What's New for 2012
The 2012 Volkswagen Golf R is all-new.
Years ago, Volkswagen ran a series of rather humorous "Un-Pimp Your Ride" TV spots. The basic premise was that the more mature VW GTI needed no modification compared to trendy hopped-up economy hatchbacks. For 2012 that's still true, but it seems Volkswagen has gone off and done a bit of pimping anyway with its new Golf R.
Of course, this is a restrained, German-style VW we're talking about. You won't find any giant wings, multicolor mood lights or scissor-type doors here. Instead, the 2012 Volkswagen Golf R is a Golf that's been tastefully upgraded one level past the GTI. Power, handling and braking have all been improved, and the car looks a bit more aggressive thanks to a lowered stance, restyled front and rear fascias and twin exhaust tips that exit beneath the center of the rear bumper.
Under the hood is the same 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that's used in the Audi TTS. In Golf R spec, it produces 256 horsepower and 243 pound-feet of torque. It's an eager and throaty-sounding engine, and provides noticeably quicker acceleration than the GTI. The Golf R also comes standard with all-wheel drive, something you won't find on any other Golf. Besides providing extra traction in wet weather, the Golf R's AWD system helps the car accelerate out of corners more quickly, eliminates torque steer and generally provides more confidence. Overall handling is also sharper thanks to a retuned suspension. The Golf R certainly rides more firmly than the GTI, though, and you'll need to be OK with driving stick with a close-ratio six-speed manual transmission -- an automatic transmission isn't offered.
Even so, daily usability is still one of the Golf R's biggest draws. Like the Golf and GTI, it's a roomy hatchback offered in a two- or four-door layout, with an upscale interior and plenty of standard features. Yet it's also got enough performance to put a grin on your face. That extra performance is perhaps hard to justify when you look at the window sticker -- the R's base price is about $10,000 more than a base GTI. And if it's performance you really want, you'll still likely be happier with a cheaper Mazdaspeed 3 or even a more powerful Ford Mustang GT. But the 2012 Volkswagen Golf R is special in its own right. America, your pimped GTI has arrived.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2012 Volkswagen Golf R hatchback is offered as a two-door or four-door. Standard features include 18-inch wheels, adaptive xenon headlights, heated mirrors, dual-zone automatic climate control, full power accessories, sport front seats, heated front seats, leather upholstery, special Golf R badges and trim details, Bluetooth and an eight-speaker sound system with satellite radio, an auxiliary audio jack and a USB/iPod interface. Opting for the Sunroof and Navigation package gets you a sunroof, keyless ignition/entry, a premium audio system, a navigation system and, for the four-door Golf R only, power recline for the driver seat.
Powertrains and Performance
The Golf R comes standard with a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine rated at 256 hp and 243 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual transmission is the only transmission offered. All-wheel drive is also standard. EPA estimated fuel economy, which stands at 19 mpg city/27 mpg highway and 22 mpg combined, is respectable for a performance car.
In Edmunds performance testing, the Golf R went from zero to 60 mph in 6.2 seconds. It's a quick time, but hardly outstanding for this class of car.
Standard safety equipment for the all-wheel-drive 2012 Volkswagen Golf R includes antilock disc brakes, stability and traction control, front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags. In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety testing, the related GTI earned a top rating of "Good" in frontal-offset, side-impact and roof-strength tests.
In Edmunds brake testing, the Golf R stopped from 60 mph in 124 feet, which is average for a car with all-season tires.
Interior Design and Special Features
Among sporty hatchbacks, we rank the 2012 Golf R's interior at the top. The cabin reflects a serious and mature design, with hints of Audi's upscale trim and switchgear throughout. You won't find better materials in the segment, nor front seats that are as sporty and supportive for punchy driving or casual cruising. Unfortunately, you also won't find many places to stash phones, wallets and sunglasses, since the Golf R suffers from a lack of useful storage spaces. The optional navigation system is easy to program, but its map size and displayed street names are noticeably hobbled by the small display screen.
Gaining access to the surprisingly roomy rear seats is naturally easier with the four-door model, but ingress and egress to the two-door's rear seat is relatively painless. Behind the rear seats, the cargo area can hold up to 12.4 cubic feet. That's double the capacity of a Mini Cooper, but about average for other hatchbacks. This volume increases when the split-folding rear seats are down, opening up 46 cubic feet of room.
The 2012 Golf R takes the successful recipe of the GTI and improves it considerably with more power and sharper handling. The turbocharged inline-4 has plenty of torque, making it easy to burble about on congested city streets. But you don't really get the full whack of turbocharged thrust until about 2,800 rpm, meaning you have to keep the engine on boil if you want immediate acceleration. The transmission shifter's light-effort action is very similar to the GTI's, but the throws are shorter. Not only is it excellent for spirited driving, it's remarkably easy to use around town.
Thanks to all-wheel drive, the 2012 Volkswagen Golf R carves through the corners with perfect composure, and the GTI's occasional torque steer is nowhere to be found. It's certainly a fun car to drive aggressively around corners. Pushed to its limits, though, the R is let down by its all-season tires; many competing cars come with grippier summer-spec tires. In terms of ride quality, the Golf R is firm, but never objectionable unless the pavement is in truly miserable shape.