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Volkswagen Golf R, 2012: Tease is over, power and panache in new sports car

Once every four years VW brings over a high performance Golf model to appease the enthusiast crowd and to amp up the Golf's image. The past two iterations of the R32 brought over in 2004 and 2008 were outfitted with a normally aspirated 3.2-liter VR6 6-cylinder engine and AWD. This time VW takes a slightly different track and brings over the Golf R from Europe with more power, better performance and improved fuel economy.

 After teasing the media and public for months, the Golf R is now available on North American shores in two-door and four-door models,  and is rarin' to go.

2012 VW Golf R

The 2012 VW Golf R gets the party started with a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine and 6-speed manual transmission. This engine makes 256 horsepower, six more than the VR6 fitted into the 2008 R32 and is also more economical with fuel. Manufacturer estimated fuel economy of 19 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway compared with EPA estimated mileage of 18 mpg in the city and 23 mpg on the highway for the prior model.

A few details, besides the higher power output, make the VW Golf R a special find over the 200 horsepower GTI. First is the 4Motion all-wheel drive system that distributes power to all four wheels and can divert up to 100 percent of the torque to the rear wheels, if needed. The advantages of AWD over front-wheel drive are too numerous to detail. The bottom line is that traction and handling performance  is significantly better with an AWD system compared to a car that has all its power and torque sent to the front wheels.

Both the GTI and Golf R have 2.0L turbocharged engines. But the Golf R gets an uprated turbocharger boosting up to 17 psi and an engine with a  reinforced cylinder block and stronger connecting rods to aid durability. The GTI and Golf R have similar torque curves, but the Golf R is just a wee bit slower to accelerate than the GTI. This is actually a good thing because the R doesn't get that big rush of power as the turbocharger spools up, making for a much smoother acceleration pattern. Accelerating out of the turns is a lot more predictable and without the torque steer the GTI exhibits.

2012 VW Golf R

Straight line performance is super close even though the Golf R has significantly more power…and weight. Zero to 60 mph for the Golf R is accomplished n 5.5 seconds and covers the quarter mile in 14.0 seconds according to zeroto60times.com. The 2012 GTI with the DSG rages from 0 – 60 mph in 5.4 seconds and finishes the quarter mile in 13.9 seconds.

Carving the not-so-smooth roads of the San Francisco bay area I felt the ride quality was still firm without being overly harsh. Steering was light and tossable while still feeling connected and on-center. In the Golf R, the steering ratio is quicker than the GTI’s for an even sportier on-road feel. The suspension of the R hugged the curves of our hilly test route with great poise, never exerting any significant body roll through the tight corners. After completing a series of road tests, I liked how Golf R had much better handling dynamics over the GTI.

Bringing things to a halt are brakes specifically upgraded for the R  – far better units than what is currently on the GTI. I did a few hard brake tests from 60 mph, and instead of getting wiggly, the R bites down and comes to a quick stop. There's no front end chatter and no noticeable aggravation to the steering wheel. Overall braking feel is confident, but I would have like to have tested them on a track to find out if brake fade would be an issue after a few hot lap sessions at Sears Point or Laguna Seca raceways.

2012 VW Golf R

Separating the Golf R and GTI further is the $10,000 price difference. Exterior cues specific to the R are a new front bumper with three large black air intakes and LED daytime running lights.  Unique Bi-Xenon headlights are framed in black and have the Adaptive Front Lighting system, whereby the lights turn with the steering wheel to provide better visibility around corners.

Flared side skirts and new 18-inch alloy wheels add to the car's streamlined profile. Adding more distinction are the exterior mirrors with a  gloss-black finish.

If you happen to approach a Golf R from the rear, the center-mounted twin tailpipes framed by a new rear bumper with a gloss-black diffuser are the easiest to spot.  As your eyes move upward, look for the R badge and a rear spoiler slightly larger than the GTI's.

2012 Volkswagen Golf R interior2012 VW Golf R interior

Inside the Golf R are details which add panache to the functional European interior, such as the aluminum "R" kickplates on the door sills and leather seats adorned with the "R" logo on the head supports. A small diameter steering with a flat bottom and "R" logo give the driver a tangible connection to this purposeful machine and the eyes are treated to blue needles for the instruments, a shifter knob carrying the "R" motif, aluminum pedals, and aluminum trim for the dashboard and doors.

My only complaint with the driving experience was the light, and almost sloppy action, of the 6-speed gearbox. The 6-speed manual has a quick and easy shift action due to the short throws and light clutch, but the gates lack a definitive feel and notch engagement.

While the 2012 Golf R won't match up to other hot hatches with AWD, such as the Subaru WRX STI or Mitsubishi Evo, it will appease V-dub enthusiasts who appreciate the power and performance the R offers, the refinement of a European coach, and exclusivity of a low volume car.

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