Saturday Drive: 2012 Volkswagen Golf R

Los Angeles Times

The car: 2012 Volkswagen Golf R

The power: 256 horsepower and 243 pound-feet of torque from a 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline four-cylinder engine that routs power to all four wheels via a six-speed manual transmission.

The photos: 2012 Volkswagen Golf R

The speed: 5.7 seconds, according to Road & Track

The bragging rights: Fastest Golf around.

The price: $34,760 for base 2-door; $36,860 for loaded four-door as tested

The details: Sitting at the top of the pile in Volkswagen’s Golf lineup, the 2012 R picks up where the previous generation (then known as the R32) left off. The biggest difference is where a 3.2-liter V-6 once sat, a turbocharged inline four-cylinder now resides (hence the loss of the “32" in the R’s name). Yet horsepower sneaks up by six while fuel economy hits 19 in the city and 27 on the freeway.

Eagle-eyed fans of the slightly lesser Golf GTI will notice both cars have 2.0-liter, direct-injected, turbocharged engines. But don’t think GTI owners can get an R powerplant just by adding a little more turbo boost. The cars don’t have the same engine; the one in the R is actually an older unit that VW uses elsewhere in its, and Audi’s, product lineup.

All-wheel drive is still standard on the Golf R, coming again from a Haldex clutch pack. In normal operation, the R is essentially a front-wheel drive car. VW says this is for fuel economy’s sake, and I can attest to its functionality; on several highway jaunts, I had no trouble averaging above 27 miles per gallon.

Should R drivers run into situations where the front wheels are starting to slip -- and I have a sneaking suspicion they will -- more of the R’s torque can be diverted to the rear wheels, up to 100%.

Other mechanical upgrades include brakes that have larger, vented rotors and a steering ratio that’s been quickened over the unit used on the GTI.

The aesthetic changes to the Golf R were kept discreet, despite the car’s spicy potato status. New, slightly more aggressive front and rear bumpers have been added, as have twin, center-mounted exhaust pipes. Other changes include a unique grille; LED lights; side skirts; a larger rear spoiler; black brake calipers; 18-inch alloy wheels and the odd R logo sprinkled here and there.

Inside, you almost wouldn’t know the difference between this car and a GTI. Only the flat-bottomed steering wheel, R-embossed seats, and the blue needles in the instrument cluster say this is the boss Golf.

Other features on my tester included heated leather seats; a touchscreen navigation system; premium audio system; Xenon headlights; moon roof; keyless entry and pushbutton start; and climate control.

The drive: Though it may be powered by an older engine, you wouldn’t know it to honk on the Golf R. Your immediate impression is just how smooth this engine -- and, indeed the entire car -- is. Think the Dos Equis guy in Hugh Hefner’s grotto.

The engine’s smoothness happens no matter how deep into the RPMs you push it; it just keeps smiling back at you and pulling harder. This tendency, combined with a smidge of turbo lag and less than tons of low-end torque, means the car is best enjoyed at high RPMs.

Equally smooth is the six-speed shifter’s movements around the H pattern, though pure enjoyment of this gear box was tempered by its lack of precision during shifts.

After a week of testing, including some hard slogging around the canyons of Malibu, the R revealed a balanced nature with a lingering habit of understeer. Adapt to this trait and you can have some real fun tossing the car around tight turns, though the steering could use a whisker of additional feedback. Meanwhile, the R’s suspension splits nicely the difference between daily comfort and enthusiastic control, and the brakes stop you with all the alacrity of an electronic dog collar.

As a whole, the Golf R’s ethos will likely appeal to a more mature enthusiast looking to avoid the boy-racer persona of stated competitors like Subaru’s Impreza WRX STI and Mitsubishi’s Evo. Though it can’t match those models’ direct, manic responsiveness (or their power), the R doesn’t seem like it wants to. Instead, it’s content to trump them on refinement.

The quieter trim on the inside and outside of the car underscores this, though the heavily bolstered front seats in the R were so fantastic, they’d make drivers of any car jealous.

What no one will envy is the R’s cost. Yes, its asking price is about the same as those of the aforementioned competitors. But consider that for about $6,000 less than this Golf R’s $36,860 sticker, you get a loaded Golf GTI that’s only down 56 horsepower and an all-wheel drive system. The R is certainly a refined, engaging way to go fast AND enjoy daily driving. But a GTI already does that so well, you really have to want those little R badges to justify the extra yogurt.