• Mar 7, 2011
A Hotter GTI Is Hatched

2012 Volkswagen Golf R - Click above for high-res image gallery

We're slumming through traffic in downtown Geneva, Switzerland, making our way towards the French border where we're about to spend a few hours flogging the 2012 Volkswagen Golf R along the twisty, narrow roads of the Alps. Right now, we're focused on the Golf's comfortable, well-appointed interior, and how its good visibility and relatively small stature make it a pleasant drive through heavy city traffic. It's just like every other GTI – or Golf, for that matter – in this regard. But as soon as we approach the entrance to highway A40, we find out exactly what that R badge is for.

We speed towards the sharp, right-hand on-ramp with a furious growl coming from the turbocharged 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine, and as we throw the wheel to the right, the Golf R hunkers down, digs its claws into the pavement, clips the apex of the ramp and sends us blasting onto the A40 with tremendous force.

"A GTI would have fallen all over itself right there," our co-driver states, matter-of-factly. He's right, too. Even with Volkswagen's nifty new XDS active differential, the GTI is prone to understeer when coming into a turn at high speed, and there's a decent amount of torque steer that makes the exit a bit more skittish than you'd prefer. But in the Golf R, with its fourth-generation 4Motion all-wheel-drive system and more powerful engine, every step of the high-speed cornering dance is executed perfectly.

You can imagine, then, that the rest of our drive through the French Alps was nothing short of bliss. The Golf R is Volkswagen's new poster child for hot hatchery, and if you've ever fallen in love with a GTI, be prepared to be absolutely smitten with this little number.

Continue reading First Drive: 2012 Volkswagen Golf R...

Photos copyright ©2011 Steven J. Ewing / AOL

Just looking at the Golf R makes us giddy. It isn't any longer or wider than a standard GTI, but its revised suspension setup puts it 15 millimeters lower to the ground. Up front, the revised front fascia boasts hefty air intakes with small LED running lamps flanking both sides, rounded off with new 18-inch "Talladega" alloy wheels at all four corners. There's a center-mounted dual-exhaust out back, too – a signature styling element that drives home the point that this car is, effectively, the successor to the MkV Golf R32 from 2008.

Just like in Europe, the Golf R will be offered in two- and four-door body styles in the States, both of which look fantastic. We're partial to the traditional hatch style of the two-door, but can't argue with the added functionality of the four-door – it's probably the one we'd buy. With either configuration, you get a surprisingly capacious interior capable of transporting four adults in comfort, and with fold-flat rear seats, there's plenty of room for hauling larger objects while hauling ass down the road.

2012 Volkswagen Golf R side view2012 Volkswagen Golf R front view2012 Volkswagen Golf R rear view

The rest of the R's interior is standard Golf spec, with high-quality materials used throughout. The level of fit-and-finish is truly top-notch, mercifully avoiding the cost-cutting measures found in the new Jetta. All Golf Rs will come standard with the automaker's new Climatronic automatic HVAC system, and only one interior option package will be offered, bundling a sunroof, navigation system, Dynaudio stereo and smart key with push-button start.

It's a damn shame that U.S.-spec cars won't be offered with the motorsport-designed seats of our European-spec test car – a lovely but very costly €3,800 ($5,200-ish USD) option. In order to get the Golf R approved for American consumption, Volkswagen had to limit the number of options available in our market, and unfortunately, the sport seats were on the cut list. After a few hours of butt-in-chair time, we're confident in saying that these seats truly make you feel one with the car – you don't scoot around during hard cornering, and there's ample cushioning and bolstering to reduce fatigue during long stints behind the wheel. Still, the standard seats – akin to what we find in the GTI – don't warrant much griping. They just don't hold a candle to these upgraded buckets.

