It's raining sideways on a bleak day near the trading hub of Hamburg, Germany. Destination: Berlin, 280 clicks up a stretch of Autobahn.
Weapon of choice: a 2018 AWD Volkswagen Golf R wagon painted Tornado red, with black rims, on sale here but not due to arrive in Australia until January next year.
It might be a transit stage, but there's no reason not to make it fun. And the blast awaiting us will sort wheat from chaff pretty fast. There are four of us: myself, another journo, a Volkswagen PR guy and the videographer/photographer, Chris Benny.
Before we begin, let's make one thing crystal clear. This is a quick-drive feature story more than a pure review. We'll give you a feel for the car, and save our definitive verdict for said Australian premiere in a few months. We'd be doing you a disservice to proceed otherwise.
We squeeze four big hard-shell cases and supplementary gear into the cargo area – just – then I take the key fob, and jump into the driver's seat. With about 500kg on board, the sleeper wagon sits lower than usual. But this is what it was made to do.
I pull into a truck stop with some seedy WCs 90 minutes later. Average speed, a respectable 170km/h with a convoy top speed of 240km/h – in rare patches free from standing water. Average fuel use, 11.2L/100km. Conversation nothing but quiet and civil, rolling response barely affected, the new Race mode that replaces Sport sending an even gruffer and seemingly actuated note into the cabin, though not out of the quad pipes.
This ain't quite a Mercedes-AMG C63.
Let's take a step back. The upgraded 'Mk 7.5' Volkswagen Golf R hatch recently hit Australian shores, alongside the GTI. However, the Golf R wagon won't touch down in its permanent form until January of 2018, with 300 units of the Wolfsburg Edition lobbed as a means of tiding buyers over.
When the updated Golf R wagon we've driven here does arrive in Australia, it'll cost $57,490 before on-road costs – $2000 more than the hatch. Unlike its shorter sibling, manual lovers are not welcome – it's DSG-only.
Oh, and there'll be a Golf R 'Grid' wagon soon, priced at $51,990, without the leather or big screens.
Keeping up? Because Volkswagen Australia's strategy with performance Golfs is getting confusing, with more ephemeral special editions coming and going from showroom floors than you can poke a stick at.
No matter how you cut it, the Golf R wagon – even in its regular, non-Wolfsburg guise – is an unbelievably well-rounded car that in many ways battles a competitor set of one, even if the hot-weather detuned models we'll get Down Under will have 213kW of power compared to our tester's 228kW – still up 7kW on the old car.
The engine in question is a familiar EA888 2.0-litre turbocharged four that also puts out 380Nm of torque, channeled through a variable 4MOTION all-wheel drive (AWD) system and a newly developed 'DQ 381' seven-speed high-torque dual-clutch DSG automatic 'box with paddles.
The load-lugger is claimed as being capable of smashing through the 5.0 second barrier from 0-100km/h, which is pretty quick. With four occupants and luggage for a few weeks each, we weren't getting those times, but that's no surprise.
The red devil is sitting low on those 19s and springs (adaptive dampers), though the ride quality along the 'bahn was pretty hard to fault, even in Race mode, nor is the noise suppression. A civil conversation in pissing rain at 180km/h over harsh road joins should be an acceptable descriptor.
The car felt solid as a rock, unflustered by sitting near GVM, staying clear of its bump stops, tipping through turns without fanfare and punching beyond them as if the occupants were hollow. That said, we found the hatch did bottom out hard through sharp ruts on tougher Aussie roads.
The 2018 updates bring some cool new things to the Golf R family. LED headlights replace bi-xenons, and there are a pair of much better screens: a 9.2-inch swipe-able centre unit with naff gesture control and 50 per cent better resolution, and VW's Active Info Display digital driver's instruments with 1440 x 540 pixels with a host of different display modes.
One feature you'll never use is the lap timer software, but it's cool nevertheless. It's all very modern and future-proofed. And prone to showing up smudges in a way that any car with a rotary controller isn't. Hmmm.
You also get big squishy heated Vienna leather bucket seats with rear legroom for four adults (we didn't trust the VW PR as far as we could throw him when he said the space back there was grand, but this time he was right), dark window tint, proximity key, ambient LEDs in the cabin, AEB and chrome roof rails. It's 80 per cent as nice as an Audi.
Flip the back seats down and you get a loading space bigger than the vast majority of SUVs, as the luggage-loaded picture should show you.
It's not all roses of course. You have to pay $1300 to get the Driver Assistance Package that addsadaptive cruise control, lane assist, a blind-spot monitor, rear traffic alert, proactive occupant protection system and dynamic light assist. Any circa-$60k car should have that stuff standard.
Beyond this though, it's hard to think of anything in the price bracket that really challenges the Golf R wagon, bar perhaps the conceptually different – yet also brilliant – Holden Commodore SS-V Redline Sportwagon, which will cease production before the Vee-Dub arrives. (We compared the two in 2016, actually.)
Does it outmatch an Audi S4 Avant ($102,611) or Mercedes-AMG C43 AMG wagon ($105,112)? No, no it does not. But is it only 60 per cent as good? It's a damned sight better than that. A 185kW rear-drive BMW 330i Touring at $73,900 might make an interesting twin-test soon, though...
If I've waxed too lyrical for your liking here, sorry. But the Golf R wagon is the type of vehicle we love. It bucks the market trend to SUVs, but remains a practical car with space, pace and grip, and a veneer of luxury that's hard to quantify but impossible to ignore.
Most images taken by Chris Benny. We used supplied RHD cabin shots, though.