Test drive: 2012 Volkswagen Golf R

Rain and golf are rarely a perfect mix, but as I spotted storm clouds gathering on the horizon on during a recent outing I couldn’t have been more pleased.

That’s because the golf part of this particular equation was the Volkswagen Golf R that I was in, parked just outside of road course at Raceway Park in Englishtown, NJ. What better way, or place, to get a taste of VW’s latest all-wheel-drive treat?

It’s hard to believe from its mild-mannered looks, but the Golf R is currently the sportiest car in VW’s U.S. lineup. Perhaps ever. Few better sleepers there have ever been.

Aside from a tastefully aggressive front fascia with big air intakes and LED lighting accents, rocker panel extensions, rear spoiler, unique five-spoke wheels and dual center exhausts, the R is your run of the mill Golf and not likely to raise many eyebrows. Same goes for the cabin, where a set of huggy sport seats, flat-bottom steering wheel and blue needles on the gauges are the only reminders that this is a very special, but still practical car for a very particular group of people.

Featuring a reworked version of the VW GTI’s 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, with a larger turbo running at a lofty 17 psi of boost, the Golf R sends 256 hp to the wheels through a 6-speed manual gearbox.

Want an automatic? Move to Europe, because they don’t offer one here. For once, we have all the fun. This is doubly true on a closed course.

Although the skies never fully opened up on us, a light shower drew enough oil to the surface of the otherwise dusty track to turn it into the perfect test venue for this type of car.

Throttle down, drop the clutch and even with the traction control turned off the Golf R pulls away like its wearing cleats. Underway there is a bit of turbo lag when you get on the gas, but at around 3000 rpm it’s as if a small wormhole opens up in front of the car and pulls the little pocket rocket toward the event horizon, or next corner. Keep the revs up and the corners of your mouth will follow.

Quick to turn, the Golf R is supremely-balanced through curves and very responsive to steering, throttle and brake inputs as it slides toward the exit. The latest generation of VW’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive system can send all the power to the rear wheels and doesn’t require the fronts to start slipping before it does. Instead, it constantly monitors the throttle, turn angle and yaw of the car to best predict where the power should go. After a few laps, visions of rallycross glory start dancing in your head.

The Golf R is one of the easiest cars to take to the limit with confidence, even in much less than perfect conditions. There’s absolutely no fear that it might do something unexpected. Try something foolish yourself, however, and the stability control will intervene to understeer you to safety. Hardcore racers will be disappointed to hear that the system can’t be fully turned off, but despite its sporting intentions this really isn’t a hardcore race car.

With the level of refinement on hand, and a relatively cushy 18-inch wheel and all-season tire combination, it’s much more of a grand touring hatchback. The suspension, while tuned for the track with stiff anti-roll bars front and rear, isn’t at all harsh on the road and the Golf R drills down the highway with Autobahn-quality poise.

Road roar is a little on the loud side, but the deep resonance from the engine is a welcome passenger in a world of supposedly sporty cars that have become so quiet some automakers have resorted to amplifying the noise through artificial means.

(Update: Turns out the Golf R is a member of this dubious club and uses a device with the very German name "Soundakator" to help pump up the volume. Lunch: still not free.)

Of course, with a starting price of $34,760 you should expect to be getting something a little out of the ordinary. That’s twice the price of a standard Golf, and about four grand more than a similarly equipped GTI. The only options available are a $1,500 package that adds a sunroof, navigation and premium sound system, or all that plus a set of rear doors for $2,100. However, all models do come with a very special feature: exclusivity.

Only 5,000 Golf Rs will be sold in the United States over the next two years to a discerning group of customers, making this a very rare bird from a company better known of late for chasing the mass market with fine, but lowest common denominator rides like the Passat and Jetta. When it comes to Golf clubs, this is one that I would definitely enjoy being a member in.

If nothing else, it’s open 365 days a year.


2012 Volkswagen Golf R

Base price: $34,760

As tested: $36,260

Type: 5-passenger, 3-door hatchback

Engine: 2.0L turbocharged inline-4-cylinder

Power: 256 hp, 243 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual

MPG: 19 city/27 hwy

Gary Gastelu is's Automotive Editor.