It wasn't long ago that a powerful, all-wheel drive VW really didn't conjure much excitement in the enthusiast. Oh sure, it would be fast and plush and stylish, but would more than likely come undone when asked to quicken your heart rate. Those central tenets found in any great driver's car - balance, poise, feel, composure - were noticeable by their absence in anything with a 4Motion badge stuck to the boot.
Then came the Mk7 R, confounding all expectations. It still did grippy and swift and nicely appointed, but threw some much needed suppleness, dynamism and agility into the mix. No wonder they were popular. Now, just one generation of Golf R later (and only two after the rather uninspiring Mk6) and we have a car with rear axle hardware that actively encourages power oversteer. Read that back: a Golf R. Power oversteer. How times have changed...
VW's bumf for the Drift Mode is encouraging, albeit in a very reserved, almost diffident Volkswagen fashion. The new R-Performance Torque Vectoring is designed primarily for handling neutrality, engaging the rear axle more to avoid the dreaded front end push on corner exit. The new setting, which is provided courtesy of the optional Performance Pack, takes that one step further. "Drift mode opens up a whole new level of driving dynamics and further exploits the potential of torque vectoring by provoking oversteer instead of neutral vehicle handling: the maximum possible torque in this mode is available on the wheel located on the outside of the bend." It's redolent of similar installations in the Ford Focus RS and Mercedes-AMG A45 S; however, where such hijinks might be expected from the scallywags at Ford or the hooligans of Affalterbach, it feels more than a little naughty from sensible, strait-laced VW. Which is good.
In the UK, the Pack costs £2,000 on top of the Golf's £39k asking price. It comprises the Drift Mode, a 'Special' setting similar to that found in the Clubsport (and ostensibly for the Nordschleife), a speed limit raise to 168mph, 19-inch Estoril wheels and the larger rear spoiler, also pinched from the GTI CS. But that isn't quite the end of the story, for good and for bad. The Special drive mode requires the DCC adaptive dampers, another £785 on top that wasn't mentioned at launch, and this car had been treated to the £3,100 Akrapovic exhaust, too. Add up all of VW's 'recommended options' on the configurator - including the Performance Pack, dampers and exhaust, plus leather, a sunroof and the winter pack - and a £51,000 Golf R emerges at the other end. So just be aware.
The good news, on the other hand, is rather more subtle than the slap in the face of a £50k Golf. How many times have you read about DSG-only VWs changing up at limiter or kicking down at the merest hint of throttle? Probably too much. But, for a keen driver at least, it's annoying to be denied that additional bit of control when a manual isn't available. Well, no longer. Uniquely for the Performance Pack - and ostensibly to help with skids, because a gearchange wouldn't be helpful with dab of oppo on - the DSG won't shift up at the limiter or kickdown on full throttle. It's the first time in the almost 20 years of VW's dual-clutch transmission that this has been offered.
"Unintentionally slipping back into automatic mode is now a thing of the past. This is something that pros like Benjamin Leuchter have been waiting for a long time", says VW. And while we may not be pros, it's amazing what a difference is made by a trifling software code change. With the Akrapovic pipes fitted, the 6,500rpm limited sounds so much more exciting, popping off like a race car, and being able to lug out from low revs means the boost can be felt building and building in a way that was impossible before with the autos; the Golf chuffs and flutters as you lift, seemingly grateful for the break. For an engine and gearbox never renowned as the most characterful, the proper manual mode - only accessible through Drift and Special, remember - makes a tangible difference.
Special also deserves a mention. As with the GTI Clubsport, it very quickly becomes your default setting, so ably does it balance the requirements of seemingly every drive. Its secret recipe of powertrain, steering and suspension just works, whatever the situation, better than any of the others. It removes the annoying 'coast' feature of Comfort, it's far more pliant than Race and yet it still feels sharper than Sport as well. Perhaps it's a placebo, with 'Special' and 'Nordschleife' being bandied about - but suffice it to say we didn't spend much time in any other mode. It helps that the progressive steering setup (introduced with the pack) is accurate and decently weighted, and throttle response is more alert without defaulting to VW's occasionally binary attitude to pedal tuning. Special isn't perfect, mind, because there are rivals that still sound and steer better - but it feels comfortably the best compromise for the Mk8 Golf. And arguably the best reason to go for the Performance Pack.
