When tickets to AC/DC’s Black Ice tour went on sale, some of the biggest venues in the world sold out in just minutes. Well, so did places in the Volkswagen Driving Experience.
Okay, so maybe not quite as fast as the concert tickets that were snaffled up in record time, but the six sessions held in Sydney recently were sold-out in less than 30 minutes.
All the spots in the seven Melbourne courses were gone not long after, the seven courses in Brisbane reached capacity within eight hours, and there are just a handful of tickets left for the driving experience’s in Adelaide at the end of this month and Perth in July.
Why so much hype? Well, Volkswagen offers one of the cheapest driver training experiences – for $300 including GST, participants get to drive the Golf R, Scirroco R, Golf GTI and Polo GTI around a race track.
Almost 1500 people have signed on to hit the track. The NSW sessions at Sydney Motor Sport Park (SMSP) are done and dusted – the roadshow then moves to Mallala Motor Sport Park in SA at the end of June, Barbabello Raceway in WA in July, Mt Cotton Training Centre in QLD in September and then Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit in VIC in November.
When I turned up at SMSP, I wasn’t expecting to see so many people, or so many VWs in the carpark. There were 64 of us taking part, a good mix of old and young, male and female, in the four-hour afternoon session and that seemed ridiculous! How would we all get through the four exercises, let alone get to really have some fun on the track?
It was really well organised, that’s how. We were split into two groups of 32 and each group was sent to either the north circuit or south circuit. We were then split again, into four groups of eight, put into driving pairs and sent to one of the four exercises where there were four cars. Did you follow the maths? Essentially, everyone was paired up, always in a car and it was non-stop action.
The first rotation saw my group tackle the slalom in Golf GTIs. The Golf GTI is a front-wheel-drive hot hatch with a 2.0-litre four cylinder turbocharged engine that produces 162kW and 350Nm. It’s available with either a six-speed manual transmission or six-speed direct shift gearbox (DSG), which is what our test cars were fitted with.
The Golf GTI is priced from $40,990 before on-road costs and comes standard with 18-inch alloy wheels, driving profile selection and adaptive chassis control. Of course we were all instructed to select sports mode and line up at the start of the slalom.
One car at a time, we wove our way through the line of cones as fast as we could. There were plenty of tyre screeches heard and more than one wild u-turn was performed at the end of the course, but we all improved after a few runs.
The trick with slalom is smooth inputs, both on the throttle and steering wheel. If you happen to build too much speed, steering becomes more difficult and to avoid hitting the next cone you’ll find yourself swinging the wheel to one side in a motion that is more jagged than smooth. It sounds simple but does take a lot of patience, control and practice. I’m still working on it!
From there we moved on to the cornering exercise and jumped out of the Golf GTI and into the Golf R. My co-driver was particularly excited about this one because he has a Golf R and has always wanted to test its capabilities.
That was the magical thing for many of the participants. Most owned a Volkswagen, sometimes a lower-spec of one of the cars we got to drive and sometimes the same cars, but they’d never been able to let loose and really see what it can do.
The Golf R is a step up from the GTI and GTI Performance in the power and torque stakes. It shares the same 2.0-litre four cylinder turbocharged engine but pumps out 206kW and 380Nm. It rides on 19-inch alloy wheels and is also available with a six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed DSG. We were again driving the automatic version, and as well as the extra punch, the Golf R also has all-wheel drive and a front differential lock. It’s priced from $52,740.
Its control around the corners was impressive, with plenty of participants going into the corner with a little too much speed, only to have the electronics step in and engage stability control to keep the car heading in the right direction.
Though we’d had a bit of rain to wet the surface, the next exercise was wet skid control in the Scirocco R. There was water pumping out on to the skid pan, just waiting to be funnelled through the channels on the tyres and splashed into the air as we slid around the course.
The Scirocco R is priced from $45,900 and has a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo engine that produces 188kW and 330Nm. Yet again we had the six-speed DSG rather than the six-speed manual option and the Scirocco R is a front-wheel drive.
While the Golf and the Polo share common design cues inside and feel very much related, the Scirocco R has a distinct individual feel about it. Almost drawing inspiration from Porsche in the layout of the dash and the addition of a dash-top instrument cluster with oil temperature, stopwatch and boost gauge dials. The Scirocco R sounds good, too, and feels super sporty.
Though the aim of this exercise was to show what stability and traction control can do, I was determined to be sideways for as long as I could. My first attempt was a rather messy-looking manoeuvre that almost resembled a Scandinavian Flick – well, that’s the story I’m going with anyway.
My next couple of runs were a little more sedate and brief, but it was interesting that many found the combination of water, acceleration and a sharp turn a little too confronting. The bravado shown at the slalom and cornering exercises seemed to waver a little in the face of deliberately trying to lose control.
But as with these driving experiences, by the time our final round was underway, the confidence was back and everyone was impressed with how intuitive modern day safety systems are.
The next stop was emergency braking in the Polo GTI. This little pocket rocket is priced from $27,490 and packs a punch with its 1.8 litre four cylinder turbo engine that produces 141kW and 320Nm with a six-speed manual transmission. However, we were driving the seven-speed DSG with the same power but less torque at 250Nm.
Lining up at one end of the course, one-by-one we took off, aiming to get the Polo GTI up to 60km/h and then hit the brakes as hard as possible to activate the anti-lock braking system (ABS) and bring the car to a complete stop as soon as possible.
We then repeated this exercise at 80km/h, but this time took our hands off the wheel when braking. The final run was up around 110km/h, or the fastest you could go with the run-up distance allocated.
The extrapolation of the stopping distance based on speed never ceases to amaze me. If, on average, it takes a driver 1.5sec to react, then at 60km/h they’ve covered 25m before touching the brakes – then it would take another 20m to stop. At 80km/h, the reaction distance is 33m and a further 52m to a complete stop. At 110km/h you’d travel 46m before braking and then cover a further 97m before stopping.
Those numbers are best case scenario and not many of us even give enough room to allow for reaction time when driving at 110km/h on a highway!
Then came the part of the day that everyone was looking forward to. After putting hairnets and helmets on, we were ready to take the Golf R and Scirocco R out for paced laps around the track.
There are four cars behind the pace car, and the speed is determined by how well the convoy can follow the leader and hit the same lines and brush the apexes at each corner. As the group’s confidence and skills build, so too does the speed and we were able to hit around 200km/hr down the straight.
The differences between the two cars were very interesting. The Golf R feels really smooth, refined and settled but still fast around the track. The Scirocco R on the other hand is playful, spritely and rides a bit firmer, though it is also fast.
At the end of the day, having not previously spent much time in the Scirocco R, it put a big smile on my face and I had developed quite an appreciation for its capabilities.
That’s just one of the advantages of attending a day like this: not only do you learn new skills and develop tools to handle difficult situations on the road, you also get to drive a range of cars back-to-back.