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Volkswagen R32
The Audi S4's long-lost baby brother.

By Kim Wolfkill    Photos by Marc Urbano
June 2004


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Let's get this straight right off the bat: The Volkswagen R32 is not as fast as the Subaru Impreza WRX STi. Nor does it have the grip of the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. But you know what? Who cares. This car isn't about scorching test numbers. It isn't about wings and scoops and Ricky-racer attitude. It's about being the best Golf ever, a hot little hatch that cleverly combines speed, poise and everyday livability with the likable, unassuming personality of a Volkswagen.

At first glance, it's easy to see why people are inclined to group the R32 with these rally-bred dynamos. It's priced in the same $30K neighborhood, has all-wheel drive, a 240-bhp V-6 and 6-speed manual transmission. It's aimed at the enthusiast market and designed to deliver license-threatening performance. But while the STi and Evo sacrifice a measure of refinement to achieve their class-dominating speed and handling, the R32 strikes a welcome balance between all-out performance and real-world civility.

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Creating this need for extra traction is the R32's 3.2-liter narrow-angle V-6. Based on the 2.8-liter VR6 unit originally offered in the 1992 Corrado SLC, this latest iteration retains the space-saving 15-degree vee angle, but now enjoys larger displacement, variable valve timing, four valves per cylinder and a more efficient intake system. Output is 240 bhp at 6250 rpm and 236 lb.-ft. of torque from 2800 to 3200 rpm. More important than the numbers is the buttery-smooth delivery of that power. Torque is available almost from idle and remains strong all the way to the 6500-rpm redline.

At the track, that power translates to a respectable 5.8 seconds to 60 mph and 14.1 sec. at 99.2 mph through the quarter mile. Again, these numbers don't come close to matching those of the Subaru or Mitsubishi, but achieving them is noticeably less frenetic. Roll on the throttle at low revs and the R32 exhibits none of the peakiness associated with high-horsepower turbo-4s. Instead, it matter-of-factly accelerates at a rapid, steady and supremely satisfying rate. Accompanying this acceleration is an almost addictive V-6 exhaust note that encourages up- and downshifts regardless of whether they're actually necessary. A clever muffler valve opens at 3500 rpm, transforming the engine's tone from around-town mellow to open-road throaty. Think BMW M3 without the metallic twang.

Things are just as smartly executed from an aesthetics standpoint. Subtle bodywork enhancements (front air dam, side skirts, rear valance, rear spoiler) and stylish 18-in. wheels give the R32 an aggressive, yet understated look. Wing and scoop fans might come away disappointed, but in typically Germanic fashion, VW designers have opted for stealth over splash. The same goes for the interior, where selective smatterings of brushed metal trim accent the cockpit. Our test car was equipped with the optional leather Koenig sport seats ($950), which prove both comfortable for long hauls and highly supportive in the twisties.

That extra measure of lateral support comes in especially handy given the grippy nature of the R32. Thanks to its all-wheel-drive traction and tight suspension tuning, this ü:ber-Golf is genuinely entertaining when pushed. Like many awd machines that have a front-biased torque delivery, the R32 behaves very much like a front-driver until leaned on. Under braking and turn-in, the nose feels a touch heavy, but once throttle is applied, the rear wheels get into the act and help take some of the burden off the fronts.

The result is excellent mid-turn grip followed by just a touch of understeer at corner exit. If necessary, a quick throttle lift loosens up the tail just enough to comfortably rotate the car before jumping back on the gas. And despite a surprisingly stout 3330-lb. curb weight, side-to-side transitions are accompanied by just a hint of initial roll followed by progressively firmer body control at higher g's.

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While certainly an able handler, equally impressive (or perhaps even more so) is the R32's high level of refinement. Contrary to what one might expect from an awd hatch with sport-tuned suspension and low-profile tires, Wolfsburg's finest delivers a pleasantly evolved driving experience. Ride quality reflects the car's sporting character without ever feeling harsh. It's more stiffly sprung than a standard Golf yet shares its more conservative sibling's accommodating demeanor. The cabin remains comfortably isolated from most road irregularities and exceptionally quiet at cruising speeds.

The engine and gearbox continue this pattern of refinement by being both easy and satisfying to use. Strong low-end power means downshifts aren't always necessary for 6th-gear highway passes or quick bursts through traffic. Dropping a gear, however, is still worth the effort thanks to the transmission's relatively short throws (for a VW) and positive action. Get higher into the rev range and the rate of acceleration picks up, continuing to pull effortlessly. If there's a downside to this latest-generation VR6 it's that the fun ends too quickly. With such smooth, steady power delivery, it feels like the engine could easily rev to 6800 or even 7000 rpm.

