2012 Volkswagen Golf R road test
The world's most discreet hot hatch
There are a lot of ways you can spend $40,000 on a new car, but I'm certain dropping that kind of money on a compact Volkswagen — a Volkswagen Golf, to be specific — isn't one of them. Even if that Volkswagen Golf should so happen to be the most powerful Golf ever to be sold in Canada, fitted with all-wheel drive, and limited to but a handful of customers. In conversation, it's price that's always the killer, the one silver bullet that shoots everything down. And yet, something's amiss. Practically every car Volkswagen brought into the country was pre-sold. Were those 500 buyers onto something everyone else missed?
Volkswagen is no stranger to high-performance hatchbacks; we are, after all, talking about the company that kicked off the hot-hatch movement with the GTI nearly four decades ago. But even as the GTI metamorphosed over the years from a sprightly little fuel-injected hatchback to a junior-grand tourer, and back into what is perhaps the best of the breed, the Golf R isn't a GTI. It's a Golf R. R aims for something else: all-weather speed, all-weather security. Look back on the (brief) history of R cars, and you'll see leather-laden Golfs with high-power VR6s wedged between their fenders, and all-wheel-drive Passats nudging the 300-horsepower mark. In other words, these ultimate Volkswagens are traditional German Autobahn-eaters — high-speed cruise missiles that punch above their weight, fit for gunning down unsuspecting BMW and Mercedes-Benz drivers.
While this is the first R car to be sold in Canada, it's actually the third-generation Golf to receive this treatment, and a final hurrah for the sixth-gen Golf before the new model debuts at this year's Paris show. All cars come with the same configuration: five-door hatchback, six-speed manual, all-wheel drive, and a 256-horsepower 2.0-litre direct-injected and turbocharged four-cylinder engine. All come with nav, leather, sunroof and xenon headlamps — all the goodies you'd expect to find in a fully loaded luxury compact, like, oh, an Audi.
You Audi know
The link to Audi is stronger than you might think with this one. Take the engine for example. While the Golf R's engine has a displacement of 2.0-litres (1,984 cc, to be exact), this isn't the same engine you'll find in the GTI. It's actually the older EA113 engine, which is the engine that powers the TT S, and, incidentally, the S3, the high-performance version of the A3 in Europe. With stronger pistons and a bigger KKK turbocharger among other changes, it churns out more power and more torque than the standard GTI — 256 hp, 243 lb.-ft. of torque.
It's also got the same sort of all-wheel-system in use in the Audi TT S and S3. Sourced from longtime Swedish partner Haldex, it's the latest generation that features a clever new electronic pump for its hydraulic innards, allowing it to instantly shift torque between the front and rear axles, rather than waiting around for wheel spin before kicking in. It's also permanently engaged, sending a minimum of four per cent of all power to the rear wheels, so there's no delay when leaving stop lights. Add that to a lowered suspension that's also been firmed up with new dampers front and rear, and what you have is a package that's ripe for fun, no matter the weather. Oh, and the wheels. They've been upsized to 18 inches and look remarkably similar to the five-spoke wheels fitted to various S-line Audis. Hmm.