Reviews and Road Tests
R32 First Drive
By by: Brad Beardow
May 3, 2004, 00:01

February 16, 2004 - Chandler, Arizona

Volkswagen of America chose sunny Chandler, Arizona to roll out a fleet of 15 shiny new R32 Golfs and let a hungry group of journalists thrash them around Firebird International Raceway for a few hours. No shortage of confidence at VWoA, apparently.

We were let loose on Firebird’s 1.2 mile road course, as well as their autocross, slalom, and dragstrip. The idea was to put the new R32 through a very rigorous series of challenges in order to see just how serious VW is in bestowing the coveted “R” designation upon this very muscled-up Golf. As many of you already know, VWvortex has already spent a fair amount of time behind the wheel of an R32, and some of that time has been spent on a racetrack, as well. You may also remember that the car we’d driven previously was 100% Euro-spec, and much as we’re loathe to accept it, VW did throw a last minute curve ball at us when they introduced the US-spec version with taller and softer springs and re-valved dampers to boot. The US car sits noticeably higher than its Euro sibling, and softer springs and shocks didn’t bode well for the same kind of well-sorted and poised handling we remember from our days with the Euro-spec car.

VWoA enlisted the help of four true driving pros for this event – Scott Goodyear, Ted Prappas, Bill Adam, and Chris Nye. These folks were there to help us find the best line around the road course, and to also set some blazing autocross times for us race-car-wannabes to (hopelessly) shoot for. But the first stint behind the wheel involved a Vericom 2000 G-analyst computer and a drag strip, where we put the R32 through some 0 – 60, 60 – 0, and slalom tests.

We were strongly encouraged not to abuse any clutches during the 0 – 60 runs, and as a result most of us were well off the published time of 6.4 seconds. VWvortex recorded a best time of 7.06 seconds, but one non-instruction-understanding journalist (who shall remain nameless) managed a 6.5 second sprint. The car feels faster than these numbers would indicate, and in fact, it seems likely that even VW doesn’t really care very much about this particular test, considering they’ve placed the 2 –3 upshift at a 0 – 60 killing 56-mph.

Next up was the braking test. With the Vericom, we were able to choose whatever speed from which we wanted to measure, and for sake of continuity and familiarity, we chose 60-mph. The R32 made this test about as easy as it gets. Or shall we say the combination of VW’s ABS, Electronic Brake Force Distribution, and massive 13”+ front discs made the test nothing more than accelerating to 60-mph, then stomping on the middle pedal for all we were worth. We recorded consistent stops in the 105 – 110-ft range.

Finally, we were pointed towards a fairly make-shift slalom course where we were told to make a couple runs with ESP stability control on, and a couple with it defeated. This was truly our first chance to really fling the R32 into a hard corner and actually see if anyone had negatively messed with the fine handling capabilities we’d remembered from our time behind the last R32 we drove. The good news is that the car still responds incredibly well to driver input, and it makes for an extremely willing and entertaining partner at the same time. Turn in is surprisingly crisp for a relatively tall, nose-heavy car, and the back end of the car is more than just along for the ride – this car can be steered with both the steering wheel and the accelerator pedal. And that’s with ESP activated! Honestly, we were more than a little surprised at the amount of hooliganism ESP allows before reigning in the fun. Turn ESP off, and the R32 really starts to dance. In fact, the handling characteristics of this car, sans ESP, are reminiscent of the first Audi TT – you know, the dangerous version. Lift-off oversteer is something the inexperienced need to be cognizant of, though simply stepping on the gas will reliably avoid any serious trouble. Short wheelbase cars with all-wheel drive are a hoot – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Accelerating, braking and turning are all well and good, but it takes a venue like a road course to put them all in perspective. Good thing Firebird has one or two laying around… In the R32’s defense, we need to declare that it was neither built as, nor intended to be a purpose-built racecar in streetcar clothing. While the US marketplace undeniably juxtaposes the R32 against vehicles like Subaru’s STI and Mitsubishi’s EVO, there are some major fundamental differences in each car’s respective mission statement and these differences should likely become all the more apparent in a road course environment. With such disclaimers out of the way, we can happily report that the US-spec R32 is an absolute blast on a real racetrack. Under all situations, the super-Golf remains poised, composed, and an unfailingly willing partner for just about any situation. The car turns in well, takes a quick set on its suspension, and then behaves in a very neutral fashion. The option also exists for grabbing the car by the neck, throwing it into a corner, getting the rear end to lose traction, then drift the car through the corner (with ESP off, of course). Braking is phenomenal, and even after ten or so laps, any sort of brake fade was totally absent. Pedal travel is relatively short and consistent and the ABS is delightful in its lack of interference. After a few hard laps it was obvious that VW engineers did their best to make the R32 a capable track car, even if very few will ultimately be driven there. As a matter of fact, the only real handling vices exposed on the road course could more than likely be addressed with a firmer spring/shock combo, as well as some stickier tires.

