Monday, March 7, 2011

Test Drive: 2012 Volkswagen Golf R


We're slumming through traffic in downtown Geneva, Switzerland, making our way towards the French border where we're about to spend a few hours flogging the 2012 Volkswagen Golf R along the twisty, narrow roads of the Alps. Right now, we're focused on the Golf's comfortable, well-appointed interior, and how its good visibility and relatively small stature make it a pleasant drive through heavy city traffic. It's just like every other GTI – or Golf, for that matter – in this regard. But as soon as we approach the entrance to highway A40, we find out exactly what that R badge is for.

We speed towards the sharp, right-hand on-ramp with a furious growl coming from the turbocharged 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine, and as we throw the wheel to the right, the Golf R hunkers down, digs its claws into the pavement, clips the apex of the ramp and sends us blasting onto the A40 with tremendous force.

"A GTI would have fallen all over itself right there," our co-driver states, matter-of-factly. He's right, too. Even with Volkswagen's nifty new XDS active differential, the GTI is prone to understeer when coming into a turn at high speed, and there's a decent amount of torque steer that makes the exit a bit more skittish than you'd prefer. But in the Golf R, with its fourth-generation 4Motion all-wheel-drive system and more powerful engine, every step of the high-speed cornering dance is executed perfectly.

You can imagine, then, that the rest of our drive through the French Alps was nothing short of bliss. The Golf R is Volkswagen's new poster child for hot hatchery, and if you've ever fallen in love with a GTI, be prepared to be absolutely smitten with this little number.

Just looking at the Golf R makes us giddy. It isn't any longer or wider than a standard GTI, but its revised suspension setup puts it 15 millimeters lower to the ground. Up front, the revised front fascia boasts hefty air intakes with small LED running lamps flanking both sides, rounded off with new 18-inch "Talladega" alloy wheels at all four corners. There's a center-mounted dual-exhaust out back, too – a signature styling element that drives home the point that this car is, effectively, the successor to the MkV Golf R32 from 2008.

The Golf R is offered in two- and four-door body styles, both of which look fantastic. We're partial to the traditional hatch style of the two-door, but can't argue with the added functionality of the four-door – it's probably the one we'd buy. With either configuration, you get a surprisingly capacious interior capable of transporting four adults in comfort, and with fold-flat rear seats, there's plenty of room for hauling larger objects while hauling ass down the road.

The rest of the R's interior is standard Golf spec, with high-quality materials used throughout. The level of fit-and-finish is truly top-notch, mercifully avoiding the cost-cutting measures found in the new Jetta. All Golf Rs will come standard with the automaker's new Climatronic automatic HVAC system, and only one interior option package will be offered, bundling a sunroof, navigation system, Dynaudio stereo and smart key with push-button start.

With it's motorsport-designed seats – a lovely but very costly €3,800 ($5,200-ish USD) option. After a few hours of butt-in-chair time, we're confident in saying that these seats truly make you feel one with the car – you don't scoot around during hard cornering, and there's ample cushioning and bolstering to reduce fatigue during long stints behind the wheel. Still, the standard seats – akin to what we find in the GTI – don't warrant much griping. They just don't hold a candle to these upgraded buckets.

Speaking of the wheel, we're happy to see that Volkswagen is keeping the flat-bottomed GTI helm intact, with a cute little R badge at the bottom (you know, for effect). Our only complaint concerns Volkswagen's paddle shifters, which are a bit small, wheel-mounted, and don't offer much feedback when shifting up and down. We much prefer larger, column-mounted paddles, like those in the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. The DSG fires off shifts with a quickness that's unmatched when you have a three-pedal setup, and the brap from the exhaust during shifts is whimsically addicting. Do-it-yourself shifters are great fun, no doubt, but the setup that Volkswagen uses in the GTI isn't exactly our favorite, and for serious drivers, being able to keep both hands on the thick-rimmed wheel is a serious plus for hardcore driving.

