High performance compact cars are all the rage with today's young drivers, but at Volkswagen the hot hatchback is nothing new. They've been building them since 1983. And the latest in this long line of pocket rockets is the 2004 Golf R32. You know, Volkswagen was ahead of its time in this class for quite a few years, but now with so much new competition, can they still keep up?
The 2004 Golf R32 follows squarely in the tire tracks of other Volkswagen hatchback performers that sprang from the 1983 Rabbit GTi. We actually got our first taste of hot hatchbacks a couple of years later in the GTi version of the all-new Golf. We described it as ''superior in almost all respects'' to other compacts of the time.
The R32, however, is a step back to the earthy, almost raw personality of the first GTi's, but with a depth of equipment and technology that would amaze buyers of 83 Rabbits. And make them look twice! The R32 is smooth yet sharp. It's a handsome shape with just enough aggression to set itself apart from GTi models. We particularly like the deep front spoiler with its large air ducts, the ground-hugging rear lower fascia with twin exhaust pipes, subtle rear hatch spoiler, and deep tinted tuner taillights.
But unlike its early 4-banger predecessors, the R32 is powered by a bored and stroked 3.2-liter version of Volkswagen's narrow-angle VR6 engine. At 240 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque, it's a huge jump over the original GTi's 90 ponies. All courtesy of twin-cams, 4-valve heads, variable valve and cam timing, and a variable intake manifold. The transmission is a 6-speed manual with a hydraulic clutch. It controls the power fed through a Haldex all-wheel-drive system, which is linked to Electronic Stability and Anti-Slip systems.
The R32's four drive wheels are kept on the pavement by a lowered MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension, with stiffer springs and thicker anti-roll bars. A far cry from the original GTi's simple beam axle. And of course it wouldn't be a modern performance car without serious wheels and rubber. On the R32, that means 18-inch alloys wearing Goodyear 225/40 Z-rated summer performance tires.
On the track, this ultra-modern hot hatchback posted a best 0 to 60 time of 6.1 seconds. The quarter mile took 14.5 seconds, ending at 97 miles-per-hour. That's a half-second quicker than our last GTi VR6, despite the R32 weighing almost 400 pounds more, but it's not likely to scare anyone in a Subaru WRX STi. Still, the R32 engine is much stronger off the line and through the mid-range than the standard VR6. It revs freely, if not forever, building power in a smooth, even flow.
Both clutch and shifter feel a bit on the soft side, but both offer very positive engagement. And while the R32 is quick enough in a straight line, it really struts its stuff in the corners. The 15.6:1 ratio rack-and-pinion steering responds instantly to inputs. The chassis and suspension exhibit almost perfect balance, while the sticky Goodyears deliver prodigious amounts of grip. Push too hard however, and the back end will break loose without much warning. But the stability system quickly brings things back into line without spoiling all the fun.
Braking performance is typical of a top-grade performance car. Stops from 60 averaged only 113 feet. Our drivers rated stability as excellent, and praised the superb feedback of the ABS-equipped 4-wheel disc brakes.
Of more surprise is the R32's amazingly good ride quality. Thanks to the IRS, the lowered suspension delivers much better control over rough surfaces than that of GTi's. The low profile tires do produce a bit more road noise, but that's a trade off that we can live with.
We can also live a good life in the slick, racy, and very well equipped interior. The basic layout is standard Golf. That means plenty of room, and a clean, well-organized dash. Model exclusive features include standard heated sport seats with R32 logos, race-style alloy pedals, a 3-spoke leather steering wheel, bright-rimmed analog gauges, and R32 logos on everything from the door sills to the floor mats. Standard features also include automatic climate controls and a Monsoon CD audio system, while for safety, the airbag list includes front, side, and head curtain coverage.
That's a lot of features to go with a lot of performance. And the price for all this? Well, how about $29,675? While that's cheaper than a WRX STi, its still 7-grand more that a GTi VR6.
It's been over 20 years since Volkswagen created the hot hatchback, and it is clear that they haven't lost their ability to compete, making every drive a roller coaster ride.
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