First there’s denial, then, eventually, there’s acceptance. After current R32 enthusiasts get over the fact that the new Golf R won’t be powered by their much-loved VR6, they’ll start to come to their senses. Yes, the VR6’s sinister snarl is a thing of the past, relegated to the scrap heap of progress. In its place is the same turbocharged, 2.0-liter TFSI engine that motivates the Audi TTS, detuned just a bit from 266 to 256 hp, because the United States is considered a “hot” country (with states like Arizona) and there are different airflow and cooling characteristics between the TTS and Golf R.
What Golf R owners will get is a car with less weight up front and 250 pounds lighter overall, approximately 3,300 pounds versus the R32’s 3,550. That gives the new Golf R a better power-to-weight ratio (12.9 lb/hp vs. 14.2 lb/hp), and the lighter front end helps it turn in, hold its line better and squirt out of corners with more verve. Zero-to-60 times should be in the mid-to-high 5-second range and fuel consumption is estimated at 21/26 mpg.
Volkswagen let us loose on Central California’s Buttonwillow Raceway in a Euro-spec Golf R during a SoCal R32 club track day, and, although I suspect I was running with a novice or intermediate group, I noticed that I was braking later, coming into the corners faster, and gained on the Mk IV and Mk V R32s out of the corners thanks to 243 lb-ft of torque from 2200 to 5100 rpm. In other words, it was faster everywhere.
The Golf R is just as forgiving as its predecessors and you can still feel the back end rotate after the apex. It will scrub the fronts if you come in too hot but it’s just a lift of the throttle to get them to start biting again. If you get the corner right, you can feel both the front and rear tires sliding after the apex for a more neutral attitude. The reduced weight also makes it more flickable in side-to-side transitions.
The brakes use 13.6-inch rotors up front and 12.2 inchers in back, same as the last R32. The pedal is firm with good feel and modulation. Steering with the nicely sculpted D-shaped wheel is a delight—direct, informative, perfectly weighted and practically telepathic.
Some may bemoan the fact that the Golf R is only available with a six-speed manual. Perhaps this will separate the real enthusiasts from the wannabes. VW says its research showed that a majority of those surveyed said they’d opt for the stick. The VW group in the U.S. was probably given a choice between the DSG and the manual for cost reasons and decided to go with the numbers. It’s a light and easy-to-row gearbox and clutch engagement is buttery smooth and progressive.
U.S. models will sit 10mm higher than the European versions in order to meet crash test standards, but the damper settings will be exactly the same. That’s great because the Golf R’s ride is a near-perfect blend of elastic compliance and taut body control.
The fourth-gen Haldex AWD system has been programmed to predict slip before it happens and sends the appropriate amount of power to the front or rear. Like the previous Haldex system, it can send 100 percent of drive to front or rear wheels, but the new system has quicker reflexes.
So if a lighter package that beats its predecessor in all areas isn’t enough to convince prospective buyers, then they may want to consider that a well-programmed ECU flash will easily bring power up to and over 300 hp. That’s an easier and less-expensive way to make power compared with the R32’s VR6, which needed either a supercharger or a turbo to produce similar power levels. And while 5,000 copies of a niche car that starts at $33,000 won’t exactly mean you have to run to your dealer to put down a deposit, you don’t want to be caught sleeping either. It’s that good.
2012 VW Golf R
Transverse front engine, all-wheel drive
2.0-liter I4, dohc, 16-valve, turbocharged
Single-piston calipers, 13.6-inch ventilated rotors (f), 12.2-inch ventilated rotors (r), ABS
MSRP: $33,000 (est.)
Peak Power: 256 hp @ 6000 rpm
Peak Torque: 243 lb-ft @ 2200 rpm
0-60 mph: 5.6 sec.
Top speed: 130 mph (limited)