2012 Volkswagen Golf R interior2012 Volkswagen Golf R front seats2012 Volkswagen Golf R gauges2012 Volkswagen Golf R climate controls

Speaking of the wheel, we're happy to see that Volkswagen is keeping the flat-bottomed GTI helm intact, with a cute little R badge at the bottom (you know, for effect). Our only complaint concerns Volkswagen's paddle shifters, which are a bit small, wheel-mounted, and don't offer much feedback when shifting up and down. We much prefer larger, column-mounted paddles, like those in the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, but even so, we needn't worry because Volkswagen's delicious dual-clutch DSG transmission won't be offered on the Golf R in the United States.

It seems contradictory for us normally stick-shift-praising enthusiasts to shed tears over the lack of an "automatic" transmission, but in the case of the Golf R, it's really a crying shame. Simply put, the DSG fires off shifts with a quickness that's unmatched when you have a three-pedal setup, and the brap from the exhaust during shifts is whimsically addicting. Do-it-yourself shifters are great fun, no doubt, but the setup that Volkswagen uses in the GTI isn't exactly our favorite, and for serious drivers, being able to keep both hands on the thick-rimmed wheel is a serious plus for hardcore driving. Again, the manual-only configuration for the U.S. model is the result of VW having to keep build combinations to a minimum, but when you consider that 50 percent of GTIs sold in the States are fitted with the DSG, it seems like an odd omission. Truth be told, some of us on staff would rather Volkswagen not offer a manual at all if it meant that the DSG could be had on our shores. Yeah, we said it.

2012 Volkswagen Golf R steering wheel detail2012 Volkswagen Golf R paddle shifter

In addition to the lack of a dual-clutch option, the U.S.-spec Golf R will also be slightly down on power versus its European counterpart. Unlike the six-cylinder R32 from a few years ago, the Golf R uses Volkswagen's 2.0-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine, which in Europe cranks out 270 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Official U.S. power numbers haven't been released as of this writing, but Volkswagen tells us that the Stateside hatch will produce something closer to 256 hp and 243 lb-ft – losses of 14 and 15, respectively. These aren't huge decreases by any means, but it'll be noticeable in a car that only weighs roughly 3,300 pounds. Even with the diminished power, we're told that the Golf R will run to 62 miles per hour in just under six seconds – 5.7 or 5.8, based on the automaker's estimates. Not bad at all.

Regardless of exactly how much power the 2.0T is producing, the fact that it's mated to Volkswagen's 4Motion all-wheel-drive system makes everything acceptable in the long run. This fourth-generation Haldex system no longer needs to sense slip in the front wheels to engage the rear, and we're told that in extreme driving conditions, it's actually possible to send over 90 percent of the engine's power to the rear rollers. Not that you'll be power-sliding a Golf R or anything.

2012 Volkswagen Golf R engine

During highway cruising, the 4Motion system only sends power to the front wheels (it's better for fuel economy), but the all-wheel drive is so quick to chime in, you have added traction out back at the blink of an eye. The system isn't intrusive, and the traction control makes sure things are kept in line at all times. In fact, like the GTI, there's no way to fully deactivate TC. European cars can be had with a traditional summer tire package, but in the States, you'll only be able to get all-seasons from the factory – 255/40-series rubber at all four corners. Our tester was fitted with a set of ContiWinterContact foul-weather tires, and while there wasn't any real lack of grip during hard cornering, we're sure that stickier summer tires would be a great improvement.

Bringing things to a halt are an upgraded set of R-badged brakes – far better units than what we have on the GTI currently. We did a few hard brake tests from 60 mph, and instead of getting all willy-nilly, the R bites down and comes to a quick stop. There's no front end chatter – even on the winter rubber of our tester – and no noticeable aggravation to the steering wheel. Overall braking feel is confident, and we're glad that these more robust stoppers are part of the Golf R package.

2012 Volkswagen Golf R headlight2012 Volkswagen Golf R wheel2012 Volkswagen Golf R taillight2012 Volkswagen Golf R exhaust system

The biggest testament to the Golf R's better dynamics is the substantial weight savings found by using the 2.0-liter four instead of a naturally aspirated V6 hanging over the front axle. The R is approximately 250 pounds lighter than the old R32, with most of the lightness added to the front end. This, combined with the fourth-generation 4Motion means there's no tendency for the car to plow into a turn, even with a 60:40 fore-to-aft weight distribution. Likewise, there's no noticeable torque steer during takeoff or while exiting a turn. There is, however, quite a bit of turbo lag, especially during hard stomps of the accelerator at speed. Slam the right pedal while doing 50 mph, count to three, and then feel the rush. Still, the turbocharged push is more engaging than the old V6, especially when scaling the side of a mountain. You don't need to wind this engine up to its peak to get the maximum amount of oomph at all four wheels.

