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ROAD TEST

Are you game enough to give Golf a spin around the block?

BY TOM INCANTALUPO
STAFF COLUMNIST

July 23, 2004

Just as beauty, the line between excellent and excessive is in the eye of the beholder. Volkswagen's newest and hottest Golf offers a case in point.

For a starting price of $29,675 with freight, the R32 pulls away from other Golfs in more ways than one, with a 3.2-liter, 240-hp. six-cylinder engine, all-wheel drive, specific suspension and steering, a lowered chassis and seats and a rich menu of safety features.

The "R" stands for "Racing." The "32" denotes the 3.2-liter displacement. And VW says zero to 60 happens in 6.4 seconds -- quick, though beatable by many other cars. Premium unleaded fuel is recommended by VW. The R32 is a delight to drive, not just because it handles with agility and grace, but also because it doesn't beat up its occupants with a brutal ride, as do some performance models. You can take long trips without concern in this sporty car.

To this beholder at least, the R32 is a delight to look at, too, with its 18-inch alloy wheels and low-profile tires and its front and rear valences and side skirts.

2004 Volkswagen R32
Engine: 240-hp., 3,4-liter V-6.
Transmission: Six-speed manual, all-wheel drive.
Safety: Dual front, side and curtain-type air bags; 4-wheel disc brakes with antilock and electronic stability control; daytime running lamps; fog lamps; shoulder belts in all five seats.
Place of Assembly: Bratislava, Slovakia.
Weight: 3,409 pounds.
Trunk: 14 cubic feet.
EPA mileage rating: 19 mpg city, 26 highway.
Price as driven: $30,625, including destination charge.
But the next most capable Golf version, the six-cylinder GTi, begins at a more affordable $22,645, with a 2.8-liter six, an older version of the R32's, that makes just 200 hp.

The question prospective R32 buyers will have to decide -- assuming they can find one of these very limited production cars -- is whether the added capability and added features of the R32, some of which are available in lesser Golfs, justify the extra $7,000 in price.

I couldn't quite decide. The way the R32 launches from a stoplight and the absolutely wonderful brrrrrratttt of the engine's twin pipe exhaust seemed worth a premium. So did the R32's high level of equipment. Automatic AC, sunroof, Monsoon stereo, rain-sensing wipers, telescoping steering wheel and power everything certainly have value.

But once the car has reached cruising speed, it is difficult, at least under American driving conditions, to sense much difference between the R32's handling and that of a GTi, a fine car in its own right.

(There's also a question, given that a new Golf is due here late next year as an '06 model, whether it's wise to invest so much money in an older version.)

And if you can't or prefer not to drive a stick shift, this whole discussion is academic because the R32 isn't available with automatic transmission.

VW spokesmen say 5,000 R32's are being built in the '04 model year for American buyers and that not all of them have arrived here or been spoken for. But, they add, there won't be an '05 R32.

If you'd care to bump your R32's price even higher, there is one factory option: leather upholstery, which added $950 to my tester's pricing, bringing it to $30,625.

Complaints? Just a couple. The heater/AC controls are small and very low on the dashboard's center stack, making them difficult to locate on the move, especially at night.

Combined with the large doors, the seats with their huge side bolsters render it nearly impossible to slide in and out of this car gracefully when there's a vehicle in the adjacent parking stall.

And if this were an American or Japanese car priced at $30,000, it probably would have power-operated seats.

A guest driver complained that the electronic stability control and/or traction control jumped in to help uneccesarily, but I never sensed either of them doing their thing. Once in those seats, though, they cradle just as Mom did, and the front buckets are manually height adjustable.

Overall, the R32's interior works well and looks good, with alloy pedals and accenting. Safety features include curtain-type air bags.

Competitors you might want to consider include the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution (271-hp., four-cylinder turbo, about $28,000), the Subaru Impreza WRX STi (300-hp. four, about $31,000), Acura RSX Type S (200-hp. four, about $23,000) and the Dodge Neon SRT-4 (230-hp. four, about $20,000.)

The Golf has gotten good ratings overall by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gives the 2004 Golf a top five-star rating for frontal protection and a four-star rating for side protection based on the government agency's crash tests.

One final issue needs to be dealt with: While there is no information publicly available about the R32's quality, Volkswagen and its dealers have scored poorly in the last two J.D. Power and Associates studies measuring customer satisfaction and dependability. And Consumer Reports rates the Golf and similar Jetta much worse than average in reliability based on the magazine's annual reader survey.

That's not encouraging when one is considering a $30,000 car. But VW does warranty the R32 powertrain five years or 60,000 miles and offer four years or 50,000 miles of free roadside assistance.

@text: Aston-Martin has released more details about the DBR9, the car that will lead the British automaker's planned return to racing in 2005.

Based on the production DB9, the GT racer is being prepared by Aston's racing partner, Prodrive, based in Banbury, England.

Aston Martin Racing says it will make a very limited number of DBR9 racing cars available to selected consumers.

The company announcement gave no technical information about the DBR9 and did not disclose the cost to build it. Production DB9s, being offered now in two-plus-two coupe versions with a convertible due in fall, start at $155,000. They are powered by 450-hp. V-12 engines. -- Tom Incantalupo

@text: 2004 Volkswagen R32

Engine: 240-hp., 3,4-liter V-6.

Transmission: Six-speed manual, all-wheel drive.

Safety: Dual front, side and

curtain-type air bags; 4-wheel disc brakes with antilock and electronic stability control;

daytime running lamps; fog lamps; shoulder belts in all

five seats.

Place of Assembly: Bratislava, Slovakia.

Weight: 3,409 pounds.

Trunk: 14 cubic feet.

EPA mileage rating: 19 mpg city, 26 highway.

Price as driven: $30,625,

including destination charge.

Copyright 2004, Newsday, Inc.