It is nearly impossible to avoid reminiscing about the 1983 Volkswagen GTI while driving the 2012 Volkswagen Golf R. As you may recall, "the original hot hatch" arrived on our shores seemingly eons ago with a naturally aspirated 1.8-liter four spitting out just 90 horsepower. While hardly brawny, even in an era of wheezy outputs (the 1983 Mustang GT 5.0 generated just 175 horsepower), its low curb weight of 2,100 pounds and a base price of $7,995 made the range-topping Rabbit not only light, tossable and reasonably quick, but very affordable.
Fast forward nearly three decades to the 2012 Volkswagen Golf R, a direct descendant of that first-generation GTI. Thoroughly modernized, and riding on a sixth-generation chassis, the new two- or four-door range-topping Golf boasts a bit more displacement and gobs more horsepower. But that is not all today's hot hatch has gained. With innovation and refinement come mass and cost – both of which have risen dramatically over the past three decades.
After falling head-over-heels for the 2012 Golf R after our first drive of the Euro-spec model in Switzerland last spring, it was time to put one in our garage for a longer run on domestic soil. With an eager and open mind, we welcomed the Golf R into our lives for a week. While we didn't have a chance to toss it around a closed racing circuit, we did put in several hundred miles on the highway, wrung it out on Mulholland and frolicked in wet Southern California mountain snow. In the process, we not only learned plenty about Volkswagen's hot hatch, but we met several other Golf R drivers who were more than willing to talk to us about their own experiences.
Buyers in the United States have to make a few concessions. Unlike the Euro-spec Golf R, configured with to-die-for sport bucket seats, electronically adjustable suspension, Volkswagen's DSG dual-clutch automatic gearbox and a choice of tires, the U.S.-spec Golf R arrives with standard GTI-issue front seats, fixed sport dampers, a six-speed manual gearbox and all-season rubber. There is also a slight power change, as the U.S.-spec model loses a bit of horsepower and torque in the translation.
But focusing on what we don't get is the wrong approach, as the U.S.-spec Golf R is still one talented package.
Under the hood is Volkswagen's turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder (EA113), tuned to develop 256 horsepower and 243 pound-feet of torque. Specially modified for use in the R, the direct-injected engine with a belt-driven camshaft features a reinforced iron cylinder block, stronger connecting rods and a Borg-Warner K04 turbocharger pumping out 17 psi of boost (while the displacement is the same, the standard GTI is actually fitted with a different four-cylinder engine: VW's EA888 with a chain-driven camshaft).
As mentioned, the standard gearbox on our shores is a close-ratio, short-throw six-speed manual transmission with magnesium selector housing. Power is sent to all four wheels through Volkswagen's 4Motion all-wheel drive, a Haldex-based system that uses clutch packs to vary torque sent to the rear wheels based on available traction – 100 percent of the torque is sent to the front wheels when grip is good, but up to 100 percent of the torque can be directed to the rear wheels when slippage is noted.
The Golf R's fixed dampers are uniquely calibrated and stiffer than those fitted to the GTI. The brakes are also upgraded, with 13.6-inch ventilated discs up front and 12.2-inch ventilated discs in the rear. Single-piston sliding calipers are standard on all corners. Wheels are 18-inch alloys, wearing all-season 225/40R18 rubber as standard equipment (the wheel and tire size are the same as the GTI).
Other enhancements to the Golf R over its GTI counterpart are mostly cosmetic. In addition to unique bodywork, upgrades include a slew of "R" badging, a sporty flat-bottom steering wheel, blue needles on the instruments, aluminum pedals, aluminum trim and an "R" shifter.
The two-door base price of $33,990 includes dual-zone climate control, bi-xenon headlights, leather upholstery and full power accessories. The four-door starts at $36,090, but it includes all of the aforementioned equipment plus a power tilt/sliding sunroof, keyless entry/ignition, Dynaudio premium sound and Volkswagen's RNS 315 touchscreen navigation system. Equip the two-door like the four-door and it starts at $35,490. The only options in the States are dealer-installed accessories such as floor mats or a first aid kit.
Our first domestic taste of the 2012 Golf R involved driving it from the Bay Area to the Los Angeles Basin, a long trip of about 400 miles down California's Interstate 5. The monotonous strip of speed-enforced concrete was hardly the R's natural habitat. While we liked the sport seats, the stiffly sprung suspension shook our sodas to a froth and encouraged us to take rest breaks every hour or so. The engine, tuned for performance, delivered about 26 miles per gallon overall according to the onboard computer. At first glance, that number seemed a bit low for a late-model direct-injected 2.0-liter – the 2012 GTI is rated 21 city/31 highway – but it aligned well when compared against the EPA's official estimates of 19 city and 27 highway. For once, the slower traffic-choked freeways of Los Angeles couldn't come soon enough.
