2010 Volkswagen GTI Long-Term Road Test

2010 VW GTI: OK, Try This One: The 2012 VW Golf R

August 23, 2011

GolfRDynamic.jpg (Photo courtesy of Volkswagen of America, Inc.)

Our departed 2010 Volkswagen GTI caused some derisive opinions in the office. It was like red states versus blue states or cat people versus dog people, but in this case it was editors who loved our GTI (i.e., Riswick) and those who, if not hated, at least disliked it with a fair amount of passion (i.e., Jacquot).

But soon there could be a solution to make both camps happy -- the 2012 Volkswagen Golf R. A meaner, more powerful version of the GTI, this R32 successor could be the car that turns the GTI haters' frowns upside down. But it could also still be refined enough to keep the GTI lovers in their "Das Auto" T-shirts.

So how does it shape up? I got to drive the 2012 Golf R in Herndon, Virginia (near Volkswagen's headquarters) today to find out.

First, some background that's more up-to-date than our first drive. The Golf R gets the same variant of 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that's used in the 265-horsepower Audi TTS. In Golf R spec, it produces 256 hp and 243 pound-feet of torque. According to VW, the detuning is to ensure durability as the Golf R's front fascia doesn't have as much air flow cooling potential as the TTS'. But as a nod to the car's enthusiast audience, a six-speed manual is the only transmission offered.

The 2012 VW Golf R continues the R32's distinction of standard four-wheel drive. Power is routed to all four wheels through an updated Haldex four-wheel drive system. Unlike a WRX STI, for instance, the Golf R's system is front-wheel drive until additional traction is needed. But compared to the R32, the new system is much quicker and predictive when vectoring torque -- up to 100 percent of it -- to the rear.

The suspension tuning is firmer than the GTI's, with a 0.6-inch drop in ride height below the GTI's already lowered height. European models actually get an adaptive suspension damper option, but it won’t be available for the U.S. Even so, the U.S. car isn't defanged -- tuning for the R's suspension is pretty much the same as if you were to set the Euro adaptive suspension to the most aggressive "Sport." The R's steering is still electric assist and has the same ratio, but effort has been retuned to be sportier.

GolfR_interior.jpg (Euro-spec Golf R. Photo courtesy of Volkswagen of America, Inc.)

As with the GTI, both two-door and four-door Rs will be sold. Specific changes for the R include unique front and rear fascias, unique 18-inch wheels, dual center-exit exhaust, sport seats and special interior trim details.

I only got to spend about 30 minutes with a Euro-spec two-door R, but even in that short amount of time the changes over the GTI were readily apparent. Slip inside and you'll find the front seats have thicker side bolsters, particularly the lower bolsters for the seat cushion. Personally, I would have liked to see even thicker bolsters for the seatback. It was tricky to determine how the official U.S. car will be compared to the Euro version in terms of minor interior trim details, but it seems safe to say it'll be pretty much like the GTI but with a few variations. Leather is standard (no plaid cloth, sorry), and the smattering of "R" logos is a nice touch.

GolfR_drive1.JPG The manual shifter feels pretty much just like the GTI's, with somewhat long throws but a nice, precise action. The biggest differences, however, come down to power and handling. The Golf R is noticeably quicker than the GTI and gives you a nice shove in the back when you wood the throttle in a low gear. Torque is abundant, lag is minimal and redline is set at 6,500 rpm. The engine/exhaust note is gruffer, though to be honest I think I preferred the more refined sound of our GTI.

I only had one chance to see what the four-wheel-drive system could do -- from a rolling stop, I turned left mashed the throttle. There wasn't any drama or torque steer -- the Golf R just gripped and ripped. It'll be interesting to see how it does in terms of acceleration runs once we get one to test. For what it's worth, VW says it'll hit 60 mph in less than 6 seconds.

The R's suspension is certainly firmer, with less body roll than the GTI. It's a more willing partner for driving aggressively, with sharper responses and meatier (though it's still not particularly communicative) steering. The stability control system has also been dialed back for the R to be less intrusive. However, it's still not fully defeatable. Also, the R will come with all-season tires standard, with no option for summer tires.

GolfR_drive2.JPG The last two bits will probably disappoint hard-core enthusiasts. After all, the car has an "R" in its name, right? But it wasn't Volkswagen's intent to build an Evo. The traditional GTI traits of a stellar interior and an agreeable ride quality are still intact. Basically, what you have here is a GTI that is quicker, more athletic and cooler-looking but still the adult in the hot-hatch segment. And I suspect for just about everybody, that's something that they can be happily non-partisan about.

No official pricing has been announced, but the Golf R is set to go on sale in early 2012. Look for a full test in the coming months.

Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor

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