2012 Volkswagen Golf R
Volkswagen, of course, was one of the original players in the “hot hatch” segment, virtually inventing the concept with the original GTI
of the ‘70s and ‘80s. But VW’s iconic performance model has arguably grown a bit soft with age, encumbered by ever-thickening layers of luxury and sophistication. In the eyes of some hardcore road jockeys, Volkswagen has lost the plot.
That’s where the new 2012 Golf R comes in. Endowed with all-wheel drive, a sharpened suspension, and a juiced-up engine that’s highly tunable, the Golf R brings aggressive updates to the GTI’s familiar formula. A six-speed manual is the only available transmission, a reminder that the R is aimed at a particularly discerning subset of VW’s fan base. If that sounds like you, better get in line, because VW only plans to sell 5,000 Golf Rs stateside.
After a week in the Golf R’s saddle, we still aren’t convinced that it’s $10,000 better than the value-packed base GTI. But hey, we get it. The R is the ultimate German hot hatch. Those 5,000 enthusiastic owners will likely be too busy enjoying the drive to worry about what they paid.
What's to Like
The Golf R’s tight suspension, big brakes, and Haldex all-wheel-drive system make it much more of a driver’s car than the GTI on which it’s based. Interior materials are second-to-none in the hot-hatch segment. The standard touch-screen interface is both intuitive and responsive, and the backseat is exceptionally adult-friendly.
What's Not to Like
The ride is unpleasantly stiff on rough roads, an unusual flaw for a VW. Due to the AWD system’s extra weight, the R isn’t much quicker than the GTI despite its 56 extra horsepower. The cargo area isn’t wide enough for a golf bag. Standard features are sparse given the elevated price, and we have some build-quality concerns.
The Golf R’s Haldex all-wheel-drive system can send up to 100 percent of the engine’s power to the rear wheels, making this car far more precise and capable in real-world corners than the GTI. Thanks to always-on stability control (an odd feature in an all-wheel-drive car) and standard all-season tires, the R hasn’t really distinguished itself in third-party performance tests, but drive one on a winding road before you jump to conclusions. At anything less than the limit of adhesion, the R feels planted, balanced, and damn near invincible, not unlike its pricier Audi TT S platform-mate. Adding to the effect are superb R-specific brakes that showed no signs of fade as we zipped up and down California’s 9,624-foot Sonora Pass. Although the Golf R is heavier than a small hatch should be, and its electric power steering isn't razor-sharp, this is still a highly capable machine in spirited driving. The only real disappointment is the ride quality, which evinces little of the GTI’s suppleness.
Engine and Drivetrain
The 2012 Volkswagen Golf R is powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four rated at 256 horsepower and 243 pound-feet of torque. This is actually an evolution of the previous-generation GTI’s motor, which is known on the aftermarket for being easier to tune. The torque starts to come online around 2,000 rpm, and acceleration is swift from 2,500 rpm on up, continuing all the way to redline—a nice surprise, as turbocharged motors often lose steam with revs to spare. Also welcome is the unusually musical engine note. The mandatory six-speed manual transmission is rewarding to row and helps keep the turbo spinning with its closely spaced gear ratios.
Green Evaluation/Gas Mileage
The Golf R is EPA-rated at 19 mpg city/27 mpg highway. That’s not bad for this level of performance. The highway figure could be better, though, as sixth gear at 80 mph yields a busy 3,300 rpm—we’re surprised VW didn’t go with a taller ratio for sixth and let the engine’s ample low-end torque pick up the slack.
Features and Technology
The Golf R has a decent array of standard features, including xenon headlamps, dual-zone automatic climate control, iPod/Bluetooth connectivity, satellite radio, and an SD-card slot in place of the more common USB port. We’re enamored of the standard touch-screen interface, which is both efficient and user-friendly. However, given the R’s starting price of nearly $34,000, we feel that niceties like keyless entry/ignition, premium audio, and a sunroof should be standard, not optional. Some might argue that navigation should be standard as well. Notably, all of that stuff is included if you opt for the four-door Golf R, but VW only offers it on the two-door model as a pricey package, which our two-door test car did not have. We especially missed the audio upgrade, as it’s a Dynaudio system, and we know from experience with other VWs that Dynaudio cranks out the tunes with the best of them. The base stereo sounds average at best.
The Golf R has unique blue gauge needles, but for the most part, it’s got the same interior you’ll find in the GTI with the Autobahn package. This isn’t a true luxury-grade cabin—the hard plastic trim on the lower dashboard keeps it out of that league—but it’s close, even though we heard some unbecoming rattles emanating from the front door panels over bumps. Plus, the R’s Autobahn-spec leather seats have more prominent side-bolsters than the standard plaid GTI seats. Too bad the driver seat had developed a nasty creak under cornering load in our 6,000-mile test car.
Speaking of seats, the ones in back are incredibly roomy given the R’s diminutive dimensions. As for cargo, the hatchback trunk is generally quite accommodating, but you’ll have to fold down one side of the split rear seatback if you want to haul a golf bag or three.
Unlike rival models, which generally look like products of the Hot Wheels school of design, the Golf R keeps it classy. A demure “R” badge on the grille signals the car’s specialness to the cognoscenti, as do the distinctive twin tailpipes, but otherwise, the R largely blends in with its lesser brethren. We like it. If you don’t, there are plenty of aftermarket suppliers that would be happy to make your R look a little more, um, distinctive.
Market Segment and Pricing
If you grade hot hatches using price-to-performance ratio, the Golf R is going to fail. Speed is cheap and plentiful in this segment, with sporty things like the Mazdaspeed3
and Subaru WRX
available for thousands less—not to mention VW’s own GTI
. The WRX is probably the R’s most formidable foe, offering all-wheel drive and a few more horsepower in a lighter package. But the two-door Golf R’s $33,900 entry fee buys a lot of premium kit, and that matters. Indeed, we think a more apt comparison is to entry-level luxury sport sedans like the BMW 328i
What We Think
The 2012 Volkswagen Golf R clearly isn’t for everyone, but we’re inclined to cut it some slack despite its initially eye-watering MSRP. Forget that it’s a Volkswagen for a moment, and ask yourself where else you can find all-wheel drive, athletic handling, world-class brakes, sprightly acceleration, restrained styling, and an upscale interior, all for $33,990 to start. Made you think, right? Yeah, us too. We’re sure VW will have no trouble convincing 5,000 folks that the R has no peers at this price point.