Pros: Engaging turbocharged engine; civilized ride; AWD-enhanced handling; premium interior

Cons: Pricey; not significantly faster than the GTI; only comes with a manual transmission

The 2012 Volkswagen Golf R is all about perspective. One way to look at VW's latest hot hatch is as the successor to the Golf R32, a six-cylinder, all-wheel-drive version of the Mk IV and Mk V GTIs that enjoys a cult following among enthusiasts. Indeed, the Golf R also boasts all-wheel drive, and Volkswagen is quick to point out that the R beats the 2008 R32 by six in the horsepower column (256 to 250 hp). But you could also look at the Golf R as something akin to a regular GTI; after all, it uses a very similar engine, and while there's considerably more turbo boost on tap, the added weight of the AWD system prevents the R from feeling much faster than its lesser sibling.

So what's our perspective? Well, we can see both sides. There's no question that the R has some meaningful upgrades. With all four wheels doing work, the R has less understeer through the corners than the GTI, and its 56-hp advantage cannot be ignored. But is the R worth $10,000 more than the GTI? We did the math; that's a roughly 41 percent price hike. The base GTI suddenly looks pretty compelling.

In short, the Golf R isn't the best value out there, but it is a better car than the GTI, delivering a delectable combination of performance and civility. There are lots of desirable rides in the $35,000 range, but plenty of enthusiasts with reasonable perspectives will end up choosing the 2012 Golf R.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Volkswagen Golf R hatchback comes with two or four doors. The two-door-only standard Golf R comes well equipped, featuring 18-inch alloy wheels, xenon headlamps, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, dual-zone automatic climate control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, sport seats, leather upholstery, cruise control, a trip computer, Bluetooth connectivity and an eight-speaker touchscreen audio system with satellite radio, a six-CD changer, iPod integration and an auxiliary input.

The only option for the Golf R is the Sunroof and Navigation package, which adds a sunroof, keyless entry with push-button ignition, a partial power driver's seat, a 300-watt Dynaudio sound system and an SD-based navigation system. The four-door is only available with this package; the two-door is also eligible for it.

The Golf R's interior is mostly carried over from the GTI, but there are some R-specific flourishes, including R badging on the doorsills and seats, blue needles for the gauges and aluminum trim on the dashboard, doors and pedals. Unfortunately, the leather-trimmed front seats are borrowed from the GTI Autobahn, which means U.S. customers don't get the awesome Euro-spec sport seats with race-ready side bolsters.

Like the rest of the Golf lineup, the R offers remarkably generous accommodations for rear passengers. The high rear bench provides good thigh support and promotes an upright seating position that requires less legroom; meanwhile, headroom is excellent thanks to the breadbox-shaped cabin. The result is that a six-foot passenger can sit behind a six-foot driver without much difficulty.

Cargo capacity is unchanged from other Golfs at 15.2 cubic feet behind the rear seatbacks and a healthy 46.0 cubic feet with the seatbacks folded.

Technology

As you'd expect at this price, the Golf R comes standard with a bunch of tech features, including iPod/Bluetooth connectivity, satellite radio and an intuitive touchscreen interface. The audio system includes an SD card slot, but a USB port is unavailable, so if you're used to listening to MP3s on a flash drive or a USB-compatible MP3 player, you'll have to adjust.

The available navigation system is SD based, so it doesn't feature hard drive music storage. We could take it or leave it. That's not to say you shouldn't ante up for the Sunroof and Navigation package, though, as it also comes with push-button start and the fantastic Dynaudio sound system.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The all-wheel-drive Golf R is powered by a slightly different version of the GTI's turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4. Upgrades include a reinforced cylinder block and stronger connecting rods, as well as a higher-pressure turbocharger. Consequently, output rises to 256 horsepower and 243 lb-ft of torque; for reference, the base GTI is rated at 200 hp and 207 lb-ft. Unlike the GTI, the Golf R is available with only one transmission, a conventional six-speed manual.

Thanks to its added power and all-wheel-drive traction, the Golf R gets out of the hole a good bit quicker than the front-wheel-drive GTI. Acceleration at speed doesn't feel dramatically improved, but the Golf R's engine has an engaging character, providing serious low-end torque without skimping on high-rpm enthusiasm. The six-speed manual has the same precise yet easy-shifting nature as the GTI's shifter. We're surprised, though, that VW didn't see fit to offer its dual-clutch automated manual transmission as well.

Predictably, more power and weight add up to less efficiency for the Golf R. Fuel economy is estimated at 19/27 mpg compared with 21/31 mpg for the manual GTI.

Safety

The 2012 Volkswagen Golf R comes with standard stability control, four-wheel ABS and six airbags (front, front side and full-length side curtain).

The Golf R hasn't been crash tested, but the independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the four-door regular Golf its highest rating of Good in every crash-test category.

Driving Impressions

The Golf R's AWD system makes a real difference when powering through sharp bends. Whereas the GTI sometimes wants to understeer wide of your intended course, the Golf R gives you an "invisible hand" sensation of all four wheels fighting to keep the car in line. Despite its improved handling, the Golf R has essentially the same refined ride as the rest of the Golf family, and it's completely composed at high speeds. It's hard to think of a performance car that would be more pleasant to live with on a daily basis.

Other Cars to Consider

Ford Mustang GT - Different category, but if you're drawn to the Golf R because you're looking for a performance car, you owe yourself a test drive in the awesome V8-powered Mustang.

Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution - The Evo doesn't come close to the Golf R's civility and premium vibe, but it easily outperforms the VW, and the prices are comparable.

BMW 328i - Again, different category, but if you think about it, the 328i is a premium German performance car with a turbo four under the hood, and it starts at about $35,000, just like the Golf R. We'd be tempted to go with the VW for its hatchback handiness.

AutoTrader Recommends

Although we recommend the base model in our GTI review, the $1,500 that VW wants for the Golf R's Sunroof and Navigation package seems like a small price to pay when the base price is already about $34,000. We'd also pay the extra $600 to get the four-door model. If you're prepared to pay Golf R money for a car, you might as well add the bells and whistles.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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