Which brings us to Drift Mode. It's only accessible through Race, which is already a demerit because unlike the sweetly configured Special, Drift keeps the stiff suspension and tougher steering. The info screens don't exactly imply a 'full send' attitude, either: "The 'Drift' driving profile... should only be used by someone with the appropriate driving skills. Do you really want to activate?". There are many advisory notes about usage on track, too. Like a house party with your parents still upstairs, it's fun in moderation (and in a carefully controlled environment) that's being encouraged here. But let's be realistic - some exploration on road is more than a little likely.
Plainly this is not a drift setting that's going to be smoking rubber powering away from a bend - none of these hot hatch AWD systems do. You could drive around in it the whole time and, jiggly ride notwithstanding, enjoy it like any other Golf R, covering ground at a ferocious pace - it doesn't fundamentally alter the experience. Even travelling a bit quicker, there's little more than a tightening of line as the R-Performance Torque Vectoring wakes up.
Instead, the Drift Mode needs to be treated like the early installations of the VAQ 'diff' on the front-wheel drive VW hot hatches. Commit to the power early, trust the hardware to do its thing and - voila - the Golf is tightening its line from behind and, eventually, smearing into oversteer. It isn't a delicate process, requiring a lot of gas and quite aggressive steering inputs, but the Performance Pack-equipped R will certainly do as advertised. In fact, the car feels like its screwing itself into a ball mid corner, pulling chunks from the surface and clenching fists with pent up energy, released on exit with a small, skiddy flourish. It's unlike the Focus (from memory at least) in being more rear-led than four-wheel drifty. Interestingly VW's setting keeps the ESC Sport on, but with a higher intervention threshold. It's said that "real drifts are also possible" with the systems all off but, quite frankly, given the provocation needed that really would be one for the track. (So keep your eyes on YouTube for those attempts - be it on road or off - because on this experience they promise to be dramatic if nothing else.)
Either way, Drift does feel like it adds another dimension to the Golf R package. And that's important. Yes, it's contrived, and, no, it's isn't what anyone will call easy access excitement - but it's something else to learn and explore during ownership of the car. And, to be honest, a welcome bit of fun in a very serious world and from a very serious manufacturer. It promises to be a hoot in more wintry conditions, for example, but reasonably exploitable as well because this is still just a Golf-sized car - you aren't cutting loose in something as big as an E63.
All of which means the Performance Pack is a bit of a no brainer for any prospective Golf R buyer - and that's before noting how much better the car looks on the Estoril wheels and with the Clubsport spoiler. Even someone with no interest in Drift Mode would find it hard to turn down when presented with this Golf in the showroom. That it also delivers a more intriguing Golf R to drive - as much through the Special setting and the DSG software as any skiddy larking about - seals the deal. With the Akrapovic cherry on top, this has to be the most desirable and driver focused all-wheel drive Golf yet made; VW's recommended options might cheekily include heated leather seats, a subwoofer and a rear-view camera, but the Performance Pack ticks itself. In short, don't buy a Golf R without it.
SPECIFICATION | 2021 VW GOLF R PERFORMANCE PACK (MK8)
Engine: 1,984cc, four-cyl turbo
Transmission: 7-speed DSG auto, four-wheel drive
Power (hp): 320@5,200-6,600rpm
Torque (lb ft): 310@2,100-5,350rpm
0-62mph: 4.7 seconds
Top speed: 168mph
Weight: 1,476kg (DIN, without driver)
MPG: 36.2 (WLTP)
CO2: 177g/km (WLTP)
Price: £41,270 (price as standard, Golf R + £2,000 R-Performance Package; price as tested £46,750 comprised of Lapiz Blue paint for £770, Dynamic Chassis Control for £785, Rear view camera for £200, Akrapovic titanium sports exhaust for £3,100, Harmon Kardon sound system for £625)
Image credit | Harry Rudd
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