Volkswagen R32 (2004)

Saturday, June 12, 2004 - Words & Pics: Ryan Douthit

TO THE UNTRAINED EYE, Volkswagen's R32 looks like every other Golf roaming the streets. This shouldn’t be surprising, since it’s based on the same production platform (Mk IV). Looking closer at its aggressive front bumper treatment, large multispoke 18-inch wheels and the dual exhausts poking out from beneath the rear valance tells you that the R32 is, in fact, something very special.

What really makes this Volkswagen special isn’t what’s on the outside, but what lurks beneath its skin. The R32 marks the first time VW has offered its 4-Motion all-wheel-drive (AWD) system in a North American-bound Mk IV. That in itself is pretty cool. But adding AWD to any car—even one as small as the two-door Golf—was bound to add a substantial amount of weight. So VW took the liberty of one-upping its previous top-of-the-line powerplant, the 200 horsepower 2.8-liter VR6 available in GTI trim, and shoe-horned in the 3.2-liter, 240 hp, VR6, the same engine found in the $40,000 Audi TT Quattro Coupe.

It’s natural to want to compare this little beast to the other AWD sport compacts leading the charge in the fast-and-fun driving arena, especially Subaru’s zesty WRX STi and Mitsubishi’s razor-sharp Evolution 8, both of which are comparably priced at around $30,000. With its complete and utter lack of fins, ductwork or anything else that would normally scream "speed"—the R32 only looks the part of a sports car to those who know what to look for. Is this R32 a proper "sleeper" sport hatch, worthy to take on its Japanese rivals? Or is it just a European emissary, sent to appease legions of VW zealots crying for a hot hatch of their own?

The R32 isn't just a fun car...it also makes a great snow-blower.

Once inside the cabin, there are constant reminders that this is, indeed, the R32. The "R" logo is used liberally throughout the cabin: appearing on the amply bolstered Konig Sport front seats, at the bottom of the small and super-thick steering wheel, on the six-speed shift knob, in the center of the instrument cluster, and even on the individual foot pedals. Okay, so the "R" embellishment is a bit excessive. Brushed aluminum pieces here and there (and everywhere) add a little extra zing for more visual impact. Put together, all these plastic, leather and metal elements make a bold statement that the R32 isn’t just a regular Golf; nay, it’s a super-duper-sports-styling-über-Golf. Whether the interior is everyone’s cup of tea is tough to establish. Sure, most of the Driving Sports staff liked the overall effect, but it’s also easy to argue that the metal embellishments are overly fussy, the seats lack in sufficient adjustability, the massive thickness of the steering wheel is bordering on comical, and the center console is oddly configured with the climate controls jammed beneath the stereo. Whereas the exterior styling speaks of simple cool confidence, the interior exudes lavish Teutonic excess.

Making a beeline to the closest mountain roads, we were psyched to get some great photos of this little wonder laying down some rubber. Alas! We were foiled by the VW engineers and their blasted traction control system (the ESP system). Similar to the GTI, even with ESP "disabled", the basic elements of traction control were engaged enough to prevent our intended hoodlumism. Cranking the wheel to full-lock and dumping the clutch resulted in a shutter of the tranny; wheels grabbing, slipping, grabbing, slipping, etc. Even circumventing an invisible slalom at 50 mph made for sore shoulders, but the R32 stayed its course. "Good thing the traction control is working, otherwise we would be in a ditch right now," whimpered my passenger as I cranked the wheel even harder. No matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t break the R32 loose, and after three hours of trying, we finally packed it in and headed back to the city.

Along the way we did learn a few things about the R32: The super-deep seats do a great job of keeping both passenger and driver firmly in place—even when you want to get out you have to literally pull yourself out of the hole you planted yourself in. On gravel with the omnipresent traction control, it’s hard to gauge a slide around the turn. In fact, don’t even try to slide around a turn. You’ll probably end up in the inside ditch. Also, if your justification for getting an R32 is to put the fear of the "R" into the hearts your GTI-owning friends, or to out-drag your girlfriend’s 350Z coupe, you’ll be disappointed. With even mild tuning, both of these can spank an out-of-the-box R32. If speed is your thing, get an EVO, STi, or even a used BMW M-Coupe. On the other hand, your ticket has arrived if you want to own the finest VW Golf available in the United States—and you’re only looking to please yourself. <

Engine: 3.2L V6
Peak HP: 240 hp @ 6250 RPM
Peak Torque: 236 ft-lbs @ 2800 RPM
Curb Weight: 3409-lbs
EPA Mileage: 19 mpg (hwy) / 16 mpg (city)
Price: $29,675 (as tested)

Driving Sports Magazine