If road trips are its failing, then carving canyons are the Golf R's success. An hour of blasting around corners in second and third gear, while thick on turbocharged boost, left us smiling and giddy. It is easy to drive fast and very predictable at the limit. Unlike many high-performance vehicles that are tuned to feel light and agile, the Golf R drives with a heavier and more deliberate step – much like a BMW 3 Series. Yet regardless of its all-wheel-drive configuration, the nose-heavy Volkswagen still exhibits front-wheel-drive mannerisms. In fact, driven at moderate speeds, the Golf R behaves much like the overweight GTI that it is.
The less constraining suburbs allowed the Golf R's true personality to emerge. Zipping around town was joyful. We applauded the slick manual gearbox and praised all-wheel drive as it completely eliminated the GTI's Achilles heel – front-wheel-drive burnouts. After a bit of annoying turbo lag, the boosted inline-four comes to life with a determined vengeance. It's a solid powerplant, one that we enjoyed in the Audi TTS, yet burdened with the additional mass of the Golf R – Volkswagen uses steel where Audi utilizes more costly aluminum – gearing is short, maybe too short, and a couple shifts are required before the 60-mph benchmark is hit. This likely explains its rather lackluster performance numbers. While Volkswagen doesn't release acceleration figures, those who test for numbers are finding the R accelerates to 60 mph in about 5.8 seconds.
Out of curiosity, we chased one of Southern California's winter storms into the mountains above Ojai. The rain that drenched the Los Angeles basin at sea level had fallen as wet snow at 5,000 feet of elevation. Ignoring the 'Chains Required' signs, we confidently soldiered into the Los Padres National Forest with the turbocharged, all-wheel-drive Golf R.
The all-season tires we cursed the day before had now become our allies, as their full-depth tread and cross-cut sipes bit and held the snow with impressive tenacity. With temperatures hovering at freezing, and two inches of white stuff covering the road, Volkswagen's AWD system was at home. From the driver's seat, it was difficult to tell when the front tires were losing grip and power was being transferred rearward.
Determined to challenge the all-wheel-drive system further, we found a large unpaved turnout where a couple inches of fresh snow hid a very slippery layer of mud and dirt. It was the opportune time to reenact our childhood rally car dreams and powerslide the Volkswagen around, kicking up rooster tails of sticky ice-encrusted mud. It didn't even come close to getting stuck. In fact, the Golf R's only demerit seemed to be its low ground clearance. While we didn't realize it at the time, our childish antics had packed both front wheels with enough muddy ice to throw the 18-inch alloys off balance – a messy situation that sidelined us for fifteen minutes of cleaning during on our trek back down the mountain.
Golf R owners are a passionate bunch, and we crossed paths with several during our time with the VW. It gave us the opportunity to ask them a few questions for some frank feedback.
According to its press release, Volkswagen believes that the BMW 128i, Mini Cooper S JCW, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and Subaru Impreza WRX STI are the Golf R's main competitors. We ran that question by some of the owners to see what they considered before buying the Golf R. Heather Hoyt, upgrading from a late-model GTI (and former owner of a 2008 WRX STI) considered an Evo, but it was lacking the hatchback she needed. "The only one I seriously considered was another WRX STI because it was the only other car that met all of my criteria: I need four doors (kids), I need a hatchback (bikes), I need it to go fast (I unfortunately support local law enforcement), and I need AWD (burnouts suck)," noted Heather. Kalen Maxwell owned a 2008 BMW 135i and a 2010 VW GTI before taking delivery of his Golf R. He considers it "the best driver's car that can be had for under $40,000." Jason Kehrli, who came out of a 1998 BMW 323is, was drawn in by the R's standard AWD. "I wasn't quite sold on the GTI because of my concern with how satisfied a FWD car would keep me as a driver. I also wanted something special, something that not everyone had," Jason told us.
Unlike most of its aforementioned competitors, we never felt like the Golf R was only about performance – it is, after all, only mid-pack when compared to its adversaries. Instead, it is a well-balanced package that stands out in its segment. The owners seemed to agree. "I loved my GTI as it had just the right amount of cool features," said Heather. "The only things I didn't like were that it was front-wheel drive, and it was a little slow. The Golf R addressed both of those issues and kept all the interesting features, even adding some new ones." Kalen also appreciated the performance, but was ultimately sold by the upscale cabin. "I love that the interior has quality, purpose and style – it outclasses anything with this level of performance in this price range," he explained. "What I like most about the Golf R is that it feels special. It doesn't look or feel like every other car out there, especially in the hot hatch segment," added Jason.
Of course, even current Golf R owners had a wish list of things they would like changed. Both Kalen and Jason shared our complaints about the lousy location of the AUX audio port (it gets in the way of shifting the manual gearbox) and we heard gripes about the short gear ratios and slight turbo lag. The most vocal was Heather, who said it was "mind boggling" that summer rubber was not an option. She also wished that "there was more of a nod to the Golf R's predecessor, the R32... such as the blue-painted calipers." We agree.
Yes, it is a frustrating shame that we don't get the racing seats, additional horsepower and transmission choices here in the States, but none of those omissions altered our feelings about the Golf R. In the big picture, this range-topping sporty hatchback is nothing but a thrill to drive. Look past its small performance deficiencies, swallow the discomforting sticker price and write the fat check. You will thank us later.