We were originally quick to gripe about the fact that Volkswagen will also not be offering the Euro-spec adjustable suspension in the U.S., but after playing with it during our drive route through the Alps, we aren't nearly as upset. In its standard setting, the ride quality is still firm without being overly harsh, and the steering is light and tossable while still feeling very connected, even on-center. We tested out the 'Sport' setting, and while the suspension dampening is improved for instances of canyon carving, the additional weight it adds to the steering is really quite unpleasant. One of our favorite parts about the Golf R is its flickable steering, and while the improved suspension geometry of 'Sport' is indeed appreciated, we wouldn't sacrifice the outstanding feel from the wheel for it. Even when left in its normal setting, the suspension still allowed the R to hug the curves of our hilly test route with great poise, never exerting any significant body roll through the tight corners.

2012 Volkswagen Golf R suspension settings<

At the end of our test, we were enamored by just how good the Golf R is, and how much better its dynamics are over a standard GTI. For comparison, the latest Subaru WRX is so well-honed that we rarely see a need for the more expensive STI, but in Volkswagen's case, the automaker has put an ample amount of space between the GTI and this range-topping R.

With good reason, too. GTI pricing starts at $23,695 for the two-door, and while U.S. pricing hasn't been released for the Golf R just yet, Volkswagen estimates it will be around $33,000 – right where the 2008 R32 left off. That $10,000 increase doesn't just get you the goodness of 4Motion, more power and a handful of standard equipment – you get a machine that's tuned to be more engaging than a GTI could ever dream of while still retaining the hatch's high levels of comfort and quality. By adding the Golf R, Volkswagen has not compromised the GTI's placement within its portfolio. The gulf between the two is like comparing the Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart to the Lancer Evolution.

2012 Volkswagen Golf R rear 3/4 view

Volkswagen hopes to sell around 5,000 Golf Rs in the U.S. during its lifecycle. If demand is high enough, Volkswagen of America can better leverage the possibility of bringing over more R-badged products (*cough* Scirocco *cough*), and even a next-generation version of the R you see here. And while we can't help but realize that a Subaru WRX offers the same levels of power and all-wheel drive for a cheaper price, we'd gladly shell out more money for the driving prowess and improved refinement of the Golf R. Still, we can't help but pine for that DSG transmission.

The Golf R is what hot hatch dreams are made of, and while hours of driving through the gorgeous French Alps only furthers the this car's story of greatness, it only takes one quick right-hander to fall in love.

Photos copyright ©2011 Steven J. Ewing / AOL

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 3 Years Ago
      NO DSG!!! Argh VW, you suck! I consider the DSG in my 2011 GTI one of its most distinguishing features and essential to its modern, drive it all the time, hot hatch character.

      I love shifting myself and have in fact owned 5 previous enthusiast cars all with manuals. Problem is I end up driving 80-90% of the time in traffic or on straight boring highways. So when I came across the DSG in my GTI, I thought it was a perfect solution: Hit traffic? Through it over to D and jam some tunes. If I only drove on traffic free roads or racetracks it would be a manual every time but now I can flip through gears like shumi without taking my hands off the wheel!

      So, sorry VW, I was in fact looking to grab an R to replace my GTI this year but now I cant consider it. If it's only possible to do one transmission, do the DSG please!

      Anyone know how to grey-market import a euro car or have the damn transmission shipped over separately and installed? I'd be happy to pay 4Gs to have a golf r with the proper transmission choice....
        • 3 Years Ago
        Agreed. No DSG? No can do. VW, if you read these things, its not too late to Do the Right Thing and offer DSG.

