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2012 VW Golf R: Less fun than the GTI

Volkswagen launches the all-wheel-drive, 256-horsepower Golf R, which should be the king of the hot hatchbacks, in the U.S. this year.

2012 Volkswagen Golf R
Wayne Cunningham/CNET

During a drive program in the Santa Cruz mountains, I had the chance to drive the 2012 Volkswagen Golf R and GTI, if not back-to-back, at least on the same day. The Golf R proved a speedy, sure-footed little hatchback, but ultimately I had more fun in the GTI.

On paper, the Golf R looks great: 256 horsepower and 243 pound-feet of torque from its turbocharged, direct-injection, 2-liter, four-cylinder engine, all-wheel drive for added cornering grip, and a six-speed manual, the only transmission available, setting the tone for driver engagement.

2012 Volkswagen Golf R
R badges around the car declare its superiority to other Golfs. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

With 56 more horsepower than the GTI, I expected the Golf R to show a lot of lag from a larger turbo. But somehow Volkswagen tuned it for relatively even acceleration. There is a power threshold you can feel at about 4,000rpm, but it is far from the sudden, uncontrollable bump of other turbocharged cars.

Despite the power rating, the Golf R never delivered the kind of kick during gear changes or pedal mashing to make me smile. Instead, it was well-controlled thrust that went on and on, a good recipe for a track car. Even in the upper gears there was palpable push.

At speed over a sweeping turn, the road wet from heavy fog, the suspension of the Golf R felt screwed down well, with no tendency toward body roll. But despite all-season tires the car felt ready to go into a four-wheel drift. Over tighter turns, the car showed a good ability to rotate.

When I noticed my driving partner, during his time behind the wheel, back off on the speed in a long turn, he ascribed it to feeling some understeer. On mountain roads, he felt the all-wheel drive made it more difficult to correct midturn than a front- or rear-wheel-drive car.

After driving a few other Volkswagens available at the event, such as the new Beetle Turbo, I got in the sadly neglected GTI. This car makes only 200 horsepower from its turbocharged, direct-injection four-cylinder, and has a slightly higher ride height than the Golf R. This particular GTI also had Volkswagen's Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG), the dual-clutch transmission that can either shift automatically or be put in manual mode for sequential shifting.

2012 Volkswagen GTI
After everything, my heart still belongs to the GTI. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The DSG gives the GTI launch control, a fun little treat but one I won't hold over the Golf R. Banging through gears with a clutch pedal is fun, too.

But even with the GTI's reduced power, it somehow felt more aggressive. Its more pronounced turbo lag meant a ferocious power tip-in point. While technically not a good thing, it made the car feel like an untamed beast.

The turbo punch was also predictable, making it a quality I could get used to, and anticipate how to use.

In the twisty turns of the mountain road, I could also get a better feel for the front-wheel pull, using the torque to assist in cornering. The GTI did not feel quite as settled on the road, more likely to twitch in response to bad asphalt, but that added to the fun, requiring seat-of-the-pants corrections.

Ultimately, the Golf R felt like a professional, while the GTI gave me the biggest grin.

2012 Volkswagen Golf R
Volkswagen's RNS 315 navigation system gives good route guidance, but does not show traffic data. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Besides the driveline and suspension, the Golf R and GTI are very similar. Both are based on the Golf hatchback, available in either two- or four-door configurations. The interior appointments are almost identical, with Volkswagen's RNS 315 navigation system being available, which also incorporates a Bluetooth phone system and iPod integration. Unfortunately, Volkswagen's excellent Fender audio system is not available in either model.

The big kicker is price. The Golf R starts at $33,990, $10,000 more than the base GTI. The way I see it, the GTI is serious fun at a big discount.