First Test: 2004 Volkswagen R32
Better late than never--and worth the wait
On the eve of the Golf's fifth-generation debut (due in 2005), Volkswagen has brought to our market the highest-performance Golf ever. Some might say that VW is late with the $29,675 R32, as similarly priced specialty models like Mitsubishi's Lancer Evolution and Subaru's WRX STi have been winning accolades for a couple of years. We say they're different animals.
Launching the R32 is an exhilarating experience, and getting the right amount of clutch-slip will net a 5.9-second 0-to-60 time on the way to the quarter mile in 14.2 seconds at 97.6 mph. While these times don't beat the more powerful Evo or STi, the R32's smooth and snarling V-6 doesn't tousle the driver with the lag 'n' boost of those turbocharged cars, and the R32's suspension isn't as firm or punishing, either. The new MQ350 six-speed offers hugely improved shift feel over previous manual VW transmissions, which have been vague and rubbery. There's no automatic available in the R32, and only Europeans can option the magic DSG auto-dual-clutch manual found in the Audi TT 3.2 quattro. And whoever is responsible for tuning this car's dual exhaust system deserves a pat on the back.
R-spec blue-powder-coated four-piston brake calipers grab large (13.1-inch front, 10.1-inch rear) vented discs so well that this hatchback stops better from 60 mph than all but the most-expensive supercars--in a mere 108 feet. Smooth-riding and true, independent-rear multilink suspension is another first (versus a GTI's torsion-beam), which complements the car's 22mm-lower sport-tuned suspension and steering. Rounding out the hardware are O*Z Aristo 18-inch wheels wrapped in Goodyear Eagle F1 summer performance tires, sized 225/40R18 at all four corners.
Put it all together, and the R32's handling is both entertaining and compromised. The chassis is so communicative, predictable, and controllable that the tires are easily overwhelmed. As soon as things start to get fun, the Goodyears give up long before the driver or the chassis do. Just over $30K gets everything on the docket from heated seats to Monsoon audio and moonroof.
The R32 doesn't yell, "boy racer." There's no ornamental hood scoop and no presumptuous rear wing--only an effective and attractive aero kit hugging those 18-inch wheels and telltale dual exhaust tips. Look at it this way: The R32 gets you 90 percent of the performance and 125 percent of the interior content at the same price as those peaky-pesky turbocars. It's the polished, adult approach to an edgy, adolescent high-performance craving.--Chris Walton
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