The 2012 Volkswagen R is an extraordinary small car, one that will let us say in hindsight that these were the good ol' days.
It's a superb driving machine, almost unbelievably satisfying in most circumstances.
And it's remarkably expensive. But, then, the limited-edition R comes round only once every four years. VW will build 5,000 of the new one, then quit. Period
In another four years there'll be an R version of that generation Golf, VW says. Just as there were 5,000 of the 2004 Rs, and 5,000 2008 Rs.
So, maybe you're getting sufficient exclusivity for your $35,000 or so to justify spending that much on a VW economy car that's been force-fed the industrial equivalent of steroids.
The Golf R is no relation to VW's confusingly named R Line, a cosmetic package it sells to tweak the look of various models. The R Line includes no high-performance hardware, just visual gimcracks.
What makes this Golf R differ from its two predecessors:
•It is powered by a turbocharged four-cylinder instead of the V-6 in the 2004 and 2008 Rs, which has caused some initial grumbling among the faithful.
•It is available as a four-door, not just the two-door model of the earlier Rs. That's an attempt to let the household's lead-footed patriarch or matriarch justify buying a Golf R —because it's a four-door and thus family-friendly, right?
In truth, the R does have a fair amount of room in back for the overall size of the car. So it could be the family buggy until the kids grow to basketball-star size.
Golf R comes only with a manual transmission and all-wheel drive. The clutch action is light and engagement is gentle. The gear lever moves with a casual precision that leaves you with a sly smile simply from moving it through the gears.
The test car never became tiresome in traffic, never jerked and bucked from too-little low-speed power as you engaged the clutch.
A four-cylinder with turbocharger and stick-shift is an invitation to stumblebum behavior in stop-go situations. Such engines often take some revving for enough power to move smoothly from a stop, and can require a lot of clutch slipping to get underway gently.
Not so with the R, and that deserves a salute.
Other praiseworthy systems:
•Brakes. Prompt, firm, not touchy.
•Steering. The right amount of road feel, the right amount of power-steering boost, even a steering wheel that feels good to hold.
•Chassis. Taut, confident in tight corners, but not at the expense of a harsh ride, which sometimes is the tradeoff.
•Comfort. Well-shaped and -sized front seats, sufficient bolstering without crowding the posterior. Rear seats aren't bad. As with any small car, though, you should disregard claims of five-passenger seating. Too narrow, unless the three in back are really skinny.
•Price. It's nearly 10 grand more than a Subaru BRZ or its near-clone Scion FR-S. Those are wholly different types of cars from the R, but deliver a ton o' fun, especially for their prices.
•Appearance. A stubby subcompact hatchback, it looks no better for the exterior trim that marks it as an R.
•Controls. VW continues to make awkward what should be simple.
•Omission. No backup camera, period. VW has been incorrigibly delinquent on cameras, even though the feds plan to require them soon. It just now is equipping some of its models with the helpful devices that can keep you from whacking a child, pet, curb or other low-rise item you'd be unable to spot without a camera.
Whether an R is for you comes down to comparisons.
Do you think the R is special enough to pay $3,995 more than you would for a 200-horsepower, front-drive Golf GTI Autobahn — the R's closest relative?
Or, to pay about the same price that could get you a cushy Lexus ES 350 or crisp Cadillac ATS luxury car?
It's about priorities.
•What? Fastest, best-handling, limited-production version of the small, five-passenger Golf sedan.
•When? R version on sale since January.
•Where? Made in Germany.
•How much? $34,700 with shipping for two-door base; $36,860 for top model: four-door with sunroof, navi.
•How many? 5,000. Then wait another four years for the next Golf R.
•What makes it go? 2-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder rated 256 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 243 pounds-feet of torque at 2,400. All Rs have six-speed manual, all-wheel drive.
•How big? Smaller than rival Subaru WRX. Golf R is 165.8 inches long, 70.3 in. wide, 57.5 in. tall on a 101.3-in. wheelbase. Weighs 3,325 lbs., rated to carry up to a hefty 1,221 lbs. (nearly as much as some pickups), depending on model. Passenger space: 93.5 cubic feet; cargo: 15.3 cu. ft.
Turning circle diameter: 35.8 ft.
•How thirsty? Rated 19 mpg in the city, 27 highway, 22 in city/highway mix. Trip computer in test car showed 16 mpg (6.25 gallons per 100 miles) in spirited suburban zipping.
Premium fuel recommended. Holds 14.5 gal.
•Overall: Joy to drive, but will people pay $35,000 for a Golf? They just might.