2012 Volkswagen Golf R Five-Door

 —Half Moon Bay, California

The great thing about a competitive market is that it often serves up a multiplicity of choices, some of which are targeted rather narrowly. This willingness to aim at niches is particularly helpful to enthusiasts because enthusiasts are a relatively small, albeit influential, minority of car buyers. So it was with an enthusiastic smile on our faces that we headed for northern California to drive Volkswagen’s latest exercise in narrowcasting, the Golf R.

VW positions the Golf R as the successor to the R32 models of the previous generations, based on key differences from the GTI: higher horsepower (256 for the Golf R) and standard all wheel drive. And, like the R32, the Golf R carries a higher price tag. That’s all very logical, and not wrong, but after driving the Golf R our takeaway is that the Golf R is something different enough to be considered without reference to the R32, which is just as well since we never really saw eye-to-eye with the R32 to begin with.

We think prospective buyers will notice two standout qualities in the Golf R. We might characterize the first of these as “balance”. If your point of comparison is the stereotypical hot hatch, as represented by the GTI or the Mini Cooper S or the WRX, then you’ll find the Golf R to be a different beast. That’s because it delivers its power in a more controlled and sorted way than those cars do. Head into a curve and the car rotates predictably and willingly. It isn’t as edgy or dynamic as some hatches, but it feels more controlled and composed. As you approach the apex of a curve, the Golf R sends fewer signals about its front wheel drive origins that you might expect, preferring to trace accurate arcs set by the driver.

As you come off the corner and get back into the throttle, the AWD arrangement helps with the sense that all four tires are doing their allotted work, even though the sensations are different that you’d have with a classic rear-driver. But the sensations aren’t that far off of an RWD arrangement, because this latest 4Motion system can divert up to 100 percent of the engine’s torque to the rear wheels. The difference is that in an AWD setup you don’t have quite the predictability of behavior that you do with RWD; said another way, AWD gives you more sense that the car is modulating its dynamics. Fortunately, this feels like a pretty cooperative partnership between driver and vehicle in the Golf R.

Hiding the car’s internal machinations is also partly down to the choice of bushings and dampening. In the Golf R, the controls filter out some of the proceedings down at the road, which may be desirable if this car is to be a daily driver. Cornering is fairly flat, and the Golf handles bumps pretty well, though the suspension is firm enough that we’d say the car prefers smoother surfaces. Ride quality is acceptable, but pavement edges are not smoothed over as much as in some other cars in this price class.

The powertrain offers a similar dose of control. With 243 pound-feet of torque to complement its 256 horsepower, the engine pulls well and its acceleration is certainly a step above many other turbo four-cylinder cars. At the same time, the power is delivered quite linearly, matching the poise of the chassis. The Golf R feels quick, though it never quite makes it into the realm of genuinely fast.

The other standout element of the Golf R is its functionality. AWD is of course one component of that, at least if you live in our northern climes. Just as big, literally, is the car’s interior space. The rear seat room is generous, and VW has sensibly decided to offer both two-door and four-door configurations. With the rear seat folded, the Golf can swallow an amazing amount of stuff as well, something that isn’t as easily done with some other cars nominally in this size class.

Another element that we’d say supports this functional sensibility is the design of the car. The Golf R looks like a Golf. That means it is traditional and conservative, with straightforward lines and solid materials. The R operates to a premium standard with niceties like leather, bi-xenon headlights, dual-zone climate control, and Bluetooth. A package of sunroof, keyless entry, navigation, and Dynaudio sound is basically the only option besides the number of doors, and Golf Rs are equipped only with manual transmissions. If you want the heart of a boy racer without the flamboyant wings and stripes, well the Golf R seems to be aimed at you.

This positioning statement raises the key question we had after driving the Golf R: is it enough of a boy racer, deep down inside, to justify its price tag and satisfy its owners?

On one hand, it is hard to see how the value equation works. The Golf R is, for example, rather like a WRX in performance, but at a significantly higher price. Not only that, but the Golf R is so controlled in its behavior that it lacks some of the charm that a WRX or Mini has. Not only is power curve linear and the handling quite tidy, but the steering is slightly dull and the shifter a tad wobbly. But the real Golf R buyer may view the competitors’ charms as flaws.

The real Golf R buyer may also have eliminated cars like the WRX (too cheap) and Mini (too small). In fact, it is rather hard to come up with a direct competitor at a similar $34,000 to $36,000 price. If one says that the Evo and the WRX STI are too boy racer, then most of the enthusiast cars in the mid-30’s are rear wheel drive coupes. Maybe unsurprisingly, the closest alternative might be the Audi A4. At $33,300 the A4 offers AWD, four doors, and 258 pound-feet of torque. The Golf R is certainly a sportier setup than an A4, and may be more practical as well, while the Audi takes maturity a step further.

The other way to think about the Golf R is as the ultimate GTI. If you love the GTI, but would like to improve its handling and power curve, the Golf R basically does that and does it quite well. The R is 56 horsepower and 36 pound-feet up on the GTI, and the suspension feels tighter thanks to stiffer mechanicals and the AWD setup (the brakes are bigger as well). You could get some of those features via the tuner route, but the Golf R does it all and does it with a warranty, the ability to put everything into your monthly payment, and a lesser depreciation hit.

In the end, while magazine readers sometimes want new cars that are standouts on a particular factor, real buyers often want a solid blend of desirable attributes. If a stealthy balance of pace, AWD, practicality, and conservative design—minus a flashy brand name—is the package you’re looking for, VW has built your car.

VS: BMW 128i Coupe

If one is looking for a fun, personal, grown-up, European car at a price point in the mid-$30K range, the most basic 1-Series isn’t nearly as out of the ball park for a Golf R cross-shop as it first appears.

The smallest Bimmer sacrifices outright power and torque, as well as the grippy, all-weather advantages of AWD, but fights back with purer driving dynamics and classic rear-drive handling.

Of course, if practicality is even a fleeting concern here, the 128i starts to dim massively against the fit-it-all-in magic of the Golf packaging. Being a far newer model, the in-cabin refinement and available tech are strongly in the VW’s corner, too.

VS: Mini Cooper S JCW

Mini’s hardest-core hatchback doesn’t have nearly the same output as the Golf R (it’s down nearly 50 horsepower), but it does pack a lot more in the way of intensity. The JCW is loud where the R is muted, edgy where the R is smooth, and manic where the R is progressive. Both of these hot hatches will take you through a series of corners quickly, but the JCW is far more likely to clue you in on what’s happening mechanically, while the Golf implores you to sit back and enjoy the fast ride.


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