The clever Swedes have built a thriving, if only seasonal, business in this small village 56 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle based solely on the fact that the temperature here in January and February regularly drops down to minus-50 Celsius. Yes, this is Europe’s favourite winter proving ground for cars, trucks, bulldozers, you name it.
In the course of two days here, I saw heavily camouflaged prototypes of Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, BMW, Porsche and Kia models, plus others I couldn’t indentify, that will reach the market in a year or two. This is also where photographers with big, long lenses hide in the woods to take “spy shots” of unannounced cars for enthusiast magazines and websites. But there is no need to hide in the woods because there are only two gas stations in town and every night all the vehicles are driven in and fuelled up right before your eyes – but it’s a less exciting photograph.
During a six-week period each winter, the population of this little town triples with a huge influx of engineers and testers from various car companies and suppliers around the world. On top of this, Swedish entrepreneurs have built a tourist component that offers winter driving experiences with various car and snowmobile brands. It’s a 1,000-km drive north of Stockholm and the police presence here is about zero, resulting in irate stories in the local weekly newspaper about drunken misbehaviour at bars and on highways.
My purpose in being here combined the testing and the tourism. Volkswagen Canada decided to launch its new high-performance, all-wheel-drive Golf R on an ice track on a frozen lake just outside town where it puts on the VW Winter Driving Experience for European car nuts. The Golf R is the most powerful and expensive Golf, so people who can afford to throw down $40,000 on a VeeDub can probably also afford a little trip to the near Arctic to try it out.
The car itself is billed as the ultimate Golf and comes loaded to the gills with performance options including a turbocharged, direct-injected, 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine that cranks 256 horsepower tied to a six-speed manual transmission and VW’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive. Only 500, all identically equipped, will be brought to Canada and are priced just a couple of hundred bucks under forty grand. In other words, you could have 2-1/2 base-model Jettas in your driveway for the price of this little pocket-rocket.
The quality of the instruction at this session was excellent. We were put through the paces by Ronny Wechselberger, a German Formula 3 racer, who also holds the world record for parallel parking. Just Google his name and you’ll see what I mean. It is amazing.
The Golfs were equipped with studded tires, which helped a lot, but perhaps more important in keeping on the ice track at high speeds was the all-wheel-drive that distributes power between the front and rear axles as required. It’s the same Haldex Generation 4 system, also used in the Audi TT, that will send 100 per cent of the power to the rear axle if required.
The allotment of 500 coming to Canada are all four-door hatchback models, the two-door hatch is not coming here. But it doesn’t matter. There are certainly enough VW fans who want to move up from the Golf GTI (1,750 sold in Canada last year) who will fork over the dough for bragging rights alone. It’s VW’s strategy to push the Golf up-market while the Jetta drops down to be the economy entry. The Golf R will add a little excitement to VW showrooms while they last.
I drove the R as hard as I possibly could on the various configurations of the ice track and regularly required being dislodged from snow banks by a Tiguan tow vehicle. The car is as solid as a bank vault and in the proper hands (Wechselberger’s) performs brilliantly. It will give Subaru’s WRX and STi models, along with Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and Mazdaspeed3, a run for their money.
The weather in Arjeplog now is sunny and above zero. That means winter testing is over for another year and the village can get back to normal. VW proved it has a hot little car for the frozen track. I’m sure it will work well in the summer, too; it will just be less fun.