2012 Volkswagen Golf R

VW's most powerful sports performance model ever sold in the U.S.
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If you're an enthusiast of any kind, you're certainly familiar with the Volkswagen GTI. One of the original hot hatchbacks (it bowed in 1983 in the U.S.), it's been polished and honed into a delightful driver's car that's quick and responsive as well as extremely practical, fuel efficient, and, just as important, affordable-like the 2012 Volkswagen Golf R.

And as an enthusiast, you're also always itching for more power. To keep GTI fans in the fold, VW brought out the special edition R32 for 2008, featuring a powerful V6 and an advanced AWD system nabbed from its sibling Audi. It was a great driver's car; perhaps the only complaint was that it was only offered with the DSG gearbox. And you can say what you like about the DSG being faster-and probably smarter-than a regular manual transmission; there are a lot of us who just love the interactive experience you can only get from a clutch pedal and a stick.

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Performance Flagship

So when Volkswagen announced the new Golf R, we were especially intrigued. First of all, it retains a turbo four-cylinder engine but with a lot more oomph, it's offered exclusively in manual transmission (hurray!), and it's available in 3- and 5-door hatchback forms (the R32 was available only as a 3-door). With a starting price at $33,990-nearly $10,000 more than the basic GTI-is the Volkswagen Golf R worth it?

At first glance, it's hard to say. 2012 Golf R styling is different but subtle. A redesigned front and rear fascia, slightly lowered stance, unique (and handsome) 18-inch alloy wheels, and dual exhausts poking out of the center of the rear bumper are your only clues. The badging is subtle, too, with a simple script "R" on the rear and front. Our black 3-door looked classy, purposeful, and tastefully done. Those in the know acknowledge and give a knowing nod, but the general populace is sadly (for them) unaware.

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Turbo Power a la Audi TTS

Maybe that's a good thing, because the 2012 VW Golf R really flies. Borrowing from Audi's TTS sports car, the R's turbo 4-cylinder pumps out an impressive 256 horsepower and 243 lb.-ft of torque. (The standard GTI puts out 200 hp and 207 lb.-ft. of torque). Putting this much power through front-wheel drive can be a real handful (the MazdaSpeed3 is a perfect example), so VW employs full-time all-wheel drive to divvy up the extra oomph.

Driven gently, you might not even notice the difference. In fact, off the line, the slightly heavier 4MOTION all-wheel-drive layout feels a bit pokier in the Golf R than the GTI. Your wait isn't long, though, and a rich, rorty exhaust note pipes in as the revs climb and that extra power gives a nice fat midrange you'll enjoy taking advantage of through the super smooth close-ratio 6-speed transmission.

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Bahnstormer

The 2012 VW Golf R ride is firm and composed, in a well-heeled, autobahn-tested way. And the all-wheel drive gives a balance to the chassis that's sublime. In the daily drive alone, you can appreciate where the extra money went.

Still the Volkswagen Golf R has more to reveal. It relishes being driven hard. Give it the spurs, and it reminds us of the Audi S4: phenomenal in its ability to tackle the twistiest roads and always eager for more. You probably need to be on a racetrack-or an autocross-to appreciate all this little car can do, but you'll have an ear-to-ear grin under your helmet. Even with our leadfooted enjoyment, we still averaged 23 mpg, which is quite good.

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Best-in-Class Interior

When you're back in the day-to-day, the Volkswagen Golf R pleases and pampers like the GTI. The seats are superbly comfortable, with standard leather on the R that smells and feels terrific. The gauges are clear and precise, and the quality of the materials used throughout is best-in-class. Rear seats are adult-friendly, but if you plan to tote several passengers, they'd probably appreciate the extra ease of the 5-door model over our 3-door tester.

So, how much for thoroughbred performance? As mentioned the 3-door Golf R model starts at $33,900, and you get a nicely equipped bahnstormer for that, including those unique 18-inch alloy wheels, dual-zone climate control, heated mirrors and seats, a nice-sounding 8-speaker audio system with satellite radio, Bluetooth, and a USB interface.

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Packages and Pricing

We'd plump for the Sunroof and Navigation package, which includes a premium audio system, keyless entry with pushbutton start along with the touchscreen navigation system and power sunroof, and raises the price to $35,490. If you want a 5-door Golf R, it comes exclusively with the Navi and Sunroof and retails for $36,090.

If you're still holding on tightly to your wallet, one thing that tips the scales in your favor is Volkswagen's Carefree Maintenance that covers your scheduled maintenance for the first three years or 36,000 miles of Golf R ownership.

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The Verdict: Value and Performance

The 2012 Volkswagen Golf R isn't alone in this value/performance territory. There's the Subaru WRX STi and Mitsubishi Evo, also looking for your hard-earned turbo all-wheel-drive dollar. In truth, they are both faster, trading off refinement for a harder-edged experience. As they say, you pay your money and you make your choice.

We loved our time in the Golf R, but we realize it's not a car for everybody. It seems this way: The regular VW GTI is like a fine wine from your favorite vineyard; wonderful to enjoy, yet priced reasonably so everyone can partake. The 2012 Volkswagen Golf R is more like a Special Reserve: a little more complex and more expensive—but to those who can discern the difference (and afford to partake), the Golf R is absolutely worth it. (Not that we'd ever recommend drinking and driving, but we hope you get the idea.) Now we're going to go savor some our Golf R tester down our favorite twisty road. www.vw.com

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