Volkswagen Golf R — Sophisticated hot hatch

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The 2012 Volkswagen Golf R hatchback is one of the most enjoyable small cars to come our way, a satisfying piece of engineering with a go-fast demeanor that should suit virtually everyone who has the good fortune to slip behind the wheel.

In addition to its performance attributes, which are substantial, it is a†tasteful and sophisticated machine that oozes quality and craftsmanship to complement the 256 horsepower and 243 pound-feet of torque available from a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine that is also the motivating force of the Audi TTS.

The all-wheel drive R can be considered a replacement of sorts for the departed R32 and a step up from the current GTI — which until this year resided at the top of the Golf food chain — with its 200 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque. The last R32 in 2008 was powered by a 240-horsepower V-6.

The Golf R has just enough aggression in its lowered stance, restyled front and rear fascias and twin exhaust tips to announce its muscular nature. Mind you we said announce — not shout — its un-Golf-like attitude. This mature personality separates the R from such hard-edged nameplates as the Subaru Impreza WRX and the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo that sport their credentials with wings and scoops.

Note this Volkswagen comes at a very steep price. But that doesn't bother VW because it will easily sell the 5,000 copies allotted to the U.S. (with just one year of production) at a starting price of $34,760 for the two-door and $35,360 for the four-door, including destination charges. Our test four-door included the only options available — sunroof and navigation — stickered out for $38,660.

Perhaps there's even another downside if you purchase the Golf R strictly for bragging rights over the WRX and Evo because the Volkswagen's performance numbers fall just a bit short of its Japanese counterparts, both of whom are marginally faster from 0-to-60 and in a quarter mile.

Times will vary based on your ability to shift the only transmission available, a six-speed manual. Averages of tested times by a handful of automobile sites is impressive — 5.9 seconds from 0-to-60 and 14.3 seconds at 99 mph in the quarter. As good as the manual shifter is we think the numbers would have been even better had VW elected to include its DSG dual-clutch automatic in the U.S.-spec cars. It's available in Europe.

Performance can also be measured in the Golf R's cornering and handling attributes, which are first class. The standard all-wheel drive eliminates torque steer off the line, and the suspension is fast and refined. The steering is quick and accurate.

The Golf R is, indeed, one pleasing small car on the road — whether a twisty stretch of mountain blacktop or long stretches of high-speed interstate — that can be purchased in a family friendly four doors with 14.6 cubic feet of storage space behind the seats.

The R interior is equally as pleasing. The upscale materials and the fit and finish would do justice to any Audi. The Golf R easily outclasses all competitors in the segment. The leather-clad front seats are sporty for aggressive driving, but at the same time outstandingly comfortable for long-distance travel. Rear-seat passengers riding in our four-door version were offered adequate legroom.

If you opt for the two-door version, accessing the rear seats is relatively painless in the Golf. And there is head and leg room for two adults in back.

The dashboard layout is simple and the switchgear is relatively easy to use, even the first time behind the wheel. The optional navigation system is also intuitive.

Unfortunately there is no backup camera in the R, an omission that is evident across most of the Volkswagen lineup. We have become used to the feature, which is included at least as an option in most cars priced over 20 grand these days.

But useful standard equipment abounds as you would expect in a car in this price range. Included are 18-inch wheels, adaptive xenon headlights, dual-zone climate control, full power accessories, heated front seats with leather upholstery, eight-speaker sound system with satellite radio, and USB/iPod interface. Opt for the one option package, and a sunroof, navigation system, keyless ignition/entry and premium audio are added.

If the Golf R is too steep a financial mountain to climb or if your neighborhood Volkswagen store is simply sold out with no more availability, there are worthy and less expensive choices in hot hatches including the Mazdaspeed 3 (263 horsepower) and the 2013 Ford Focus ST sporting 252 horsepower. Both start at under $25,000.

Base price: $34,760; as driven, $36,860
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 256 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 243 foot-pounds @ 2,400 rpm
Drive: all-wheel
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 101.5 inches
Length: 165.8 inches
Curb weight: 3,354 pounds
Turning circle: 35.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 14.6 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 46 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 14.5 gallons (premium)
EPA rating: 27 highway, 19 city
0-60: 5.9 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Mazdaspeed 3, Subaru Impreza WRX STI, Ford Focus ST

The Good
• Strong performance
• All-wheel drive stability
• Impressive, sophisticated interior
• Can be ordered with four doors

The Bad
• Manual transmission only

The Ugly
• Expensive