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COVER STORY
On the street or at the track, the tricked-out Golf is easy to drive fast. Just 5000 R32s will be available for our roads. (All photos © 2004 by Ron Kimball)

It R what it R: The R32 is the last, best version of VW’s Golf IV

Published Date: 3/22/04

2004 VOLKSWAGEN R32
ON SALE: Now
BASE PRICE: $29,675
POWERTRAIN: 3.2-liter, 240-hp, 236-lb-ft VR6; awd, six-speed manual
CURB WEIGHT: 3409 pounds
0 to 60 MPH: 6.4 seconds (mfr.)

Technology will soon allow us, maybe even you and me, to live to be about 185 years old or so. That means in the year 2150 we will be able to sit in our anti-gravity gyro-rockers on our carbon-unit front porches and regale the great-great-great grandchildren with tales of the golden age of fun cars.

“Yep,” we will say for the 809th time, “I remember back in double-ought four, yesiree, we had the Evo, the STi and the R32 ta’ boot!”

The great-great-great grandkids will have long since tuned us out by then, going on holographic 3D journeys in their smart-gel brains but still allowing us to see them as attentive and interested. The future will make everyone happy.

“Tell us again, Gramps!” their little auto-enthuso-voices will say, automatically.

“Well, as I recall, in 2003 the Evo was first in the U.S. market, 271 horses, followed by the STi, at 300. Then came the R32. Even though the R32 only had 240 hp, it was smoother and more comfortable than the others were. ’Course, that was before Emperor Gates eliminated the need for cars altogether with Windows ’09 for Molecular Transfer through USB ports. Heh, heh, yep—them were the days. We actually had to drive the suckers ourselves!”

So yes, your future self will recall this as the golden age of wheeled fun, particularly in the compact-car market. And the most recent fun thing in that market is the Volkswagen Golf R32.

For the record, it won’t beat a Mitsubishi Evo or a Subaru STi, despite the fact the R stands for racing. We have to get that out of the way right off.

But that’s only if what you mean by beat is to get to 60 mph before them, or lap a road course faster. See, in this golden age there is an under-$30,000 performance compact for everyone. While the STi leads in horsepower and grip on gravel, and the Evo is the road-course king, the car of those three you just might want to own and commute in every day could well be the Volkswagen.

The R32 is the Volkswagen Golf fan’s ultimate dreamboat. It has a mighty and smooth 3.2-liter VR6 engine, the most powerful ever bolted into a production Golf engine bay. It has all-wheel drive sending 236 lb-ft of torque to both the front and rear wheels through a six-speed manual and a Haldex differential. It has big brakes, unique body panels, seats with meaningful bolsters, a fat steering wheel and even dual exhausts.

The R32 is everything a VW enthusiast could ask for here in the States right now.

Except for maybe a Golf V. See, while the fifth-generation Golf is already in showrooms across Europe, it won’t come to America until October 2005, when it arrives in GTI form. The Jetta gets here a few months before that and the regular old Golf V a few months after that. VW in Germany thinks we don’t like hatches here. As a result, VW dealers here think VW in Germany is ignoring them, forcing them to sell seven-year-old models and offering cars like the Phaeton to keep them profitable.

Does this mean VW Germany is out of touch and unresponsive to U.S. needs? Sort of. But the trail of the R32 suggests otherwise. The way that seemingly Euro-only car wound up here shows how responsive VW can be when it wants to. The story goes like this:

A bunch of U.S. auto journalists were sitting around on a press trip in Europe with Bernd Pischetsrieder, chairman of the board of VW, when the subject of the R32 came up.

Scribe: “We’d like to have that fine R32 back home.”

Chairman of the board of VW AG: “What? Really?”

Pischetsrieder then leapt to his feet (some say he merely “got up”), went to a phone, made a call and next thing you know the VW R32 was on its way to our shores. See, even a company that makes 5 million cars a year can still line up 5000 R32s for the States.

And what R32s they are. Let’s wade into the details.

The heart of this Euro-squealer is the 3.2-liter VR6. We have gone on record as loving the VR6 since we first stomped on the gas of one in a 1992 Corrado SLC. The narrow-angle (15-degree) banks of cylinders simply hummed and spun so smoothly it was like a little electric train motor. A little electric train motor that spat out 175 hp. It was so smooth and powerful, especially compared to V6s of the day, that it was like an alternate power source from another planet.

Evolution of the VR6 led to the 2.8-liter 200-hp version in the GTI VR6 model available today. An extra 400 cubic centimeters of displacement, along with a redesigned intake system, roller rockers and seven-bearing main brought the engine to today’s state of power.

The R32’s engine was originally developed for V6 versions of the Phaeton and Touareg. It is shared with the Audi TT 3.2, another Deutsche-screamer. The R32 does not get the TT’s Direct-Shift Gearbox, but it does come with a perfectly serviceable six-speed manual.

From there torque twists to Volks-wagen’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive system. Most of the time the torque goes straight out the front wheels. When those slip, up to 50 percent of the torque travels south to the Haldex coupling in the rear differential. This works seamlessly. If you can hear or feel it working, you’re more sensitive than are we, but more on that in a minute.