Unlike the six-cylinder R32 from a few years ago, the Golf R uses Volkswagen's 2.0-liter turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine, which cranks out 270 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. weighing roughly 3,300 pounds, the Golf R will run to 62 miles per hour in just under six seconds – 5.7 or 5.8, based on the automaker's estimates. Not bad at all.

The 2.0T is mated to Volkswagen's 4Motion all-wheel-drive system makes everything acceptable in the long run. This fourth-generation Haldex system no longer needs to sense slip in the front wheels to engage the rear, and we're told that in extreme driving conditions, it's actually possible to send over 90 percent of the engine's power to the rear rollers. Not that you'll be power-sliding a Golf R or anything.

During highway cruising, the 4Motion system only sends power to the front wheels (it's better for fuel economy), but the all-wheel drive is so quick to chime in, you have added traction out back at the blink of an eye. The system isn't intrusive, and the traction control makes sure things are kept in line at all times. In fact, like the GTI, there's no way to fully deactivate TC. Our tester was fitted with a set of ContiWinterContact foul-weather tires, and while there wasn't any real lack of grip during hard cornering, we're sure that stickier summer tires would be a great improvement.

Bringing things to a halt are an upgraded set of R-badged brakes – far better units than what we have on the GTI currently. We did a few hard brake tests from 60 mph, and instead of getting all willy-nilly, the R bites down and comes to a quick stop. There's no front end chatter – even on the winter rubber of our tester – and no noticeable aggravation to the steering wheel. Overall braking feel is confident, and we're glad that these more robust stoppers are part of the Golf R package.

The biggest testament to the Golf R's better dynamics is the substantial weight savings found by using the 2.0-liter four instead of a naturally aspirated VR6 hanging over the front axle. The R is approximately 250 pounds lighter than the old R32, with most of the lightness added to the front end. This, combined with the fourth-generation 4Motion means there's no tendency for the car to plow into a turn, even with a 60:40 fore-to-aft weight distribution. Likewise, there's no noticeable torque steer during takeoff or while exiting a turn. There is, however, quite a bit of turbo lag, especially during hard stomps of the accelerator at speed. Slam the right pedal while doing 50 mph, count to three, and then feel the rush. Still, the turbocharged push is more engaging than the old VR6, especially when scaling the side of a mountain. You don't need to wind this engine up to its peak to get the maximum amount of oomph at all four wheels.

Volkswagens adjustable suspension in its standard setting, the ride quality is still firm without being overly harsh, and the steering is light and tossable while still feeling very connected, even on-center. We tested out the 'Sport' setting, and while the suspension dampening is improved for instances of canyon carving, the additional weight it adds to the steering is really quite unpleasant. One of our favorite parts about the Golf R is its flickable steering, and while the improved suspension geometry of 'Sport' is indeed appreciated, we wouldn't sacrifice the outstanding feel from the wheel for it. Even when left in its normal setting, the suspension still allowed the R to hug the curves of our hilly test route with great poise, never exerting any significant body roll through the tight corners.

At the end of our test, we were enamored by just how good the Golf R is, and how much better its dynamics are over a standard GTI. For comparison, the latest Subaru WRX is so well-honed that we rarely see a need for the more expensive STI, but in Volkswagen's case, the automaker has put an ample amount of space between the GTI and this range-topping R.

With good reason, too. GTI pricing starts at $23,695 for the two-door, and the Golf R it will be around $33,000 – right where the 2008 R32 left off. That $10,000 increase doesn't just get you the goodness of 4Motion, more power and a handful of standard equipment – you get a machine that's tuned to be more engaging than a GTI could ever dream of while still retaining the hatch's high levels of comfort and quality. By adding the Golf R, Volkswagen has not compromised the GTI's placement within its portfolio. The gulf between the two is like comparing the Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart to the Lancer Evolution.

And while we can't help but realize that a Subaru WRX offers the same levels of power and all-wheel drive for a cheaper price, we'd gladly shell out more money for the driving prowess and improved refinement of the Golf R.

The Golf R is what hot hatch dreams are made of, and while hours of driving through the gorgeous French Alps only furthers the this car's story of greatness, it only takes one quick right-hander to fall in love.

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