        (The funny thing is that there are other articles claiming DSG *WILL* be offered. Ill wait and see.)
      • 3 Years Ago
      Looks better than the new Focus ST with crappy front wheel drive and only 250hp from their direct injected 2 liter.

      I'm glad they fixed all the issues with the R32..... no manual trans, no turbo, too much weight, and 2 extra un-needed cylinders. This car is now exactly in my market as opposed to the R32 which I ignored.

      It sucks the power is down due to our US policies, but honestly if it was built to have that power, it can be safely added by a tune or minor bolt on modifications. If you're upset about the power loss think of it this way... it still blows away the Focus ST because it has similar cost,weight, power, and comes with AWD where as the Focus is FWD. Even the MS3 has FWD to put down more power, technically the AWD should allow higher horsepower to really scale when the FWD car is spinning.

      This is getting near Evo prices, and I think how strong the stock motor is will really have a huge impact on whether it's worth it. Are these going to blow up at 300whp, 350whp, or over 400whp which means this will be a tuning dream. Hopefully the AWD system is strong enough to handle at least another 100 horsepower.

      This is the only VW that can touch US shores that I've really thought anything nice about. Glad to have another AWD turbo manual trans competitor to my Evo. It's lonely out here in the extreme AWD turbo performance segment in the USA.

        • 3 Years Ago
        Yes, the engine/driveline/chassis will handle SIGNIFICANT power increases - even on the stock turbo. Wheels magazine here in Australia tested it neck and neck with the Evo and Sti (we have the higher power version and DSG option though).
      • 3 Years Ago
      and here i thought that someone would finally be able to topple the speed3 in the terms of power for price.....even the gen2 has you beat VW....dont argue that "but it is a nicer car" bs....all i care about price vs. power....i may not be as refined as you VW owners...but at least im faster...at least my econobox is correctly priced

      a speed3 owner
      • 3 Years Ago
      Umm...so why does the '+' paddle shifter also say 'Off'?
        • 3 Years Ago
        The DSG lets you use the paddles whenever you want weather your in "D" "S" or "Manual". When the car is in "D" or "S" the DSG shifts for you. However you can use the paddles whenever you want to bring you into a temporary manual mode. After you blast past the slow guy in the wrong lane you hold down the "+" paddle to put the transmission back into "auto". The systems will also automatically switch back after something like 20s.
        • 3 Years Ago
        I'm completely guessing here, but some German cars with manually shiftable autos (Mercedes, for example) require you to hit "-" to engage "manual" mode, and holding "+" for a second or two to disengage it and put the transmission back in full auto. Perhaps that's the case for VW as well ? :)
        • 3 Years Ago
        hmm...interesting. I'm a regular visitor on Audi forums and have never heard anyone mention that. Nor seen any Audis with paddle-shifters that also say 'Off'.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Can anyone tell me when this will be available in the US? I'm debating a purchase of a GTI in the next 6 months but would wait for this beauty...
      • 3 Years Ago
      Tires are 225/40, not 255/40. 255 would be a bit ambitious for this size car!
      • 3 Years Ago
      I'll definitely check it out when it makes it over here but VW has issues in relibility/dependability/dealer service department that I really wish they'd address (and I'm not a VW hater I actually enjoy their cars).

      • 3 Years Ago
      "Little things"?

      Im 6'3" 220 and I fit perfectly in a GTI. I love the BMW 135i too, but, unfortunately, its a bit small inside for me.

      The GTI is deceptively roomy and not just in the driver's seat. My wife has a 335d BMW and is always sneaking my GTI out of the garage when Im not looking for runs to Home Depot.

      Not that I mind. I love the 335d, too ("The Torque Monster", she calls it..).

      But GTI's are just one of those cult cars. I love them and its what I drive, even though I could probably afford something more expensive at this stage of my life. I dont care. Im on my 4th GTI and Ill be getting a GTI-R as soon as they get here.

