VW's hot hatch gets a serious refinement boost to become the Golf R. Does it still have its edge? We find out.

The letter R. To some people, it's just the 18th letter of the alphabet. Or what a pirate says. But to Volkswagen, it's the best a Golf can be.

Building on its previous Mk4 and Mk5 Golf R32 models, VW is now rolling out the third-generation of its hottest hatch, the Golf R. The Golf R's overall concept remains very similar to its predecessors - make an already fun GTI even better - but the hatch's formula has been tweaked to reflect the changing times.

Doing more with less
Whereas VW's previous Golf R models used a 3.2L V6 for motivation, the latest Golf R uses an up-rated version of the GTI's 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder. Though down on cylinders, the Golf R actually trumps the last-generation R32 in power, producing 256 horsepower (up 6) and 243 lb-ft of torque (up 7).

All-wheel drive remains a Golf R staple, but VW has decided to ditch the R32's exclusive DSG transmission for a proper six-speed manual gearbox. That's right, an automatic transmission isn't even on the Golf R's option list.

And best of all, the Golf R let's you have your cake and eat it too. The Golf R is rated at 19 mpg city and 27 mpg highway, besting the less powerful R32 by 1 and 4 mpg, respectively.

Wolf in sheep's clothing
As with previous Golf R models, the 2012 version of the car doesn't stand out with overt wings or air scoops. Rather VW took a wolf in sheep's clothing approach, equipping the Golf R with a subtle body kit and modestly-styled 18-inch wheels. The only giveaways that this Golf is special are 'R' badges and center-mounted dual exhaust outlets.

Some might complain that the Golf R is too subdued, but keep in mind the Germans don't exactly do over-the-top. Unpimp my ride indeed.

That styling philosophy carries over into the Golf R's interior, with most parts carried over from the Golf GTI. The Golf R does, however, get unique 'R' stitching on the front head and 'R' sill covers.

The Golf R doesn't leap from a standstill like the former R32 models, but the turbocharged engine does build power quickly. Think of it as the calm before the storm.

VW says the Golf R reaches peak torque at a low 2,400 rpm, but things don't really get going until the needle sweeps past the 3,000 mark. From there power steadily builds throughout the range, with max horsepower coming on at 6,000 rpm.

The Golf R's AWD system ensures all of that power hits the pavement in an orderly fashion, but part of us missed the wheel-spinning drama you get in a GTI. We didn't lament for long, though, as the Golf R's AWD system slingshots the car from 0-60 in 5.6 seconds and provides an amazing surefootedness through any twist or turn. And, really, if you want to have a tire-smoking good time, you can still buy a GTI.

The power of the Golf R's drivetrain is literally put in the palm of you hand via a smooth-shifting six-speed manual. Normally we can find at least one fault with a manual gearbox, but we couldn't come up with a single knock against the unit used in the Golf R. Shifts are short and precises, and even the clutch is light and predictable to use. And we can't even begin to describe how refreshing it is to see a car offered exclusively with a manual rather than some form of a semi-automatic gearbox.

The Golf R's steering isn't quite as precise as its gearbox, though, with VW's electronic setup resulting in a somewhat vague feeling at turn in. However, the system feels well-suited overall for the Golf R's sporty nature.

The Golf R we get on these shores lacks the adjustable suspension of the Euro-spec car - a move to keep costs down - but we never felt shortchanged on the winding roads of Northern California. The Golf R rides like a normal hatch during routine driving, but transforms into a canyon-carver whenever you feel the need. The car's aforementioned AWD system also virtually eliminates any hint of understeer.

Our one ax to grind with the Golf R is the lack of a decent soundtrack. Those dual outlets out back would have you think that the Golf R is a screamer at speed, but it simply isn't. Truth be told the Jetta GLI makes better sounds than the Golf R. Part of that can probably be chalked up to the Golf R's price point - boy racers probably won't be dropping more than 36 grand on a hot hatch - but we think it's an oversight on VW's part. However, we're sure the aftermarket will take care of that shortcoming.

On the whole, the Golf R really is a GTI+ to drive.

Hot rod for the family man
The allure of any hot hatch is the combination of practicality and performance, but VW's former Golf R products weren't as people-friendly as they could have been. If you wanted an R32, you were forced to deal with having just two doors.

But VW has corrected that issue with the Golf R by offering both two- and four-door body styles, transforming the hatch into a true hot rod for the family man. However, you better have a talk with the family before splurging on a Golf R.

The two-door version of the Golf R lists from $34,760, which is a healthy increase over the $24,765 VW charges for the GTI. Opt for the four-door version of the Golf R - which comes equipped with navigation and a sunroof - and the price jumps to $36,860. Navigation and a sunroof, the Golf R's only options, can be added to the two-door version for $1,500.

Although pricey, we doubt any of the 5,000 Golf Rs VW plans to import over the 2012 and 2013 model years will have any issues finding a home.

Leftlane's bottom line
While there may be faster ( Subaru WRX STI) and cheaper (Mazdaspeed3) hot hatches on the market, we have yet to come across one that does everything as well as the Golf R, which is quiet, comfortable and plenty quick.

We'd pause at the Golf R's luxury car-like price tag, but if you've got a wad of cash burning a hole in your pocket, there are worse ways to spend.

2012 Volkswagen Golf R base price range, $34,760 to $36,860.

Words and photos by Drew Johnson.