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Test Drives
2004 Volkswagen R32 Golf
Michael Frank





Overview

A few weeks ago we reviewed Volkswagen's new Toaureg.

In that piece we mentioned that Volkswagen (otc: VLKAY - news - people ) sales are slumping in this country, and that at least part of the problem is that VW's newer products come out elsewhere first. And then by the time they arrive on these shores they seem stale--they are literally machines designed to go up against models the competition has already replaced or upgraded.

We also mentioned that the VW Microbus concept that debuted in Detroit in 2001 won't hit the market until 2007, a ridiculous six years after the public first got excited about it, and so late that more nimble makers, such as Honda (nyse: HMC - news - people ), have already cadged the best notions from the Microbus. Which is why the Honda Element is such a strong seller.

What makes matters worse for VW is that the carmaker has an advantage in the U.S. it scarcely has anywhere else--in the U.S., the brand stands for young, hip, stylish. In Europe the image is more traditional, less funky.

HIGHS:

Tight, but not punishing; fast, but not scary.

LOWS:

It doesn't scream, "My ego needs this car."

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But in waiting so long to debut its newest toys here, Volkswagen risks looking not stylish, innovative and cool, but reactive, mainstream. And if that's what VW becomes, it's going to get stung badly. True, that's not what the minds at VW think. They believe they can compete with the likes of Lexus and Mercedes-Benz. But there's a reason VW's best-selling car in this country isn't a $25,000 Passat but a far less-expensive car, the Jetta. Volkswagen simply doesn't appeal to a wealthier buyer, and the younger buyers the brand does appeal to can't afford the Passat--a car that is driven by people who cannot afford 5 series BMWs and C-Class Mercedes.

Again, VW is working to change this. And the V-6 Touareg may well move the brand's position somewhat, far more easily than the new $64,600 Phaeton luxury sedan will.

But a 70-year history making affordable, practical cars cannot be undone with a few upmarket models. And Volkswagen has taken so long to change its image--compared with, say, the transformation of Nissan (nasdaq: NSANY - news - people ) and, to a lesser extent, Volvo--that we have to wonder if the carmaker will ever get to a place where its buyers are older and wealthier rather than twentysomethings looking for something cute, something fun.

On top of all this are the schisms within the mission statement of Volkswagen. Of late, the managers at VW have tried to move it away from cute and fun and toward a more conservative, opulent state. The idea is that cute sells mostly to women, and that luxuriousness sells equally to both genders, and for more dough. The other agenda is that VW's Audi division is supposed to take on the buyer who likes sporty and luxurious (a narrower niche).

And as usual with VW, that message just doesn't seem to be trickling down to the street. Otherwise, why is there the subject of this review, the $29,100 R32 Golf? This 240-horsepower blacktop screamer is the only stock Golf ever sold in this country that can race to 60 mph in under six seconds and do it via all-wheel drive, another first for a Golf on this continent. It can also give a lot of other, more expensive sports sedans a run for their money, and will easily hang behind cars like the Subaru Impreza. WRX.

If the R32 isn't a break with the opulent, softer-sprung sedan-for-all-buyers strategy, then suddenly we no longer live in America but in a hyper-Germany where every car gets a sports-tuned suspension and we all get unlimited racetrack time.

Since that's not the case, however, let's just judge the R32 on its own merits and forget about parsing why it exists. VW may not have a clear brand strategy, it may be terrible at getting cars to market in the U.S. and it darn well may continue to lose market share as a result. But meanwhile there's the R32, an excellent, even thrilling sports hatch that a lot of enthusiast buyers would love to own. You'd better keep reading to understand why.

From The Driver's Seat | Should You Buy This Car? | Specs


Businesslike interior doesn't have "Xbox" overtones.


From The Driver's Seat

Get behind the wheel of any other car in this genre--Subaru WRX STi or Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution--and there's a clear message in the cockpit--forget creature comforts, you're here to drive fast and hard.

Climb aboard the R32, however, and the message is more even-keeled. There's brushed metal trim, and the leather-wrapped shifter/steering wheel and leather inserts throughout the cabin feel sporty, yes, but not so rugged as to have the sole purpose of increasing your purchase during a banked turn. Even the audio controls are clean, tidy and "stereophonic;" videogame-inspirations are entirely absent.

