Buying a Golf R Project Car: Unlocking Its Potential [Part 1]

2012 VW Golf R

MK6 VW Golf R Project Car – a great choice for enthusiasts on a budget

Six years ago, Volkswagen replaced the vaunted R32 with the 2012 Golf R. With 256 horsepower from a torquey 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder, VW’s new performance icon became the flagship of the Golf family. Without question, the Mk6 Golf R turned out to be the hot hatch for any astute driver that was not impressed by the shenanigans of the Subaru WRX STi or Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X.

As the top dog in the Golf line-up, the Mk6 Golf R is a lot more than a just a gussied-up GTI with a bigger turbocharger and higher price tag. It comes with a few other niceties that distinguish itself among from its Wolfsburg brothers. It has as all-wheel drive, for a start. Beyond that, the Mk6 Golf R also has upgraded binders, recalibrated suspension, and a more refined interior. Altogether, the Golf R offers a distinctly different driving experience and a high desirability quotient.

Of course, this level of performance and refinement comes at a cost. On paper, over $5,000 separated a similarly equipped Mk6 GTI and Golf R. The premium cost and the limited number of Golf R cars brought into the U.S. put the mature hot hatch out of reach with many buyers.

2012 VW Golf R with European LED taillights

Well, all good things come to those who wait, including depreciation. In the span of five years, the market value of the Mk6 Golf R fits squarely in our modest budget zone. After an intense three-month search, we found a mint2012 Golf R project car with 29,000 miles and zero aftermarket mods. Above all, this near-perfect gem did not exceed our hard budget cap of $30,000, which included a pre-sale-inspection by an independent shop, the sale price, state sales tax, registration fee, and cost of transportation to get it from the East Coast to California.

What we like about the Golf R project car

The Golf R feels almost perfect out of the box for a daily driver. One of its greatest assets is that it doesn’t compromise ride quality in pursuit of performance. Our Golf R project car’s awesome steering, tenacious handling, and smooth power delivery remind us why we can live it every day. with comfortably on the street or enjoy its proficiency at the local race track.

Moreover, the conservative character of the Golf does not scream for attention like a WRX STi or Civic Type R. A quick glance from the outside and it looks like a typical Mk6 Golf or GTI. Keen observers who are familiar with the Golf family will quickly notice the characterizing traits of the Golf R such as the LED daytime driving lights, the black side-view mirrors, and the center-mounted twin exhaust pipes.

The cabin has the typical business-like design we have come to expect from Volkswagen, along with some nice touches that set the interior well above its class competitors like the Ford Focus RS and Subaru WRX STi. Inherent qualities, such as first-class ergonomics, a splendid driving position, and aluminum-capped pedals reveal a cabin that perfectly tickles the driving inspiration each time we get behind the leather-wrapped, flat-bottom steering wheel. Even though passenger comfort is placed above cargo room, a quick drop of the rear seats opens up plenty of usable space.

Improving upon success

Our sporty hatchback — straight from the factory — is safe and efficient. Yet it can still give most BMWs and Audis a kick in the pants while saving you enough money for a European vacation. Even though our canyon carver is no slowpoke, we can’t leave things alone. Thankfully, an abundant number of mods and reams of information are available, conveniently archived in sixth-generation Golf R forums.

An unmodded 2012 VW Golf R makes 256 horsepower and 243 pound-feet of torque. Saddled with the weight of its all-wheel-drive system, the Mk6 Golf R is not that much faster than a Mk7 GTI. The new GTI has 210 to 220 horsepower, and its certainly not as quick as the Mk7 Golf R. Volkswagen’s hot hatch king now comes with 292 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of twist. However, with some homework and a good set of tools, we think the Mk6 can be upgraded to match (or even better) the performance of the Mk7 Golf R without compromising the demure hatchback’s dynamic performance and refined ride quality.

How is the Mk6 Golf R project car better after a few modifications?

Stay tuned for a series of articles featuring the Golf R project car. We’ll outline the car’s performance and cosmetic modifications, and describe how the changes affected the car, for better or worse. We want to personalize our German hot hatch, but not compromise the Golf’s fine qualities. Thus, we’re taking a conservative approach whenever we’re hit with the urge to change things up.

2012 VW Golf R European LED vs U.S. taillights
Mk6 VW Golf R comparison of Europenan LED vs U.S. spec taillights

One example is the rear taillights. The North American model has boring, old-fashioned incandescent lights at the rear. On the other hand, Volkswagen bestowed the European Golf R with LED taillights that look much nicer. In short order, we replaced the stock taillights with the Euro-style LED taillights. Not only are the LED taillights brighter than the US-spec version, the “cool” factor went up a couple notches because only Golf aficionados will recognize the subtle change.

A little internet shopping yielded a set of Helix/Depo Euro LED taillights (pictured below) from a seller on eBay. While a VW purist would have purchased the true factory-spec European taillights, we discovered the cost of the OEM version is close to $800 and they require coding changes to the VCDS software.

The advantages of choosing the replicas made by Helix/Depo outweighed our desire to stick with OEM parts. First, there is a huge cost benefit (we are on a budget, after all). Plus, reprogramming the software is also unnecessary with this option. We took a leap of faith, and we weren’t disappointed. The lights fit perfectly, with evenly spaced gaps and zero water leaks past the seals.

Installing the new LED taillights was straightforward and no special skills were required for the installation. The only detail that didn’t measure up to our standards was the molding flash on the edge of the plastic lenses. While the unfinished edges are barely visible from a few feet away, we noticed some of the edges were unpolished and rough to the touch.

What’s next for the Golf R project car?

Let us know what we can do next to customize our 2012 Golf R in the comments section. Keep in mind that we have a tight budget. We’re also not willing to compromise the integrity and character of this hot little hatchback.

SPECIFICATIONS: 2012 VW Golf R w/sunroof and navigation

Base MSRP: $35,490
Price as Tested (new): $36,260 (including destination charge)
Engine: 2.0-liter TSI, turbocharged inline-4
Drivetrain (Layout): Front-engine, all-wheel drive
Horsepower: 256 hp @ 6,000 RPM
Torque: 243 lb-ft @ 2,400 RPM
Transmission: 6-speed manual
0-60 Acceleration: 5.9 seconds
Top Speed: 127 MPH
Suspension: Front: Strut-type w/lower control arms, coil springs, shocks, anti-roll bar

Rear: Multi-link w/coil springs, shocks, anti-roll bar

Brakes: Power-assisted four-wheel discs (vented front, solid rear)
Tires: Continental ExtremeContact Sport 225/45R18
Fuel capacity: 14.5 gallons
Fuel economy (EPA):

Observed Fuel Economy:

19 / 27 / 22 MPG (city/hwy/combined)

24 MPG average


Wheelbase: 101.5 inches
Length:  165.8 inches
Width: 70.0 inches
Height:  57.5 inches
Cargo capacity: 53.7 cubic feet (w/ seats folded)
Ground clearance: 5.0 inches
Curb Weight: 3,325 pounds