. You buy a Golf R for its ability to turn its 315 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque into blistering acceleration. You buy it because it’s more mature and refined than any other hot hatch or because it’s more practical than a two-door V-8 muscle car. Or maybe you buy it specifically for its all-weather traction and never contemplate trying to provoke its rear end into a slide. Based on our limited time with the Golf R, we can’t yet say how it lives up to its greater purpose. But our brief experience with Drift mode suggests that this R is rowdier than the hot Golfs that came before it. Will that personality shine through when we can fully test the Golf R on our home turf, when its tires are clawing at dry pavement and its rear end is tracking in line with its front? We hope so.
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