Volkswagen R32 Golf Michael Frank
A few weeks ago we reviewed
Volkswagen's new Toaureg.
In that piece we mentioned that Volkswagen
- news -
) 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 -
), have already cadged the best notions from the Microbus. Which is why the
is such a strong seller.
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.
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 -
) 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.
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.
Businesslike interior doesn't have
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
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
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
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.
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.