That’s what kept going through my mind as I threw the 2012 Volkswagen Golf R at the curving mountain roads above Pasadena’s Rose Bowl. Sure, the GTI has for decades been a Golf (or Rabbit) with cojones, but the 259-horse R ups the ante in all the places where it counts. So, is it a hole in one – the best small sporty VW the company has ever offered here in the States?
Well, that’s what we’re here to find out.
The Golf R traces its lineage back to the R32, and then yet farther back to the Rallye Golf built off of the Mk2 platform. Unlike the R32, both generations of which were powered by VW’s narrow angle V6 engine, or the G-Lader equipped four of the Rallye, the R gets a version of the tried and true turbocharged and direct injected 2.0-liter four.
The engine is similar to the turbo four in the GTI but, having been taken from the Audi TTS, it boosts horsepower considerably over its more alphabetically generous sibling. In fact, the R gains not only the hotter engine from the TTS, but its all-wheel drive system as well. At 256-bhp, the Golf R ranks 9 below the Audi, but that’s still 5 more than the last R32.
Also an improvement over the DSG-only R32, the 2012 Golf R sports a 6-speed stick, the DSG not even being offered as an option. And speaking of options, also new this year on U.S. bound cars is the choice of either two or four passenger portals. The car I had was the two-door – or three if you count the generous hatch – and it was the entry-levelest of all the Rs, lacking both a Nav system and sunroof. Both of those are part of an upgrade package that adds a not unreasonable $1,500 to the Golf R two-door’s $33,990 MSRP. The 4-door comes only with the hole in the roof and dashboard nanny, and clocks in at a cool $36,090.
What do you get for that thirty four grand cost of entry? Well, in addition to the aforementioned sick-hot motor, OCD’s delight gearbox, and the ability to turn all four tires in anger, there’s also revised front and rear facias, with deep dams, spats and such that give the car an aggressive stance but don’t differentiate it from the lessor models in a substantial way – possibly valuable for not drawing the attention of car thieves and the Po-Po.
There’s also retuned suspension and larger, 13.6-inch front, 12.2-inch rear, brakes. Wrapped around those are 18-inch alloy wheels sporting aggressive 225-40/18 Pirelli P-Zero Neros. Inside, the R features cosseting sport seats with side bolsters so prominent that it may be questionable which gives in first, their leather covering or your kidneys.
The seats also, surprising for a car in the class, feature manual adjustment for the myriad of positions into which they might be manipulated. The rear split bench is covered in dead cow to match, but lacks any bolstering so passengers will need to ensure their belts are cinched up tight before any cornering heroics are attempted.
The remainder of the interior is pretty much what you would expect from a high-end Golf, with Climatronic automatic climate controls, a decent satellite and iPhone friendly stereo head unit, and a general sense of stoic German styling that VW buyers admire. Also, regarding the car’s German-ness, it should be noted that the R is constructed in the Fatherland rather than Puebla Mexico like its Jetta cousins
There are some R-exclusive touches inside, including R badging on the shift knob, the silver dashboard trim, the base of the flat-bottomed steering wheel, and the sport seat head rests. All that R-ness comes wrapped in the Golf’s reasonably spacious and flexible interior, and the whole thing seems screwed together pretty well and to be made of reasonably decent materials.
But enough about what it’s like in the parking lot, what’s it like to drive?
Well, the first thing you’d notice is that engine, smooth and so spin happy you’ll be on a first name basis with the rev limiter. In fact, once it gets on the turbo (more on that in a bit) it squeezes out power like it’s going out of style, and pulls strongly through all six gears. The thing of it is, instead of a village it takes a turbo to get this Vee Dub to really light its fires and the party doesn’t start until about 3,000 rpm. Below that you kind of play the waiting game, but from 3 to the 6 it’s happy hour.
