The latest 2012 Golf R, which we recently drove, rather briefly, on California's Bay Area highways and up to Half Moon Bay, gets back to VW's roots, and its performance potential with small cars, and while it by no means runs like a tweaked-out tuner car, it does find more of the spirit of the original 1980s GTI models while reaping the potential of all-wheel drive.
The building blocks are familiar. Under the hood of the Golf R is essentially the same 2.0-liter direct-injected four-cylinder engine that's fitted widely throughout VW's U.S. product line, although here—and mainly through higher turbocharger boost—it makes 256 horsepower and 243 pound-feet (up from 200 hp and 207 lb-ft).
More boost and all-wheel drive, but no DSG
To accommodate that boost to 17 psi, there are actually a host of reinforcements for durability, and mainly due to the engine's output (although it's likely also a badge of honor for enthusiasts) there's no automatic transmission, or even DSG here—just a six-speed manual gearbox.
Volkswagen's 4Motion all-wheel-drive system is included in all Golf R models and is essentially the same as what's used in other VWs—with a Haldex clutch pack that fine-tunes the amount of power that's sent to the rear wheels. If needed, almost 100 percent of engine power can be sent to the rear wheels, but in 'normal' driving, the R functions much as a front-driver.
This strategy is for the better when it comes to maximizing fuel economy—the R is rated 19 mpg city, 27 highway—but from previous experience with this system out on the track, it makes the car somewhat more entertaining and tenacious on switchbacks yet still feeling mostly like a strongly understeer-prone front-driver when you really push the limits. The important thing to remember about it is that, thankfully, this system no longer needs the front wheels to slip before it sends more kick to the butt.
The suspension is the same as what's used in the GTI—strut-type in front and multi-link in back—but it's been tuned a bit firmer and rides slightly lower; and there's quicker-ratio steering gear. Brakes have been beefed up significantly, too, with larger 13.6-inch front and 12.2-inch rear discs—up from 12.3-inch and 10.7-inch, respectively, in the GTI. All-season performance tires (225/40), on 18-inch alloy wheels, are also included.
The Golf R does look a bit different, with special aluminum kickplates and a flat-bottom leather-trimmed steering wheel, plus special 'R' logo deep-bolstered leather sport seats, aluminum pedals, and additional touches like blue gauge pointers. From the outside, xenon headlamps and LED daytime running lamps (with adaptive front lighting) are standard, and the Golf R is probably best singled out by the 'R' logo on the grille and the centrally located dual exhaust outlets in back.
Other standard equipment on the $34,760 Golf R (two-door) includes dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth, iPod compatibility, and a Premium VIII audio system with eight speakers. Step up to the sunroof and navigation package ($36,860 for the four-door) and you get a sunroof, touch-screen nav system, keyless entry, push-button start, and 300-watt Dynaudio system.
A well-rounded performance car, or not edgy enough?
So how's it drive? Simply put, there are two sides to the Golf R's personality that run deep. On one side, with the quite sophisticated 4Motion system, sticky rubber, deft suspension tuning, and meaty torque curve, the R displays a lack of fluster, and it feels surprisingly stoic. On the other hand, the throaty exhaust note, somewhat sharper and quicker (but not quite nervous) steering, and somewhat harsher ride altogether gives an edgy, tweaky side that's unusual in German cars. Altogether, this bi-polar nature served to remind my co-driver and me of the Audi TT RS at times—which is not at all a bad thing.