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Saturday, June 5, 2004

VW's R32 offers power, speed

New Golf has great cargo capacity, but don't get a flat tire

By Carol Traeger
Enquirer contributor

VW Golf R32
Dodge SRT-10

A go-fast Golf
Wheels rating: (out of 5)
4 wheels

What I drove: 2004 Volkswagen R32, a two-door, five-passenger hatchback with all-wheel drive

Base price: $29,100 (includes options and destination charge)

Price as tested: $30,625

Options on test vehicle: Leather Package

Drivetrain layout: Front engine, all-wheel drive

Engine: 3.2-liter V-6 generating 240 horsepower and 236 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Wheelbase: 99.1 inches

Length: 164.4 inches

Width: 68.3 inches

Height: 56.1 inches

Weight: 3,409 pounds

EPA mpg, city/highway: 19/26

Warranty: Basic: 4 years/50,000 miles; powertrain: 5 years/60,000 miles; roadside assist: 4 years/50,000 miles

Assembled in: Bratislava, Slovakia

Safety: Dual front air bags, front side-impact air bags, front and rear curtain air bags, 3-point safety belts and head restraints in all seats, LATCH child seat anchors, daytime running lights, antilock brakes, anti-intrusion side door beams.

Cool: Slippery-smooth shifter, zippy engine, all-wheel-drive adhesion, good fuel economy, sweet engine note

Uncool: No spare tire, rough ride

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Volkswagen's just-out-of-the-chute R32 is the most powerful and first-ever all-wheel-drive Golf to hit North America's shores.

But as it happened, my first test of this hot little hatch had nothing to do with speed, agility or road-huggability. It had everything to do with cargo-carrying capacity. And it passed with flying colors.

I had just taken delivery of an R32 test car when my musician pal asked me to join him on a 150-mile drive to Sacramento, where he had a gig.

I accepted on one condition: We drive the R32 instead of his aging Jeep Cherokee. The trouble was, he had tons of equipment to haul: a double-necked pedal steel guitar, an electric guitar, a mandolin, a baritone sax, a tenor sax, an amplifier, two large equipment cases, a pedal board and a laptop computer

With the rear seats folded, the R32 has 38.8 cubic feet of cargo space, which doesn't sound like much. But numbers can be deceiving, as we proved by squeezing all of Bruce's band equipment into the cargo hold. And we even had room left to breathe.

But then there's our no-spare-tire adventure.

At 1 a.m., with his performance behind him, Bruce and I repacked the R32 and headed home. About 30 minutes into the trip, we banged through a giant pothole, and limped off the interstate with a deflated front tire.

We unloaded the amplifier, equipment boxes, saxophones (yada yada yada), lifted the cargo mat, and were dismayed to find not a spare tire, but a "tire repair kit." The kit contained a bottle of tire sealant and an air compressor. We used both.

To make a long story short, the tire exploded, we called AAA (although we could've called VW Roadside Assistance) and at 6:30 a.m. we rolled up to my house in a flatbed tow truck. (Being an all-wheel-drive, the R32 cannot be towed, but must be flat-bedded.) The moral to the story: A spare tire is always better than a repair kit.

Quick and composed

OK, so you know what the R32 can hold in its trunk. But can it hold its own on the road?

You betcha.

Powered by an updated 3.2-liter version of VW's celebrated VR6 engine, the R32 can zip from zero to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds. The engine delivers 240 horsepower - 40 more hp than the Golf GTI - and 236 pound-feet of torque.

The power plant is matched to a six-speed manual gearbox (the only transmission offered), and a stubby little stick shift allows for super-smooth, flick-of-the-wrist gear changes. Bringing all the action to a halt is a snap, thanks to large four-wheel antilock disc brakes.

Whether navigating city streets or bounding up twisty roads, the R32 feels nimble, quick and composed. The steering is taut and direct, throttle response is brisk, and the low-profile (225/40 R18) tires stay married to the road.

All-wheel drive

Speaking of roads, power meets them via a sport-tuned suspension and VW's 4Motion all-wheel-drive system. Under normal, nonharried driving conditions, 4Motion sends 100 percent of the power to the front wheels, but the system can shift up to 50 percent of the power to the rear wheels when more traction is needed.

For optimum control and performance, the R32 features stiffened anti-roll bars front and rear, MacPherson struts and lower wishbones up front.

Of all its wonderful characteristics, my favorite R32 feature was its exhaust note. The dual-exhaust R32 emits one of the sweetest, most habit-forming engine tunes I know. Like one of Pavlov's dogs, I couldn't help but stomp on the throttle again and again, not so much to surge forward as to bask in that melodious sound.

Understated looks

Like its big cousin, the Audi S4, the R32 employs understated body cues to suggest, rather than proclaim, its high-performance credentials.

No flashy spoilers or gaping hood scoops for this Teutonic runabout. Instantly recognizable as a Golf, the R32 distinguishes itself with special bumpers, side skirts, a large honeycomb grill, dual silver-tipped exhaust pipes, a small rear spoiler and special 18-inch alloy wheels. Blue brake calipers peek out from behind the spoke wheels, enhancing the street-smart look. R32 badges grace the front grill and left rear quarter panel.

The dashboard is classic Volkswagen, complete with high-quality materials, the company's signature red and blue illuminated instruments and a nifty "multifunction trip computer," which keeps you informed of such pressing matters as average fuel usage, miles left until empty, average speed, miles driven and time driven.

I'm happy to report the R32's real-life fuel usage is right in line with its EPA mpg rating of 19 city/26 highway.

Everything comes standard on the R32 (except leather seats, the only option), including electronic climate control, a power-glass sunroof, Monsoon sound system with in-dash CD player, power locks/windows/mirrors, and six - count 'em, six! - air bags.

Exclusive little hatch

VW's hot little hatch is a tuner car with European elan. It won't run circles around rockets like the Mitsubishi Evo and Subaru WRX STi.

But then, the R32 isn't so much about setting speed records as it is about combining slippery-quick, all-wheel-drive agility with civilized every-day drivability.

Thankfully, VW will be limiting sales to 5,000 units for 2004. So you won't be seeing one on every street corner.

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