2,500 miles in the VW Golf R: The ultimate European road trip
A hot hatch is better than a supercar for awesome European driving fun. Here's why.
Andrew LanxonEditor At Large, Lead Photographer, Europe
Andrew is CNET's go-to guy for product coverage and lead photographer for Europe. When not testing the latest phones, he can normally be found with his camera in hand, behind his drums or eating his stash of home-cooked food. Sometimes all at once.
Last year I took a
almost 2,000 miles on a road trip around Europe. It was a trip that you'd think would be every car lover's dream -- a beautiful, powerful car cruising through stunning surroundings.
But while the trip was great and the
was unquestionably superb, I felt the experience would have been better in a slightly more toned-down car. It's not that the McLaren isn't amazing -- it really is -- but it's a lot to handle, particularly in difficult conditions and for parts of the trip I felt my stress levels spiking as I worried about whether I had the skills to keep it under control.
So when it came time to do the same 2,500-mile trip this year, I chose the
Volkswagen Golf R
. Capable of accelerating to 60 miles per hour in just 4.6 seconds and sounding like a spitting banshee in the process, the Golf R is one of the most ferocious
money can buy. But even so, it's more manageable than a McLaren supercar.
The 570GT may have been a formidable supercar for the trip, but I actually believe the Golf R is a better long-distance tourer. Here's why.
The journey begins
My route began in Geneva. I was there already, covering the Geneva Motor Show for Roadshow, so it was a sensible starting point. Plus, it was exactly where I'd started the previous year in the McLaren.
The first leg took me from Geneva to the Julier mountain pass. Leaving the city behind meant chewing through the miles on seemingly endless motorways, made all the more grey and miserable by ceaseless rain. Thankfully, a solid playlist of Periphery, Dream Theater and Taylor Swift helped the miles go by. Not to mention my ready supply of Swiss chocolate.
As the terrain became mountainous, the clouds broke, leaving a more promising sky overhead to begin my ascent. While the road surface was clear, as I climbed higher into the mountains the snow started building up on the sides. I'd experienced something similar in the McLaren last year, which started to get a little tail-happy on some of the tighter corners in the icy conditions.
It was here that I noted how much more confident I felt behind the wheel of the Golf R. While the roads and conditions were very much the same, the less-powerful Golf was much more manageable, and I was less likely to inadvertently spin the back end out were I to get too cocky with the accelerator. That confidence translated to a less anxiety-inducing drive, letting me appreciate not only the car itself, but the beautiful roads and the stunning scenery.
Going up at first was great fun. The switchbacks on the mountains were amazing; the car felt so balanced here, hugging the corners and then exploding out the other side with a roar from the titanium exhaust, with no end to the grip. But farther up the mountain, things took a turn.
Terror on the mountaintop
The higher I climbed, the more snow I found. The wind was blowing hard, too, sending yet more snow billowing over the road and severely reducing my visibility. Going up was nerve-wracking, but manageable, as long as I inched my way up at a snail's pace. As I got over the top to make the descent, things went from bad to downright terrifying.
I quickly realized the car was fighting for grip every second. Despite me only driving at about 10 mph, the car would simply continue sliding when I applied the brakes. I kept testing them, wanting to make sure I could at least stop if needed, but it was evident the brakes were now useless to me.
To be clear, the car was not at fault here. As it turned out, it wasn't fitted with winter tires, which is the bare minimum you need if you're going to attempt one of the mountain passes in winter.
By this point, my heart rate was through the roof and I was convinced that this was how I'd die. I dreaded meeting a car coming the other way on a corner as I had no way of stopping my car, from sliding straight into them and pushing us both over the edge. Panic set in and my mind was running through a hundred different potential outcomes -- none of them good. If I managed to stop the car, what then? Call for a tow? Wait until better weather? It was midwinter and I couldn't just sit in the car until the snow melted. Nor could I abandon it at the side of the road and walk down.
Eventually the car stopped itself by sliding off the road and into a snowbank -- mercifully, at such a slow speed that no damage was done to the car. I made the decision then to attempt to turn around and go back the way I came. Sure, going back up seemed suicidal, but I figured that if I'd managed to drive up one side of the mountain, those roads were evidently clear enough to give me some traction. Maybe the side I was descending had been hit with snow all afternoon and was only going to get worse?
I managed to turn the car around and, maintaining the snail's pace, eventually manage to wind my way back to the bottom of the pass, where I'd started what now seemed like decades ago. After taking more than a few minutes to calm down, I found a nearby hotel and treated myself to a much-needed pint.
I saw multiple road signs showing live information about the conditions of Switzerland's many mountain passes and while most were closed, the Julier pass was advertised as open to traffic. In hindsight, I appreciate that "open" doesn't necessarily mean "safe," particularly when your car isn't properly equipped.
Luckily, I'd intentionally not booked any hotels or planned a specific route, so I was free to make a last-minute change. Rather than try to traverse snow-covered mountains, I instead decided to head to the much warmer, much more hospitable south of France.
A curving coastal cruise
My route into France consisted almost entirely of motorways, punctuated by regular stops at toll booths (each one made all the more awkward by my UK-spec, right-hand-drive car, meaning I couldn't simply reach out to pay, but had to get out of the car every time).
