HALF MOON BAY, CA – The highlight of Volkswagen’s full-line vehicle media preview here is the Golf compact hatchback, but not because it arguably is the auto maker’s most important and recognizable modern nameplate, having racked up more than 27 million sales globally since 1974.

In the U.S., the Golf has been a model of resilience, managing to stay in the lineup since 1984, despite exceeding 32,000 annual sales only three times, from 1985 to 1987, according to WardsAuto data.

Its platform mate, the Jetta sedan, has handily out-driven the Golf in the sales race, with 2.6 million units against 617,000 between 1980 and 2011, illustrating Americans’ disdain for hatchbacks.

The Golf even suffered the indignity of a name change as beleaguered VW of America management attempted to revive the Rabbit moniker in 2006, only to switch back in 2009.

What makes the Golf compelling in the U.S. for 2012 is its flexibility and VW’s willingness to position the car for every conceivable consumer mindset.

For the enthusiast who craves power, European handling and all-wheel-drive surefootedness, the auto maker introduces the Golf R, on sale since January with 256 hp, the highest output for a VW brand application of the excellent 2.0L turbocharged 4-cyl. engine that has become a powertrain pillar for the Volkswagen Group.

For the environmentally sensitive, some 20 all-electric E-Golf prototypes are being fleet-tested over the next nine months by VW employees in metropolitan Detroit, San Francisco and Washington.

Information from this study will be used in developing a next-generation, battery-driven Golf that will go on sale in the U.S. in 2014. Both the Golf R and E-Golf have their place in a market that is becoming intensely interested in fuel economy.

The recent spate of bankruptcies among start-up companies with worthwhile technologies but not enough money to weather the U.S.’ slow migration to electric vehicles demonstrates the importance of deep-pocketed established players such as VW staying in the game.

With 199 lb.-ft. (270 Nm) of torque, the 5-passenger E-Golf gets off the mark quickly. The car makes a pleasant burble when traveling at low speed thanks to a sound simulator integrated for pedestrian safety.

The 26.5-kWh lithium-ion battery pack gives the E-Golf a range of 93 miles (150 km), but a VW spokesman says initial testing by engineers in Germany suggests 110 miles (177 km) is feasible. The battery pack consists of 180 cells.

On downhill slopes, the vehicle can coast whenever the driver releases the accelerator pedal, helping extend battery range. There are three driving modes and three settings for regenerative braking to recapture kinetic energy into the battery.

On the downside, any rating that falls below 100 miles (160 km) per charge isn’t raising the bar relative to EVs already in the market, such as the Nissan Leaf, and fails to diffuse the very real problem of range anxiety, at least without a significant increase in the number of available charging stations.

VW employees receiving E-Golf test cars will have 220V charging stations installed at their homes.

Each E-Golf will come with an iPhone and a dedicated app that allows the user to remotely check the battery’s charging status, regulate the car’s internal temperature and gauge how much charging time is left.

The E-Golf is the smart, congenial, upstanding friend your parents are glad to have for dinner. The Golf R, on the other hand, is the leather-clad troublemaker who keeps getting caught smoking in the boys’ room. Consider them mismatched siblings, like Cain and Abel.

The Golf R racked up 200 deliveries in January, its first month of availability in the U.S.

Driving it along winding, desolate roads through the woods south of San Francisco with the sunroof open is to embrace both the beauty of nature and machine.

Rowing through the gears of the 6-speed manual transmission brings immense satisfaction as the 243 lb.-ft. (329 Nm) torque peak is attainable at a reasonably low engine speed of 2,400 rpm.

The latest iteration of VW’s 4Motion AWD system comes standard, diverting 100% of available torque to the rear wheels when needed.

The shining aspect of the Golf R is its turbocharged and intercooled 2.0L TSI direct-injection gasoline 4-cyl., which delivers 6 hp more than the older VR6 6-cyl. engine that powered the previous-generation Golf R32. That vehicle was offered in 2004 and 2008 as a 3-door hatchback, while the new model will be offered in 3-door and 5-door body styles.

Even though the new R is the most powerful Golf ever offered in the U.S., the car also trumps the fuel economy of the ’08 R32, which was rated at 18/23 mpg (13-10.2 L/100 km) city/highway.

The new Golf R proves the upside of engine downsizing with an impressive rating of 19/27 mpg (12.3-8.7 L/100 km) city/highway. Helping boost fuel efficiency is electric power steering, which is responsive, firm and just right for this application.

All this technology and performance comes with a significant premium over the base Golf, with 3-door Golf R pricing starting at $33,990, plus destination charges. In addition, it prefers premium fuel, which around metro Detroit currently costs $4.19 a gallon.

These two new versions of the VW Golf are well-timed and well-conceived to cement the subcompact in a segment that is gaining prominence.

The E-Golf is the car Volkswagen must produce to meet U.S. fuel-economy mandates.  But with its European performance pedigree, the Golf R clearly is the car VW wants to produce, to satisfy a core audience that remains enthralled with the open road.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com

 

’12 VW Golf R
Vehicle type Front-engine, AWD, 5-passenger, 3-door compact car
Engine 2.0L TSI turbocharged direct-injection DOHC I-4
Power (SAE net) 256 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 243 lb.-ft. (329 Nm) at 2,400 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 82.5 x 92.8
Compression ratio 9.8:1
Transmission 6-speed manual
Curb weight 3,325 lbs. (1,508 kg)
Base price $33,990
Fuel economy 19/27 mpg (12.3-8.7 L/100 km)
Competition Mini Cooper S, Subaru Impreza WRX, Honda Civic Si, Mazdaspeed3
Pros Cons
4-cyl. trumps VR6 engine Premium fuel still preferred
Puts fun in functional Awfully expensive for a Golf
Firm, well-bolstered “R” seats Seats only real interior differentiator