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.
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.
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.
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.
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.