Once I hit the coast I found a road (the SS18) that follows and snakes its way along the shore, cutting around steep cliffs, giving breathtaking views of the Cote d'Azur coastline and picturesque French towns. Had I continued farther along, I'd have eventually reached the impossibly fashionable towns of Cannes and Saint Tropez -- although even in the top-end Golf R, I'd have made little impact against the Ferraris, Maseratis and other sports cars that dominate those cities.
The French Riviera is an amazing, and beautiful, place to enjoy a car. The tight bends of the coastal route mean your driving has to be precise and confident, but the regular intervals of straights provided by the tunnels allow for more liberal use of the accelerator.
But however good I thought the coastal road was, it was nothing compared with what I found inland.
I headed for the Verdon Gorge, an awesome geological formation tucked into the hills in the South of France. And to get there, I needed to climb higher again. Thankfully devoid of snow, the roads I found here were utter bliss to drive. Wide and sweeping, this route provided everything from technical thrills to blistering straights and it's here that the Golf R really came to life.
Endless strings of sharp corners gave me ample opportunity to play with the paddle shifters of the dual-clutch transmission, manually dropping down as I hit the corner to give me plenty of power as I dug into the throttle on the corner's exit -- accompanied, of course, by a great roar from the Golf's engine. Those summer tires that had previously left me sliding through the snow were now practically glued to the road.
I was so happy to be in the Golf R here. Quite apart from speed limits, there simply wasn't room to max out a supercar, but I was able to take the Golf R proportionately much farther than I could have in the McLaren, and have a whole lot more fun in the process. It was here that the old adage of "it's more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow" really became apparent.
Not that the Golf R is even close to being slow. The acceleration it achieves from its 306-horsepower engine (in UK-spec, Performance Pack guise) will easily pin your back against the seat, while the easy handling and boundless grip make it feel nippy and agile. The Golf R is exhilarating to drive, and on those roads, I wouldn't have chosen any other car.
On a recent road trip through Scotland, I called the Highland Tourist Route that connects the towns of Aviemore and Ballater the best driving road I've been on. But this ribbon of beautiful asphalt from Grasse, near Cannes, to the Verdon Gorge has since taken my top spot. This is, I'm quite confident, the best driving route in the whole continent of Europe, and I was equally confident I was in the best car for it.
With a few photo ops along the way, I eventually made it to the Verdon Gorge, where the road really narrowed, with precipitous drops over the edge and blind corners at almost every turn. Naturally, this slowed my progress, as did the numerous cyclists and sightseers who all seemed content to meander around the roads at a slow walking pace. Overtaking here would have been completely suicidal.
From the gorge, my route took me farther into France's Provence region, with numerous long, straight roads criss-crossing across stunning fields that would have been flooded with purple lavender, had I been around later in the year. For me, the expanses of greenery beneath the clear blue sky were enough of a visual treat after the white-out I'd suffered in the mountains.
Provence is dotted with many small hillside villages, most of which were built long before the invention of the car and as such, aren't exactly easy to navigate in one. Tight gaps between buildings, cobbled streets and confusing one-way systems meant that even a compact car like the Golf felt like trying to haul a bus around town. Had I been in a low-slung, wide supercar like the McLaren, my anxiety dial would have certainly been cranked to the maximum.
My last day in Provence was mostly spent enjoying the beautiful scenery and eating any pastries I could find that made liberal use of apricots and custard. The following day meant setting the Golf's sat-nav for home and chewing through a few hundred miles of motorways before boarding the Eurotunnel train, which took me below the sea and back to England.
Learning a lesson
I have no complaints about my McLaren trip last year. It's the dream, right? Jump in an incredible supercar, fire it up and head off on a whirlwind tour of the Swiss Alps and the winding roads of continental Europe. It was certainly great fun.
The problem was that the McLaren was too good for me. Its power, its handling, its brakes; everything is so finely tuned on a car like that and to get the absolute best out of it, you need a pair of very skilled hands. And while I've driven plenty of high-end performance cars in my time at CNET, I'm no trained racer. I don't know how to take a car like that anywhere near its limit. Sure, I could drive it sedately at 30 mph the whole time, but then, what's the point of being in a supercar? The incredible potential of that car was simply wasted on me.
The other thing I am is scared. I'll happily admit that. I'm ruled much of the time by that voice in the back of my head that always warns of impending doom. It's the same voice that pipes up when I go snowboarding, reminding me of how fragile my bones are, right when I'm speeding down a steep mountain run.
In the McLaren, that voice was particularly loud. Every corner I went around the voice would be there, screaming at me that I don't know how to properly rescue a slide, or reminding me of how big the bill would be if I scuffed the paintwork.
In the Golf, that voice was finally placated. It wasn't worried about me losing control when I tried having fun, or about damaged paintwork as I snuck alongside a tourist bus on a mountain pass. Instead of reminding me of ways I could die each time I took a racing line in a bend, the voice only gave me a calm, cool, "You got this, buddy."
What's more, the Golf R was comfortable on the long motorway stretches, endlessly playful in the corners and compact enough to fit through rural France's towns, yet still big enough to let me get all my gear in the hatch. After more than 2,500 miles across some seriously beautiful -- and seriously challenging -- conditions, I knew that this car had given me everything I wanted from the trip.