The R32 rides an inch lower than the GTI (though it is 10 mm higher than the European R32). It sits on MacPherson struts in front and a multilink mated to a subframe in the back. The subframe was necessary to accommodate the all-wheel-drive system. Antiroll bars are 21 mm in front and 16 mm in back, two mm and one mm thicker than the GTI. Spring rates are stiffer than the GTI but essentially the same as the European R32.

Front ventilated discs are 13.1 inches across and rear ventilated discs are 10.1 inches. Wheels are 15-spoke Aristos, 18 inches in diameter with 225/40R summer tires. Steering is quicker, too. Of course there is ABS, EBD, ESP and brake assist, but Volkswagen says the electronics intervene at a later point than in the rest of its cars.

Outside, a new front bumper with three big intakes—one of which houses an extra radiator—helps to cool the larger engine. The bottom edge of the new bumper is lower than the GTI, as are the unique side skirts and redesigned rear bumper. VW says the rear spoiler is functional and not only reduces lift, but produces downforce. For the record, the rear end never once lifted off the ground the whole time we had the car. Even with all the body cladding, the R32’s coefficient of drag is the same 0.31 listed for the regular Golf.

The R32 comes in four colors: red, silver, blue and black. The blue is particularly striking, being fairly close to the blue in the VW logos and corporate stationary.

Inside, the big news is those fabulous Koenig seats. Big, meaty side bolsters keep all but the most rotund in place during cornering, though the bolsters do get in the way of the parking-lever operation a little. Leather seats are the only option on the car, at $950. The steering wheel is equally meaty and also unique to this car. New metal trim on the dash and doorsills, along with monogrammed sill panels, further distinguishes the R32 from the mere mortal Volkswagens.

The R32 is like a fully loaded Golf—with climate control, CD/cassette, rain-sensor windshield wipers, sunroof, anti-theft system—plus the aforementioned unique stuff. It is the Golf line’s halo car, relegating the GTI to the category of “affordable performance,” according to VW of America product planner Paul Spevetz. “The R32 is maybe less price conscious,” says Spevetz, which is especially true if you remember the cost of the first GTIs.

So how does all that feel around a racetrack? VW rented out Firebird Raceway in Phoenix and let us have at it. We first did several laps of an autocross course to get the feel of the car. Here, in addition to our usual phalanx of tricks employed at all autocross courses, we found the R32’s awd was a real help. Toss it into a corner like a dirty T-shirt into the hamper and, no matter how out of shape you found yourself going in, get on the throttle before the apex and let the 4Motion figure things out. It was almost like cheating.

The R32 weighs 3409 pounds, about 400 more than the GTI. Most of that is the awd with some weight gained due to the independent rear end. VW says the 4Motion is necessary to get all that 240 hp to the ground. Put it through just the front wheels and there is massive torque steer and wheelspin and little forward progress.

We got plenty of forward progress. VW claims 0 to 60 in 6.4 seconds and a top speed of 130 mph. The 236 lb-ft of torque peak comes between 2800 and 3200 rpm while the 240-hp rating apexes at 6250 rpm. In between, it was all just so smooth. While power and torque have risen considerably since we first drove the VR6 engine, the characteristic smoothness has not changed at all. Clutch engagement and take-up was smooth, too.

Revving the engine was a pleasure, as there seemed to be power and torque all over the tach. The exhaust tone had been tuned nicely with a resonate flapper that opens at 3500 rpm to create a sweetly throaty burble up to redline, not the offensive braaap some small-displacement racing exhausts emit.

If we’re going to whine, we’ll say the suspension allows for too much body roll, which has been a Golf trait since time immemorial. It is especially prevalent now considering the flat cornering characteristics of the Evo, a car that is just wonderfully flat when pushed around a corner. The STi has slightly more roll than the Evo, as well as more pitch and dive. Add more to all that and you’re at the R32, a car that remains well ahead of most pedestrian compacts.

But the R32’s roll is nicely controlled—it doesn’t flop from side to side—and it is a soft roll that makes the R32 so comfortable to drive the rest of the week. You can’t blame the tires, either, since they’re already summer-only treads.

Which means, we suppose, that life is full of tradeoffs.

We lapped the north course at Firebird a few times for photos on our first day and then a few more times, behind an instructor, the second day. Two days driving didn’t wear us out or make us reach for the kidney belt from our luggage as it might have with an Evo.

“I don’t think there is anyone in the production team that wants it to be a Subaru or a Mitsubishi,” said Spevetz. “Your average driver is going to be able to wring a lot more out of an R32 than out of some Japanese cars.”

The R32 is in showrooms now, priced at $29,675 including destination. But here is the real news: Volkswagen says this is just the first of what will be a line of R cars. A line? What does that mean? We don’t know yet. But it is a nice thing to imagine.

“The R series is a GT kind of class,” a Volkswagen R engineer told us. “The R line should be a car that is sportif and comfortable.”

He said the Rs would have six cylinders or more and would usually, though not always, be added to a product near the end of its cycle, as is the case with the R32 Golf. Beyond that, he remained circumspect. There will be no R version of the current Passat, he said, but went no further.

Which is fine with us since we’re going to be around for all these future products.

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