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2012 Volkswagen Golf R - AWD Turbo, From The “Other Side” - First Drive

We take a spin in one of the hottest hatches Deutschland has to offer.

Nate Hassler
Jun 4, 2012
Modp 1206 01+2012 volkswagen golf r+cover Photo 1/3   |   2012 Volkswagen Golf R - AWD Turbo, From The “Other Side” - First Drive

Let’s just start off by saying, yes this is a Volkswagen on the pages of Modified. Don’t waste your time looking outside. The sky is not falling and you probably don’t have four horsemen marching up to your door. Although the vast majority of what we cover in Modified falls under the umbrella of Japanese sport compact performance, in an effort to bring a broader spectrum of coverage, and dare I say, eye-opening point of view to our loyal readers, we have decided to have a go in the widely loved ’12 Volkswagen Golf R. This AWD, turbocharged hatchback is right up our alley, even though it roots from a different part of the world than what we normally talk about. We can also get out of the way now that yes, the car is good—really good. Here’s why.

Style is an arguable and intangible element, however, what’s not debatable is that Volkswagen’s design team is one of the best in the world; whether you like ’em or not, VW has some of the best-looking cars on the road today. The Golf R is one of the more aggressive vehicles in the lineup, with refined touches setting it apart from its FWD Golf and GTI brethren. The aggressive front grille and bumper design are the first distinguishing marks of the Golf R, and a dual-tip center-mounted exhaust and upgraded rear apron are the only major clues from the rear that the R has more going on underneath the skin. It’s available as either a three- or five-door hatchback (the R is well balanced visually in either configuration), and its lines are simple and fairly conservative. The R is a mature “grown-up” car, with no fluff or unnecessary bits haphazardly thrown in—a very German characteristic.

Modp 1206 02+2012 volkswagen golf r+interior Photo 2/3   |   2012 Volkswagen Golf R - AWD Turbo, From The “Other Side” - First Drive
The interior cabin design is very clean and comfortable, with a very nicely put together feel resonating throughout.

The interior cabin design is very clean and comfortable, with a very nicely put together feel resonating throughout. VW has done a great job of combining creature comforts and performance necessities; the seats are bolstered for corner holding yet you don’t feel like your back is down for the count after a long drive. There’s also plenty of room in the back for passengers, or camping gear, or a large dog, or pretty much anything you want. One of the biggest tests I unwillingly perform with every First Drive is the “camera gear test.” Will it all fit? I’m happy to report that the Golf R passed this with flying colors! The steering wheel is well placed and feels good in your hands, with easy access to stereo and other controls right at your fingertips. I can’t comment on the SAT-NAV functionality, because my test mule came equipped with a European map set. Driving routes between Santa Monica and Wolfsburg could, surprisingly, not be found. It’s OK though, because even though I had to rely on the trusty Bat Phone to get around, it was one of the last things on my mind. For overall interior function (and fashion), the Golf R scores big.

Modp 1206 03+2012 volkswagen golf r+engine Photo 3/3   |   2012 Volkswagen Golf R - AWD Turbo, From The “Other Side” - First Drive

Mechanically speaking, the Golf R is a winner. All-wheel drive, more than 250 horses, and an available six-speed manual transmission are all signs that VW has its thinking in the right place with the purpose of the R. As the most powerful production Golf Volkswagen has ever produced (6 horses up over the departing V6-powered R32) the R is definitely a fun driver’s car. The sound of the 16-valve DOHC 2.0L turbocharged four-banger is lively, with enough throaty grunt to satisfy gearheads, yet it remains restrained enough to make for a pleasant daily commuter. The AWD system of the Golf R is based on the same engineering of the Audi A3, and as you would suspect, the entire drivetrain works wonderfully, for the most part. There is one drawback though, and a fairly serious one at that.

All-wheel drive, more than 250 horses, and an available six-speed manual transmission are all signs that VW has its thinking in the right place with the purpose of the R.

The Golf R is equipped with both traction control and stability control. And while it’s easy to turn the traction control off, the stability control is not a function that can be disabled by the user. I’m sure the reasoning behind this decision came from the lawyers (and with much dismay from the VW factory testdrivers) with the safety of the 95 percent of drivers who would never really thrash on the car in mind. Sadly, the rest of us are left with a sour taste in our mouth and a frown on our face as the car bogs when trying to toss it through a corner. I find myself wishing for that feeling of the rear kicking out, like you get from an EVO X or WRX STI.

That brings me to another point: the pricing. The Golf R starts at about $34,000, which is the same as the WRX STI and just shy of the EVO X GSR. For that kind of money, the Golf R falls a bit short in two major categories—the performance is not up to par with the EVO or STI, and the interior (as nice as it may be) is not 34K nice. I feel like the Golf R is caught in that strange gray area between a performance car and a comfortable cruiser —it needs more (or less) for it to really fall into either category snugly. When you look at the Golf R compared with the standard GTI, another big question comes up. With real world performance numbers being very close indeed, and considering the vast aftermarket support for the GTI, why would anyone choose the car that costs $10,000 more? Until the price comes down and a way to deactivate the stability control is introduced by the factory, I’ll stick to the standard GTI. Or for a proper AWD turbo performer, the EVO X. Don’t get me wrong, the Golf R is a really great car, it’s just suffering from a bit of an identity crisis, and hopefully VW can work a few things out with the next upcoming model. I’d love to see how this car progresses and morphs into its own beast. The potential is there, I know VW has what it takes to make this car faster and a better bargain, it just needs to be properly tapped.

Specs & Details
'12 Volkswagen Golf R
Engine 2.0L 16-valve DOHC turbocharged inline-four
Horsepower 256
Torque 243
Transmission Six-speed close-ratio manual
Price Starting at $33,990

By Nate Hassler
183 Articles

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