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2012 Volkswagen Golf R review: Taming the hot hatchback

With its excellent handling character yet practical design, the Golf R makes for an exciting car on weekend drives but can also serve as a daily commuter.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
5 min read

The phrase hot hatchback evokes compact cars with too much power for their suspensions and front-wheel drive, with excessive torque steer requiring a 45-degree turn on the wheel during acceleration. In the 2012 Golf R, Volkswagen maintains plenty of power while ironing out all the unpleasantness.


2012 Volkswagen Golf R

The Good

The <b>Volkswagen 2012 Golf R</b>'s 2-liter engine gives massive power while all-wheel drive gives it an edge in cornering. In everyday driving the Golf R shows fine manners. A touch screen comes standard for stereo and phone control.

The Bad

The available navigation system lacks real-time traffic data.

The Bottom Line

The 2012 Volkswagen Golf R is a blast to drive on curvy roads, but can also handle the everyday routine, offering solid, if not cutting-edge, cabin tech features.

Instead of an unruly streetfighter, VW manages to make the Golf R into a refined pugilist, less kickboxer than Marquess of Queensberry rules. Part of the secret is an all-wheel-drive system, dubbed 4Motion and based on Quattro systems in Audi's smaller cars, eliminating torque steer in the Golf R.

Add to that modern suspension tuning, aided by anti-roll bars front and back, managing to tread an excellent line between comfort and rigidity. Then there is the steering, sharp with a little oversteer, making for very engaged handling. I faulted the electric power steering on the Audi TT RS recently, but in the Golf R, VW engineers show they got it right.

VW Golf R adds AWD, tons of power (pictures)

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Fitting the traditional mold of a hot hatchback, the Golf R comes with a direct-injection, turbocharged 2-liter engine producing 256 horsepower and 243 pound-feet of torque. Kudos to VW for getting that kind of power out of a production four-cylinder, then putting it in a car weighing just 3,325 pounds.

In two-door form, the Golf R looks good. Minimal contour lines and decoration give the exterior sheet metal a liquid smoothness. The clean design gets a subtle aggressive note with dual exhausts sticking out from the center of the rear bumper. The hatchback gives it good cargo space, while long side doors make rear-seat access easier. It is speedy and practical, all in one.

The one-choice-only six-speed manual fits right in to the Golf R's enthusiast market. And while that transmission might make the Prius in front of you creeping along at 5 mph over the last 100 yards before the stoplight even more annoying, VW gives the Golf R extra traffic practicality with a hill-hold feature. Driving the car in San Francisco, the extra time I had between brake pedal and accelerator while aimed upward on a 30-degree grade made a big difference.

City driver
Around town, the Golf R handled well. It did not suffer from torque steer or turbo lag, making the power easy to modulate when taking off from a stop. The sharply tuned steering aided quick lane changes to avoid double-parked trucks unloading in the lane ahead. In fact, it was so reasonable that I could easily forget about the R designation after Golf.

Once into the types of roads the Golf R was made for, it really proved its worth. Very similar to the Ford Focus ST I tested recently, the Golf R rewards an engaged driver. Over twisty roads, it let me play with the inputs, using different braking, accelerating at different points on a turn exit. For each move, the car communicated its response clearly.

2012 Volkswagen Golf R

The 6-speed manual transmission adds to the driver engagement.

James Martin/CNET

Even with the all-wheel drive, the Golf R felt like it wanted to let the rear end come out a bit, depending on how violently I threw it into a curve. Between the Golf R and the Focus ST, it would be hard to choose the better-handling car, as both make driving fast fun when the turns get sharp. The one thing I would prefer is a more precise-feeling shift gate with the six-speed manual.

That close-ratio six-speed does not help much on the freeway, either. In sixth gear the engine speed pushes 3,000rpm at 65 mph, leading to the car's 27 mpg highway number. City EPA mileage is all the way down at 19 mpg, so don't mistake the Golf R for an economy car. I found that, over a course of driving involving freeways, pounding down mountain roads, and not too much stop-and-go city traffic, the car turned in 23.6 mpg. There are other cars you should look at if fuel economy is your top priority.

No nav, no problem
CNET's two-door model lacked the navigation option, which is also oddly tied to the sunroof in a package. The basic head unit in the car included a full range of digital-audio inputs plus full-featured Bluetooth hands-free phone integration, which might be all you need if you use your phone for navigation. To make using the phone and stereo easy, VW puts a touch screen in the center stack, standard.

2012 Volkswagen Golf R

Even without the nav option, the VW Golf R still features this LCD touch screen.

James Martin/CNET

The interface for this system is straightforward, with buttons on the bezel for radio, local media, and phone. Once I paired my phone with the car, I had access to my contact list on the touc screen or through voice command.

Pairing up a phone with the car enabled Bluetooth audio streaming as well. However, I did find that, using an iPhone 5, the stereo automatically switched to Bluetooth streaming even when I plugged the phone into the car's iPod integration cable using Apple's 30-pin-to-Lightning adapter. For more detail on iPhone 5 integration with the Golf R, read "Volkswagen versus iPhone 5."

With an iPod cabled to the Golf R, the touch screen shows a music library interface, through which you can browse music based on album, artist, and genre. This system works, but does not show extras such as album art. Voice command includes some control over the stereo, such as next track, but it does not let you request music by name.

The iPod cable in the Golf R is actually an adapter for a proprietary music system port, not a USB. VW makes other adapter cables available for USB drives, Mini-USB, and a simple auxiliary port, although the Golf R comes with latter input mounted in the console. There is also an SD card slot below the touch screen, if you want to go that route.

2012 Volkswagen Golf R

The Golf R requires this adapter for integration with Apple's new Lightning connector.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The navigation and sunroof package includes an upgrade to Dynaudio speakers, but I found the base system offered reasonable sound. It comes with eight speakers standard, with nice, clear audio. This system could be improved with more bass and a more powerful amp, which it might be better to get from the aftermarket then the upgrade.

If you were to get the navigation option, it would be VW's RNS 315 head unit, a flash-memory-based system. Although in other VW models I've found this system performed well, it does not have much in the way of features. For example, the lack of real-time traffic data is a big miss in any modern navigation system.

At a good bit over 30 grand, the Golf R is a pricey, albeit unique car. It makes for incredibly fun driving on back roads, while at the same time exhibiting a reasonable character around town. VW's tech options are solid, if basic. For a bit less money, you can have almost as much fun in the VW GTI. And anyone considering the Golf R should also take a drive in the Ford Focus ST, which has a similar handling character and practicality, and better cabin tech.

Tech specs
Model2012 Volkswagen Golf
Power trainTurbocharged direct-injection 2-liter 4-cylinder engine, 6-speed manual transmission
EPA fuel economy19 mpg city/27 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy23.6 mpg
NavigationOptional flash memory-based system
Bluetooth phone supportStandard with contact list integration
Digital audio sourcesBluetooth audio, iPod integration, SD card, USB drive, Mini-USB, auxiliary audio input, satellite radio
Audio systemEight-speaker system
Driver aidsNone
Base price$33,990
Price as tested$34,760

2012 Volkswagen Golf R

Score Breakdown

Cabin tech 6Performance tech 8Design 8


Trim levels 2drAvailable Engine GasBody style Hatchback