      Sorry, Sonata guy, if you dont get it, you never will.
      • 3 Years Ago
      For a company that wants to grab as many sales as they can, they are a bit foolish not to offer the Golf R with DSG in the US. $33K for a 4-Motion Golf offering great performance, DSG for daily driving convenience, and 4 doors to make it a better daily driver. I'm sure they could move 15-20K a year of these with those specs instead of the 5K they plan total over two or so model years.
        • 3 Years Ago
        You honestly think they can sell 20,000 Golf R's in ONE year that cost $33,000+?

        You are nuts and you couldn't be any more wrong.

        VW had an incredibly difficult time moving BOTH of the previous generations of R32s, and I should remind you that the last generation had DSG. Both generations were the epitome of a lot rock, with two dealerships close to me had a couple vehicles that sat in inventory for over a year. No, that isn't a typo, they sat on dealer lots for over 365 days and didn't move even with a ton of cash on the hood. Talk to anyone who would know at a VW dealership and they don't want them on their lot, they don't sell. Period.

        Bottom line? The Golf R is a hell of a package, but it DEFINITELY isn't worth the $33,000+ price of admission for the amount of performance it brings to the table. Its interior is second to none, but that still doesn't make up for its pricing and omission of DSG even as an option. Competitors, while not as refined and don't offer as nice of an interior, offer far more for the performance per dollar ratio. The lack of DSG, even as an option, further reduces this vehicles appeal to a wider audience.

        That is my take on the Golf R.
        • 3 Years Ago
        Agreed. This would be the ultimate northeast city car if it had the DSG: you have AWD so you have the traction and grip you need in icy and snowy conditions, and you have the convenience of an slushbox (in the auto mode), along with having the amazing shifts that you want if you want to hoon it out.

        VW, you confuse me. And this omission caused you to lose a customer.
        • 3 Years Ago

        You can't chip AWD, just saying. And a chip would exist for both cars, and they aren't expensive. One of these is better suited to being a sporty car than the other. There's a reason for that price differential.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Nice pocket rocket.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Good writing. Hard to come by these days.
      • 3 Years Ago
      "In order to get the Golf R approved for American consumption, Volkswagen had to limit the number of options available in our market" - this of course is not accurate, they simply chose to limit the choices as they have been doing overall. Just look at MINI and you see that allowing customers to chose individual options is possible and can be done profitably in the same segment.

      It really is a shame and would have been useful if the reviewer had questioned that statement rather then just accepting it.
        • 3 Years Ago
        Golf R starts at 33k essentially loaded.

        John Cooper Works Clubman starts at 32k, and reaches 37k with the options standard on the Golf R.

        The Golf R is quicker to sixty, has a higher top end, has a better power to weight ratio, and comfortably laps tracks faster than the JCW Clubman. It also seats four adults comfortably, has lots more room inside, tons more space in the trunk and even sports a tighter turning circle.

        Something tells me, were vw to take a page out of mini's handbook, which they're clearly not by offering a much more complete car for $5,000 less, they'd have a harder time moving as many cars. As the comment sections have proven, regardless of how uncompetitive the JCW Clubman is compared to the Golf R, people just want to construct some sort of WRX/STI vs Golf R rivalry (when there is none) and keep demanding a lower cost of entry fully loaded.

        In short - compared to a direct european hatchback competitor - the Golf R is a tremendous bargain.
        • 3 Years Ago
        I hear what you guys are saying but the point is that VW is pulling the options and the ability to get cars with varying options/order as you wish just to save money by being able to load dealers with stock that is all similar - same MO as Honda or Toyota, limit choices to the US just to make things easier. For example as recently as 2010 they let people order single options in a GTI. like HIDs, but now customers are stuck with packages, it really is just an upcharging strategy that also makes it easier for themselves. And it is hard to believe that it is a cost issue at all since they do the same with North American made cars while at the same time letting other countries order more options and more a la carte.

        The thing with Mini is that you can order as you want, even the cheapest base Cooper can be had with stand alone options, so it has nothing to do with the top end of pricing. Sure you can load it up and bloat a Mini terribly, but the choice is yours - VW simply is opting not to give customers flexible choices.
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