There was an unusual, almost eerie stillness as we entered Willow Springs Raceway in Rosamond, California. It was Too-Early-A.M. and the always bustling track lay silent. Low clouds blocked the sun and the air was heavier than normal, seeming to hug the hilltops.
Rounding the garages, we were greeted by a line of VWs against the pitwall. Their drivers were prepping the cars for what would be a busy day of hot laps and a car show. But in the early hours, before the main crowds appeared, there was a calmness over the desert location.
It wasn't long before the PA system crackled to life and a voice stabbed the tranquility, echoing around the facility, inviting drivers to their briefing. There would be different run groups to separate the novices from the experienced, overtaking rules were explained and cautions issued.
We were invited to Fastivus 2014 as guests of organizer Eugene Lee and event sponsors Volkswagen of America. The latter had provided the latest Mk7 GTI—a car I was rather unimpressed with during a recent road test (EC 10.14)—as well as the revamped Golf R. Early reviews of this performance model had been so positive, we couldn't miss the opportunity...
Our credentials permitted us to venture on-track with different run groups, allowing us to compare the new cars to standard and modified predecessors. It also ensured we'd get enough laps to fully appraise these performance models.
Our first laps in the GTI were designed to familiarize ourselves with the car and the track layout —there are several tricky, high-speed corners that demand a great deal of respect and punish the unwary.
As we gained pace, it was great to be stirring the cogs in a three-pedal GTI. Despite its excellent DSG transmission, VW has remained true to clutch-capable drivers.
The manufacturer had intended to bring its latest Mk7 GTI with the optional performance pack, which boosts the stock engine output from 210 hp to 220 hp. It also gets bigger brakes and, most importantly, a torque-sensing limited-slip diff that would be ideally suited to the track. Sadly, that wasn't the case. In fact, we soon realized our car was on all-season tires, which gave it a significant disadvantage in the high-speed turns. However, it also gave the GTI an extra element of entertainment, with the tires letting go predictably and safely. You would simply enter the corners, scrub to the outside of the turn, get on the power and wheelspin your way out.
The new traction control and XDS+ electronic diff means you don't suffer the hideous power interruptions of the Mk5 GTI, as power was cut to restore traction. Instead, the Mk7 has a revised version of the previous generation's electronics that allow some wheelspin and maintain momentum.
After our initial disappointment with the Mk7 GTI, we were delighted to discover it's still a very competent track car, with all the attributes we've come to love and expect from the original hot hatch.
This discovery alone would have made our track day experience worthwhile, but the best was yet to come. Switching to the Golf R, we weren't fully prepared for the revelation that awaited us.
We had sampled the first-gen Golf R on another of SoCal's racetracks and, while we loved the experience, we found it was hard to lose a well-driven GTI because its extra weight wasn't fully compensated by the improved traction and power. That clearly wasn't the case with the new car, however...
From the first corner out of the pits, we found the extra grip, not only from its summer tires, but also the 4Motion AWD system that was shifting the torque around, wasting very little energy in wheelspin or understeer.
Equally important is the EA888 2.0T now develops 296 hp. And while the GTI runs out of puff at relatively low RPM, the R is still pulling up to its peak output at 6,200 rpm. Yet it's neither rough nor uncivilized. In fact, the Golf R has an unexpected refinement, which is also exhibited by its greater poise and agility.
As another bonus, you can finally defeat the traction control system, and the driving mode selector has a Race setting that allows you to tune the throttle response, suspension and steering to the track. What's more, the XDS+ electric diffs front and rear are working with the Haldex system to brake the inside wheels. This physically reduces understeer, making the car surprisingly agile and very precise.
There were times when we overcooked a corner but the electronics would drag the nose back into line, flattering you with an apex-hugging line.
And where the old car struggled to pull away from the GTI, this one was in danger of lapping its all-season-equipped counterpart.
Finally, VW has a flagship model worthy of the name. Whether it's able to compete with the Subaru WRX is another question for a different test, but you know it wins on fit, finish and refinement. And don't forget, the Golf R 400 was recently revealed in concept form, with a production version slated for early 2016. So VW fans have a great deal to look forward to.
We can certainly expect to see a brace of Mk7 GTIs and Golf Rs at next year's Fastivus, and maybe we'll be able to sample the production version of the R 400 as well...
For more details about Fastivus 2015 and its three-day activities, visit fastivus.com.