Quick Drive: 2012 Volkswagen Golf R

By Brandon Turkus

November 26, 2012

—Rochester Hills, Michigan
If you’re going to buy a Volkswagen Golf R, there are two things you need to know. First, that it is a steroidal GTI, with a level of performance that easily eclipses the car on which it’s based. The combination of an uprated version of Volkswagen’s excellent 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder and a 4Motion all-wheel-drive system is a serious performance deal.
The Golf R is quite a bit faster than a standard GTI. That shouldn’t be surprising considering it packs 256 horsepower and 243 pound-feet of torque compared to the standard 200 ponies and 207 torque found in the GTI. There’s a noticeable level of turbo lag that gives the R the feel of a much older turbo. This is not a bad thing. The level of character it adds, along with the increased involvement that comes with trying to get keep the engine on the boil is easily one of the car’s best aspects.
[Click here for our review of the 2012 Volkswagen Jetta GLI]
The all-wheel-drive system also, unsurprisingly, adds a lot to the equation. Round a tight corner and jump on the power, and there’s no trouble hooking up. We talk about the ability of certain cars to rocket out of corners, and the Golf R is the definition of this. It’s thoroughly entertaining and borderline addicting.
Quick Drive: 2012 Volkswagen Golf RNow, we said there are two things you need to know before buying a Golf R. The other is that the Golf R is still a GTI. What we mean is, you can’t hop in the R and expect to be blown away by its bespoken nature. For all intents and purposes, this is still a GTI. It uses the same excellent, flat-bottom steering wheel (admittedly with an R badge in place of the GTI badge), the same perfectly bolstered seats, and the same shift knob for the six-speed manual. There are a few small pieces of trim unique to the R, like the blue needles in the instrument cluster, but almost without exception this is the same interior you can get on a $25,000 GTI.
And that really sums up our big issue with the Golf R. It looks and feels too much like a regular GTI. This is thrown into stark relief when you look at the old R32, which the Golf R is meant to replace. The R32 used the same formula of our tester; more power and all-wheel drive. Where the old model differed is that it felt distinctly different. It had more unique interior pieces, and the exterior aesthetic was decidedly more extensive than our Golf R (which mainly differs by way of its wheels and some LEDs).
On a driving level, the R32 was also a more appealing vehicle. Its use of a 3.2-liter V-6 rather than a 2.0-liter turbo was unique and exciting, and gave the car a character all its own. After a turn in the Golf R, we can’t help feeling that at its core, it’s still just a GTI. Albeit a really fast one.
Finally, we’d me remiss if we didn’t mention the aftermarket and pricing. Adding 39 horsepower to the GTI’s 2.0-liter turbo is not a remotely tall order in the aftermarket. Sure, the tuners can’t offer an all-wheel-drive system, but they can shore up the suspension to the point that it could handle some catastrophic levels of power. And at the end of the day, you’d still probably walk away with some change in your pocket.
If the aftermarket isn’t your cup of schnapps, there are plenty of manufacturers that will sell you Golf R levels of performance for less. Notable among those is Subaru. For almost $10,000 less, you can get a Subaru WRX that’ll deliver nearly identical performance, and for the price of an R you could pick up a very tidy STI that would drive circles around this Golf. There are other options out there as well, like the new Ford Focus ST and the venerable Mazdaspeed3 (although they don’t offer all-wheel drive).
Look, at the end of the day, the Golf R is a hell of a performance machine. Our issue is merely that it doesn’t feel distinctly removed from the standard GTI. If you can get over this, though, you’re in for the most exciting and entertaining hatch to ever wear the Volkswagen badge.
2012 Volkswagen Golf R Two-Door w/ Sunroof And Nav
Engine: Turbocharged inline-4, 2.0 liters, 16v 
Output: 256 hp/243 lb-ft
Weight: 3325 lb
0-60 MPH: 5.6 sec
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 19/27 mpg
Base Price: $35,490