What It Is
The2012 VW Golf R is an enthusiast's hatch, as much fun as it is practical.
The R has some serious charisma, unparalleled cornering and grip at this price. Exhaust note is throaty, sonorous, and yet still clean.
Volkswagen's premium hatch comes with a premium price increase, as well.
For an enthusiast's car, it's surprisingly practical. For a practical car, its performance is surprising.
I'm blasting Barbra Streisand's "The Windmills of Your Mind," and I wouldn't normally listen -- much less blast -- Babs, but her cover of the 1968 Noel Harrison song haunts me, and I welcome it. I've got all four windows of the just-arrived-hotly-anticipated Volkswagen Golf R down, and currently I'm zipping through...I don't exactly know where, but I do know it's somewhere close to "Mountain House," a lodge in the woods in Northern California. Things are confusing: I landed in San Francisco the day before and was immediately whisked to a Hotel in Half-Moon Bay, which is in the general Bay area. In the dark of morning before birds were chirping there was a press conference in what I believe was the same day, before we drove up to this remote cabin that'd put a crooked smile on Stephen King's face. I got here and jumped into a car and was given a map and everyone was smiling. Volkswagen invited us up for its version of It's Just Lunch . But instead, our speed dates take form in It's Just a Volkswagen! The automaker's cheery staff has kicked the squirrels to the curb, to make way for a journalist offensive.
On hand was the whole line, and really, V-Dub has much to be proud of. The Passat was Motor Trend's Car of the Year; the Beetle is improved and less dainty; the Touareg can take on all comers, and I could go on. And while we got to drive those, here we're concerned with the 2012 Golf R. And I couldn't wait to drive it, and literally, I didn't. Our staff was fortunate to have a Euro-spec Golf R to toss around for a week, and I was allowed to get intimate with it over a weekend. That car isn't exactly this car, there are differences that we'll get more in to that in a bit, but needless to say, I was curious to see what exactly it was we were getting in the U.S.
What was this car that was supposed to be the victor of Golfdom? Was the anticipation and the wait and the hype justified? Is any Golf worth $35,000? Is the 2012 Volkswagen Golf R better than the R32 that VW pulled from the U.S. some years ago? Should you consider it over a Mitsubishi Evolution, BMW 1 Series, or Subaru WRX? These questions and others were pressing, while Streisand evocatively belted out "like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel... like the circles that you find, in the windmills of your mind." In the haze that was this day, nothing seemed more appropriate.
Walkaround"Wow it's clean," my friend said. This was his response to the Euro-spec Golf R when I picked him up, well before the adventures of "Mountain House." Clean. The Euro-spec and the U.S. versions are very similar; Europeans get LED taillights while we get the tried-and-true incandescent bulbs. But looking at the 2012 Golf R, you get a sense of a sporty, fun hatch. It's got the length and width and girth, the presence, to foreshadow its utility, but it also distinguishes itself from the lesser Volkswagen GTI and regular Golf. The R isn't gaudy and doesn't shout, but the sportiness isn't too subtle, either. Volkswagen found a nice balance here, and made a car that looks modern, but with enough classic cues so that it'll also look good in five years.
Sitting DownIf the exterior was "clean," the interior is downright hygienic. A streamlined cabin brings Germanic order and civility inside, but the Golf R is rife with premium accents. Exquisite leather seats have plush side bolsters, sporty "R" badges on the headrests, and are absolutely as comfortable as they are sporty looking. The dash is simple and sleek; climate and audio controls are logical and fall easily to the hand, and the spacing is right, too. The 2012 Golf R is offered with two or four-doors, but entry and exit isn't much of a difficult proposition in the two-door. Four taller passengers can easily fit, but you'll want to limit five to shorter trips, lest things get testy.
While the U.S. version didn't get the single most characteristic feature of the Euro version -- a bottle opener situated as a divider in the center cupholder -- there was still plenty to be pleased with. The shift knob falls nicely in hand, and is covered with stitched leather. The steering wheel is a good size, and Volkswagen did a good job of fitting the airbag into a pleasingly small diameter. The wheel's squared off bottom gives it a bit of sportiness, and is something Volkswagen does in its luxury brand, Audi. The instrument panel and gauges give an impression of preciseness, and are playfully colored with blue needles, white numbers and red hash marks. Some brushed aluminum accents round out the cabin. While the interior of the Golf R is far plusher compared to the Mitsubishi Evolution, MazdaSpeed3, or Subaru WRX, it's not better than a BMW 1 Series, and is certainly not as nice as the much pricier, but mechanically similar Audi TTS.
DrivingThe first time I got behind the wheel of the Euro-spec Golf R in Los Angeles, I was impressed with the interior, but it was when I got moving that the real grin permeated my whole being. The engine note is glorious, symphonic, and just right. The shifter was just engaging enough -- not quite as fun as a Mazda Miata, but not as vague as a Hyundai Elantra, either. The throws are not short, but rather appropriate, and the second gear is a splendid thing. You can really get up to decent speed quickly. To be clear, the Euro-spec was not exactly the same car as the U.S. version. The primary differences included the suspension; the Euro R has three driving modes (comfort, normal, and sport), while the U.S. R has one standard suspension that's closest to the "normal" Euro-mode. But it was in the mountains of Northern California that the Golf R seemed most in its element, and where you didn't really miss those modes.
With slivers of asphalt masking a two lane curvy road and relatively little traffic, I got to really let the R rip. Suddenly all things good and decent in this world culminated into one, the pure joy of driving that you often hear about but rarely get to experience, coming to fruition. The cat let loose in endless pastures of cat-nip, puppies given individual bowls of bacon, this was all that but it wasn't those things exactly: the Volkswagen Golf R's 4Motion all-wheel-drive system is so good, and so confidence-inspiring that you can really push the throttle and blast through corners without ever really feeling in danger.
Which in a way, is sort of a dangerous thing. The Golf R can play a convincing daily driver, and it's easy to forget that the 2.0-liter turbocharged engine can pony up 256-hp, and a very gratifying amount of that comes on the lower end. Take the Golf R on the track, and the Mitsubishi Evo can teach it a thing or two. In real-world driving however, the R is certainly the more balanced of the two.
SummaryThe 2012 Volkswagen Golf R doesn't especially excel in any one category, but it will score very high marks in all categories. The R is a daily driver with comfortable seating for four and room for a snug five, if need be. But while it's got the utility of a hatchback, make no mistake, underneath the guts are a pure sports coupe. For Volkswagen loyalists, this is very much the car you've been waiting for. It offers similar performance to the much pricier Audi TTS, for significantly less. By that same token, it's matched in utility by the much less expensive Golf and GTI, both of which are still fun cars to drive. They don't offer quite as much performance, but is the R worth the premium? And it's not a simple yes or no, that's something each buyer shopping the R must consider (based on finances, loyalties, etc.). Japanese rivals such as the Subaru WRX and MazdaSpeed3 are not as refined and premium feeling, but are just as fast (or faster), and they come at a discount. The BMW 1 Series also merits consideration.
We're anxious to get behind the wheel again on our familiar roads where we can really gauge road noise, tinker around with the stereo, and see what real-world driving in a U.S.-spec Golf R is like. Driving on a windy two-lane road is undoubtedly fun, but what kind of mileage will we average in our Southern California commute? We're also curious to see if the performance-tuned hatchback's styling will turn many heads around car-conscious Los Angeles.