So, too, the outside of this car is "hot"-looking, but not to the extent that passers-by are certain exactly why this Golf is different from others. If you bought an R32 in a more staid color--say, silver or black rather than the "tornado red" of our tester--you might just tool through life unnoticed. If you'd rather not have that effect, get yourself an Evo or a Subaru WRX STi, all wild scoops and sills, crazed wings and baffles. And get yourself lots of tickets for doing 57 in a 55-mph zone.

If the message isn't clear by now, the point is that the R32 is an "adult" boy racer, a car meant to go fast and corner exceptionally well (more on that soon), but not meant to announce that fact 24/7 to every Jane, John and man in blue. If you want to go incognito, you can.

 
Seats are very firm and supportive, but comfortable.
 
The fun, of course, is going full bore, and for that the R32 is well equipped. It gets the next-generation, narrow-angle VR six-cylinder motor that now generates 240 hp and, possibly more important, 236 foot-pounds of torque at only 2,800 rpm. That makes the VR engine far more flexible than those of either the Mitsubishi or Subaru. True, both of those cars are faster to 60 mph than the R32, and on a winding road a Mini Cooper S could easily snap at the heels of the fairly heavy, 3,409-pound Volkswagen.

But the all-wheel-drive R32 has a few tricks up its sleeve, one of which is that it hangs on with tenacious grip. Another is that despite its front-drive heritage (stock Golfs come as front-wheel-drive cars), as an all-wheel driver, steering is nearly neutral. There's never any driveline interference with the tiller, and if you snap off the stability control, you can throw this car sideways using the gas and wheel to set up for autocross-style power moves around bends.

Most of the time you won't drive this way, of course, so it's a very good thing that even though the R32 sits almost an inch lower than a standard-issue Golf (and rides on 18-inch-wide, 40-series tires), the car never feels painfully stiff. Sporty, yes, but you don't get road weary just whisking around on casual errands. That's a far cry from our experiences at the helm of both the Evo and WRX STi; the latter made us wish for a GPS unit that showed the locations of all chiropractors within 40 miles.

All of this is somewhat similar to our experience in the now-discontinued SVT Ford Focus, because that, too, was a hot car that didn't have to be raced between stoplights to be appreciated. And think: In the R32 you get the same 99 cubic feet of volume you'll find in other Golfs, so unlike that Mini Cooper, there's legitimate room in back for adult passengers, and behind them, a far larger cargo hold than in any full-size American car's trunk.


Going fast is a smooth, confident affair.


Overview | Should You Buy This Car? | Specs


The R32 is a far better car than anything BMW sells at this price.

Should You Buy This Car?

Remember how we started this piece by stating that we just didn't understand why VW does such a poor job of maintaining its cutting-edge image? Well, in some ways we're still in the dark. But one pinhole of light is shed--perhaps--by driving the R32.

If we're interpreting correctly, with the R32 VW shows that it aims to always be on the more comfortable side of any spectrum. So in the hard-core boy racer crowd the goal with the R32 is to make a daily driver, rather than a whisked-off-the-track asphalt assault vehicle. And with the Phaeton you have the autobahn bomber, less suited for unbending bent roads in the Alps than, say, a BMW 7 series would be.

There's only one problem with that idea: We know that VW is going to launch a very sporty convertible four-seater, called the Concept C, in 2006. Will this car also err on the side of comfortable sportiness? Moreover, how hard-core does Audi have to make its next generation of cars in order to run counter to cars like VW's R32?

We think it's all a muddle, in sum, but we think the R32 is a fantastic sports hatch that's far more pleasurable to drive daily than anything the competition sells in the hot hatch segment. And for that matter, a heck of a lot faster than anything BMW can offer with four seats in this price range.

Now, if only VW realized that it had a huge advantage here and rushed more such cars to market.

Overview | From The Driver's Seat | Specs

Specs

Manufacturer Contact: the Volkswagen Web site

Color Options: black, blue, silver metallic, tornado red

Suspension, front: independent McPherson struts, coil springs, telescopic shock absorbers, stabilizer bar. Rear: fully independent multi-link rear suspension with dual-link trailing arms, coil springs, telescopic shock absorbers, stabilizer bar

Acceleration: 0-60 mph in 5.8 seconds

Engine Type: displacement, DOHC 24-valve, 15-degree six-cylinder; 3.2 liters

Horsepower: 240 @6,250

Torque: 236 foot-pounds @2,800-3,200 rpm

EPA Mileage: 19 city/26 highway

MSRP: $29,100

Overview | From The Driver's Seat | Should You Buy This Car?