Braking performance feels just as positive. The R32's sizable 13.1-in. front rotors and twin-piston calipers have little trouble shedding speed even in light of the car's weight. Our brake test numbers of 111 ft. from 60 mph and 196 ft. from 80 mph are among the best we've tested, ranking right up there with cars like the BMW M3, Ferrari 360 Modena and Subaru WRX Impreza STi. Augmenting the pure power of the brakes is excellent pedal feel and good modulation. And as an added bonus, the calipers are painted bright blue to differentiate the R32 from your garden-variety GTI.

With just 5000 units slated for the '04 model year, you won't be seeing VW's hottest hatch on every street corner. Numbers are purposely low to keep it exclusive and help build anticipation for the arrival of the fifth-generation GTI next year. Priced at $29,100, the R32 comes in at about $5000 more than a loaded GTI VR6. Not exactly chump change for a hopped-up Golf, but right in the ballpark with cars of similar performance.

At the end of the day, the R32 turns decent numbers at the track and its spec sheet boasts all the right go-fast features. True, it's not as quick as media darlings like the Evo or STi, but what it gives up in speed it more than makes up in quality execution. For everyday bombing at everyday speeds, the Volkswagen R32 is tough to fault. It happily hauls the mail when called upon, but not at the cost of day-to-day driveability. In a market segment that has its fair share of high-performance players, it's a welcome change to come across one with such a grown-up personality, one that's decidedly more European sports sedan than rally-rocket import.

The Competition

In the world of $30,000 awd imports, the Evo and WRX STi rule the roost. For all-out performance, they're tough to beat. For daily driving, however, their peaky power delivery and harsh ride quality could never be considered refined. Despite being outpaced at the track, the R32 still wins fans with its enticing combination of speed, comfort and build quality.

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2003 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution
tested: 6/03
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2004 Subaru Impreza WRX STi
tested: 6/03
2004 Volkswagen R32 2003 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution 2004 Subaru Impreza WRX STi
Current list price $29,100 $28,987 $31,120
Engine dohc 3.2-liter V-6 turbocharged dohc 2.0-liter inline-4 turbocharged dohc 2.5-liter flat-4
Horsepower 240 bhp @ 6250 rpm 271 bhp @ 6500 rpm 300 bhp @ 6000 rpm
Torque 236 lb-ft @ 2800-3200 rpm 273 lb-ft @ 3500 rpm 300 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual 5-speed manual 6-speed manual
0-60 mph 5.8 sec 4.8 sec 4.9 sec
Braking 0-60 mph 111 ft 108 ft 111 ft
Lateral accel
(200-ft skidpad)
0.85g 0.88g 0.88g
EPA city/highway 19/26 mpg 18/26 mpg 18/24 mpg
Length 164.4 in 178.5 in. 173.8 in.
Width 68.3 in. 69.7 in. 68.5 in.
Height 56.1 in. 57.1 in. 56.3 in.
Wheelbase 99.1 in. 103.3 in. 100.0 in.
Track, f/r 59.5 in./58.7 in. 59.6 in./59.6 in. 58.7 in./58.5 in.
Curb weight 3330 lb 3240 lb 3270 lb

Think of it as a younger sibling to the Audi S4. The personalities and performance characteristics of the two cars are actually quite similar. The S4 is certainly faster (and almost $20K more expensive), but its power delivery, handling composure and quality execution are all mirrored in the R32.

Central to the R32's flexible nature is its fourth-generation Golf chassis modified for VW's 4MOTION all-wheel-drive system. Gone is the torsion-beam rear suspension (and with it the Golf/GTI's endearing 3-wheeled "dog & fire hydrant" cornering attitude), replaced by a multilink setup with dual-link trailing arms. The shocks, springs and anti-roll bars have all been beefed up, and compared with the standard GTI VR6, the businesslike R32 sits nearly an inch lower.

While 4MOTION isn't new to the U.S. market-variations on the technology are currently available on the Phaeton, Touareg and select Passat models-this is the first Golf-based application to find its way stateside. Built around an electronically controlled Haldex coupling that automatically apportions torque fore and aft, 4MOTION sends 100 percent of power to the front wheels under normal, unstressed driving conditions, but can transfer up to 50 percent rearward as traction requirements dictate.

See more photos of the Volkswagen R32.


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