VW claims that the R will do sixty in a tick over five and a half seconds, and I have no reason to doubt them. Not only is it quick but the 4Motion all wheel drive trades the GTI’s understeer for handling that, were it a state, would be Nebraska, as it is über flat tracking through corners. Continuing the geographical metaphors, the overall impression the Golf R’s handling provides is Switzerland, as it’s unfailingly neutral. The steering is another high point on the car, nicely weighted and gokart-like in its action. Aiding that is the fat leather wrapped wheel with its contoured 10 and 2 positions and myriad of control buttons which makes it fun even when you’re not bending the car through a corner.
I should also note that the R comes with two sound systems, one in the dash and another, provided by the fat pair of centered exhaust pipes that act like sonic canons, bouncing all kinds of aggressive combustion noise around the hood, likely to your neighbors’ utter enjoyment. And those kidney-threatening seats? Well, as long as you’re not an old school Food Network Chef, they’ll hold you snuggly without pinching off circulation to anything important.
Okay, so is it all peaches and herb? Well, in a word, no. The Golf R is a blast to drive, and is that rare combination of frivolity and practicality that could allow it to be the one and only set of wheels for a broad spectrum of owners. But certain compromises had to be made to get this go-fast Golf to go so dang fast and to corner like it’s on a Maglev track.
First and foremost is fuel economy. As you can guess the R runs exclusively on Premium – the good stuff – and in fact the owners’ manual specifically warns of serious mechanical damage should lesser octane go-juice be introduced to the car. Not only does it possess champagne tastes but it goes through the stuff like a politician through PAC money. The car is EPA rated at 19/27 but I’m sure that was achieved by following the little shift light on the dash computer- which would have you in sixth gear before you get to the end of your block. I tried that once but gave up after realizing it’s like having a platonic relationship with a dominatrix, I mean where’s the fun in that? My mileage may vary, but I can tell you that I managed something like 15 with an almost even mix of around town and freeway driving. Of course if you want a Golf that sips fuel like a granny sips bourbon, then there are other members of the family that will better fit the bill.
Next up on the me-no-likey hit parade was the notchy and vague shift mechanism – typical of almost every VAG product I’ve ever driven, but made more egregious by the cramming of six slots plus reverse into the console. Missed shifts will likely be par for the course until you get used to it. Countering that, the ratios are well chosen and the clutch is both light and linear in its pickup.
The last item is the penalty box that is the back seat. I didn’t spend any time back there, but I did have a pair of passengers for 60-mile round trip on a freeway that’s known for its truck traffic and hence being pretty rough. The complaints revolved around the amount of noise – the additional drive elements and the fat tires conspiring with inadequate sound insulation for a roar in the back that seems exacerbated by the echo chamber of the trunk area. Then there’s the ride. Up front the car feels firm but controlled and there’s no feeling like the car’s 101.5 inch wheelbase is too short. In the back however, your martinis will be shaken and not stirred, and so will your passengers.
Considering the short amount of time on average cars spend with more than just the driver in them, that’s probably the least of this Golf’s issues, and that’s why I mentioned it last. That’s also a pretty short list of cons which are outweighed by many of the pros. What are the Golf R’s closest competitors? Well, of course the Subaru STI and Mitsubishi Evo spring immediately to mind. Both are lighter and the Evo is a hair faster, but both are more expensive than the R. There’s also BMW’s 135i which at 300 ponies whips the R in the horsepower race, but lacks all-wheel drive and again, is more expensive.
So, is the VW Golf R the bargain leader for sporty coupes of the hot hatch breed? If the performance provided by the GTI proves not to be enough, then perhaps yes. Regardless, if you’re looking for either an engaging and rewarding car that’s also able to help that cute neighbor bring home that Ikea purchase, then this is a strong candidate. If you’re needs and wants lean for something that balances more equitably performance and economy, then perhaps the GTI (or even GDI) will be more your cup of Castrol. What I know is that this was one tester that, long after I had given back the keys, stayed in my mind – both the pros and cons – and that’s a testament to what VW has accomplished, as the Golf R is undeniably and unequivocally a memorable ride.
[Disclosure: Volkswagen flipped us the keys to the 2012 Golf R. We drove the hell out of this hot hatch, and we’re left with a sudden urge to add Teutonic order into our life.]