Somewhere between fast cars, practical cars, and those you can actually afford lies the 2012 Volkswagen Golf R. Taking the title as the most powerful small car VW has ever offered, it’s safe to say this little brute is very quick. The “R” moniker refers to Volkswagen’s tuned models (think: “M” to BMW and “S” to Audi) and in this regard, the Golf is anything but disappointing, a worthy upgrade up from the wildly popular GTI. Taking on 60 mph in 5.7 seconds may not sound like much in a day and age where publications (including ours) splay supercar specs across their pages without a second thought. But, when you consider the Golf R costs roughly one MacBook over $30k, you begin to realize just how much real-world German speed you get for your coin.

Officially, 5,000 Golf R’s will hit US shores this fall as a 2012 model but GP received an early invitation to get behind the wheel of the featherweight fighter and what better way to test a distinctly European car than on European soil? And we did just that, bombing our way from Geneva, Switzerland to Talloires, France at unreasonably hasty speeds — with a camera by our side.

So, whats it like?

There’s something mystical to the American driver about driving European roads. The Autobahn, drivers with proper road etiquette, a dearth of stoplights (no thanks to roundabouts), and supercars come to mind. But, in reality much of the Autobahn is now restricted and elsewhere heavily regulated roads enforced by cameras means driving in Europe is less of a privilege than it used to be. Having done a fair share of European drives, including a long haul from London to Rome (in an underpowered Skoda), this writer can attest that times have indeed changed.

But not everywhere.

Throughout continental Europe pristine countryside are still peppered with highly manicured B-roads and it’s here a driving enthusiast can find his mecca. Sure, the Golf R will deliver 120+ mph highway speeds without flinching, but an interesting thing happens when one drives at the cusp of legal limits (er, possibly over) on tight, coastal descending switchbacks swathed with hairpins. The face transforms from mere grins to outright laughs accompanied with passenger oh-sh#%-handle grabbing (sorry, Sean). Here, our vessel, the lithe European spec all-wheel drive Golf R priority delivered a custom critical package full of awesome.

…our vessel, the lithe all-wheel drive Golf R priority delivered a custom critical package full of awesome…

Without any pomp or circumstance, the Golf R has an admirable presence. You can thank its compact and taut proportions for that, which give the fantastic looking coupe an athletic stance in either coupe or sedan form (to us, it looks equally handsome in either configuration). The aggressive front fascia, LED running lights, smoked bi-xenon headlight surrounds (Euro only), and 18″ wheels further concrete the assertion that this Golf means business.

The 2012 differs from its predecessor (the R32) in one big way, the powerplant. VW has upped the agility factor by shedding the chunky 3.2 liter V6 engine with a more powerful turbocharged 2.0 inline-4 good for 256 horsepower and 243 lb ft torque. Mated to a fourth-generation Haldex all-wheel drive system, the Golf R might as well hand you a certificate guaranteeing you’ll have power delivered to the right wheels when and where you need it. Our favorite aspect of the VW may and well be the one that few notice (you can blame the audio-gearhead in me). The Golf R is already endowed with a beautiful burble in its exhaust note, but German engineers (never content to leave well enough alone) have enhanced it even further by pumping in an extra drop of fuel during shifts to create a subtle audible backfire effect. Once you notice it you’ll never stop listening for it and it’s detailing like this that carry throughout the Golf R that will fire you up every time you reach for the keys.

Call us spoiled and content, having driven this new mini-powerhouse from VW through majestic mountains and the crisp countryside. We won’t argue with you. We might say that the 2012 Golf R is the complete package. Practical 3 or 5 door configuration, well-groomed interior, both a clean and aggressive exterior, teutonic roots, with power and handling to rival cars twice its price. So, you may not drive it to a polo match with British Royalty, but you will turn heads and perhaps even put a serious crick in them as they quickly crane to see you thrust past a lot full of Skodas.