2012 Volkswagen Golf Review

2012 Volkswagen Golf - Potent R is a wolf in sheep's clothing -- and then some.


Vehicle Tested
2012 Volkswagen Golf R
Base Price: $33,990
At-Tested Price: $34,760
Built in Germany.


Engine: Turbocharged 2.0-liter I4
Transmission: Six-Speed Manual
Drive Wheels: All-Wheel Drive

Last redesigned in 2010, the Golf is Volkswagen's smallest US offering. Seating five on twin front buckets and a three-place rear bench, the Golf is a hatchback that comes with either two or four doors. Competitors include Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Mazda 3, Mitsubishi Lancer, Nissan Sentra, Subaru Impreza, and Toyota Corolla.

Golf shares engines and chassis with the Volkswagen Jetta -- a four door sedan. For 2012 Golf is offered in three trim levels, 2.5, TDI and the new R. As you might expect from VW, the trim levels correspond to the available engines. The 2.5 comes with a 170-horsepower five-cylinder engine. TDI gets a 2.0-liter turbodiesel that makes 140 horsepower. The new R gets a 256-horsepower 2.0-liter turbo motor that has roots in the Audi TT. Transmission choices for 2.5 and TDI include five- and six-speed manuals or a six-speed automatic. The R comes only with a six-speed manual. Front-wheel drive is offered on the 2.5 and TDI, and the R comes with all-wheel drive.

Standard safety features include antilock four-wheel disc brakes with brake assist, stability control, tire-pressure monitor, daytime running lights and dual-front, front-side and curtain-side airbags. Rear-view camera, park assist and blind-spot alert are not offered.

The 2.5 model starts at $17,995 and includes air conditioning, interior air filter, tilt-telescope steering wheel, cruise control, height-adjustable front bucket seats, fold-flat passenger seat, center console, split-folding rear seat, heated power mirrors with integrated turn signals, power windows, power door locks, keyless entry, AM/FM/CD/MP3 player with digital-media player connection, trip computer, outside-temperature indicator, compass, variable-intermittent wipers, cooled glovebox, rear defogger, rear wiper/washer, theft-deterrent system, fog lights, 195/65HR15 tires and wheel covers.

The TDI starts at $24,235 and adds to the 2.5 leather-wrapped steering wheel with radio controls, AM/FM radio w/in-dash 6-disc CD/MP3 changer, satellite radio, iPod interface system, heated front seats, Bluetooth cell-phone connection, heated washer nozzles, floormats, sport suspension, 225/45HR17 tires and alloy wheels.

The performance-orientated R starts at 33,990 and adds to the 2.5 automatic climate control, leather-wrapped steering wheel with radio controls, leather upholstery, satellite radio, iPod interface system, heated front seats, Bluetooth cell-phone connection, heated washer nozzles, floormats, steering-linked adaptive HID headlights, performance suspension, 225/40R18 tires and alloy wheels.

Options include power sunroof, Navigation system, cargo mat, first-aid kit, rear spoiler, chrome exhaust tips, 17- or 18-inch alloy wheels. Golf has a $770 destination charge, and the Golf R is assembled in Wolfsburg, Germany,

Get Up and Go  The Golf R is a true wolf in sheep's clothing. The exterior is fairly nondescript with the exception of large center-mounted chrome exhaust tips at the rear and a few discreet R badges. But from the first turn of the key, you know this car is special. The engine springs to life with a hearty growl and settles into a nefarious burble. Snap the transmission into first gear, drop the hammer and pop the clutch and the R springs forward with the velocity that's truly unexpected in this class. Keep your foot into the gas and 60 mph will come up in a scant five and a half seconds.

Yes, it's that fast. Even more impressive is the way the R puts the power to the ground. Thanks to a sure-footed all-wheel drive system, anti-slip system and electronic differential lock the Golf R just squats a bit and goes where you point it. Very few cars in this class can match the R's acceleration, heck very few sports cars can keep up.

VW purists will thoroughly enjoy the R's six-speed manual. Throws are longish but confidence inspiring and the clutch has enough weight to help balance the engine's output.

The Golf R is EPA rated at 19 mpg city and 27 mpg highway. Those numbers pale in comparison to other compact cars, but are substantially better than the R's two closest competitors -- the Subaru WRX and Mitsubishi Evo. As you might expect, premium-grade fuel is required.

Driven with a responsible (meaning light) throttle foot, Golf R will return an impressive 26-29 mpg. Dig deep into the go pedal and fuel economy quickly drops into the low 20s or high teens. Straight highway driving easily yields 30-32 mpg.

On the Road  Given its mission in life it is not surprising that the R has a firm ride. The firm suspension has little travel and the low-profile tires offer little additional absorption. Still, the R doesn't ride overly hard or busy. Sure it can pitch or bound a bit on badly broken roads, but overall the ride comes across as firm but sophisticated.

On the flipside, the R truly holds the road as if it were on rails. The fairly short wheelbase and tight-and-accurate steering give the R sport-car moves on twisty roads. So much so that you have to be traveling at extra-legal speeds just to enjoy the fantastic road manners. Topping things off is the R's all-wheel drive system that seamlessly delivers power to the wheels with the most traction and seems to will the sporty coupe around tight corners.

Interior noise levels are surprisingly lower than expected for a sport coupe. That's probably because Golf is a quite-riding compact. The engine has a hearty growl in acceleration but quiets nicely when cruising. Sport-minded tires can howl on concrete surfaces, and that's a bit disconcerting.

Behind the Wheel  Volkswagen is famous for its understated but highly functional interiors and the Golf R doesn't disappoint. Black is the dominant color, but there's also a fair amount of chrome brightwork, piano black plastic and brushed aluminum. Drivers face two large dials -- one for vehicle speed and the other for engine speed. Inside those dials are smaller gauges for engine temperature and fuel level. Between the gauges is a large mono-color, multi-function digital display for trip, audio, navigation or vehicle information.

The center stack houses fairly traditional audio and climate controls and ancillary switchgear is placed where it should be -- window, lock and mirror on the driver's armrest and the headlight switch a dial to the left of the steering wheel. Optional navigation system features a large display, but is not as easy to program or use as many others. Same can be said for the Bluetooth phone controls, which seem slow to react to drive commands.

Front bucket seats are very firm and highly bolstered. Though they might not be to everyone's taste, they are certainly appropriate in a vehicle this sporty. Head and leg room are exceptional for a small car. The front seat goes back further than in some large cars. Adjustable center armrest is a nice touch. Outward visibility is excellent, aided by thin roof pillars and wide outside mirrors. However, Golf doesn't offer driver aids like rear-view camera, park assist or blind-spot alert.

Rear seats are surprisingly roomy, but still best suited for children. Plus, putting three across is a no-no. Getting in and out isn't as difficult as you'd expect, but still require a twist-and-turn ballet act. 

Cargo space is better than expected, but still quite tight. There's just enough room for a row of grocery bags unless you fold the seat backs. The hatchback design makes loading and unloading a snap. Interior storage is just average with a few covered and open bins throughout. One nice touch is a large glovebox that has a cooler vent.

Bottom Line  Volkswagen is trying very hard to satisfy American tastes. The new Jetta and Passat were partly designed in the US and are significantly larger and more comfortable than their predecessors. That's all fine and good, but it's also nice to find the more traditional VW Golf.

Tipping the scale at more than $34,000, the Golf R isn't cheap. However, owners are rewarded with one of the most polished and sophisticated sport coupes on the market. Handling is nearly unmatched and the engine provides ample scoot. Throw in great fuel economy and all-wheel drive traction and the Golf R becomes a top pick.

Specifications 2012 Volkswagen Golf R
2-door hatchback
Turbocharged DOHC I4
Wheelbase, in.
Size, liters/cu. in.
2.0 / 121
Length, in.
Horsepower256 @ 6000
Width, in.70.3
Torque (lb.-ft.) 243 @ 2400

Height, in.57.5Transmission6-Speed Manual
Weight, lbs.
19 city / 27 highway
Cargo Capacity, cu. ft.
Fuel Capacity, gal.
Seating Capacity
3 years / 36,000 miles
Front Head Room, in.
5 years / 60,000 miles
Front Leg Room, in.
12 years / Unlimited miles
Second-Row Head Room, in.
Free Roadside Assistance
3 years / 36,000 miles
Second-Row Leg Room, in.
Free Scheduled Maintenance

Mark Bilek

Mark Bilek is the Senior Director of Communications and Technology for the Chicago Auto Trade Association and the General Manager for DriveChicago.com. He is also responsible for developing and maintaining the Chicago Auto Show Web site.

Mark has been reviewing vehicles for more than two decades. Previously, he was associate publisher at Consumer Guide, where he oversaw publication of Consumer Guide Car & Truck Test, Consumer Guide's Used Car Book, and ConsumerGuide.com. He was also responsible for publication of "Collectible Automobile" and various hardcover automotive titles. In 2001 and 2002 he served as president of a Midwest Automotive Media Association. Mark has appeared on NBC TV, ABC TV, Fox News, WGN and MotorTrend TV as an automotive consultant. He hosts the Drive Chicago radio show on WLS 890 AM and was a regular guest on WGN Radio's Steve & Johnnie show. Mark lives in the northwest suburbs with his wife and three sons.