The final event for the day was an autocross course. Scott Goodyear set the target for us all at 32:00 flat, while Ted Prappas ran a best time of 32:53. We were allowed about seven or eight warm up runs, and then four timed runs. The R32 may not be the best choice for autocross, but the car certainly held its own. As the asphalt heated up under the Arizona sun and the Goodyear Eagle tires began to get greasy, the cars tended to get slower, and though one Motor Trend editor managed to break into the 32-second tier, the rest of us were in a 33 to 37-second range. Still, the Golf remained a consistent and willing partner, with good turn in and rotation, and the 3.2 VR6 provided a marvelous combination of low-end torque and high-end horsepower. Second gear was all that was needed for the entire course, save for the very beginning (1st gear, of course) and the final “straight” (brief upshift to 3rd). If you drive the R32 too fast into a corner, it’s difficult to get it to properly rotate, and then understeer becomes the predominant characteristic till well after the apex is passed. However, enter a given turn at a proper speed and it’s quite easy (and extremely enjoyable) to rotate the car into a slight drift while under power, then feel all four wheels hook up in time to launch you forward upon exiting the corner. After a few runs it became obvious that this car might be quickest on such a course by employing a left-foot braking technique, and in fact, this is exactly what Scott Goodyear did to set his best time.

In retrospect, it would have been nice to do some real world driving in the R32, as it’s quite clear to us, no matter how impressed we were with its track performances, that this vehicle was designed to be a great all-around everyday vehicle. But as mentioned before, we put hundreds of miles on our Euro-spec example last year, and we already knew what a comfortable and inviting street performer the R32 really is.

Spending the day at Firebird helped instill even more of the admiration we already had for VW engineers. In our humble opinion, the R32 is truly an incredible car. It handles far better than any MkIV Golf we’ve ever driven, and more to the point, it’s also an extremely entertaining car to drive fast. Many modern cars are very fast and can produce some impressive numbers while not providing a corresponding “fun quotient” in the process. The R32 is not one of these cars, and we cannot wait to get our long-termer here so we can start messing with it. And trust me on this part – we ARE going to mess with it.


The R32- a 911 in a box.

I’ve always owned VWs, specifically Golfs and GTIs, but I’ve also spent my fair share of time in and around rather more exotic machines. Of all the cars to which I’ve been exposed, the one that I’ve always felt represented the best all around sports car is the Porsche 911, specifically the last of the air-cooled Porsches - the 993. The 993 in naturally aspirated form is blessed with appropriate power, balanced handling, and excellent brakes. The seating position is rather upright, contrary to the sports car norm, affording the driver an excellent view of the road and surrounding traffic. The back seats are somewhat functional, at least on a short-term basis, and the front storage compartment holds more than most would believe.

After spending a few days behind the wheel of the Golf R32, I couldn’t help but draw similarities between it and a Porsche 993. In fact from the driver’s seat (which with its shoulder-supporting wings and deep, deep bolsters would itself be right at home in the 993), it’s very easy to forget that the R32 is actually a Golf. The driver is also treated to what may be the best steering wheel ever to come out of Germany, its three spokes reaching out to a leather-wrapped rim of a most satisfying girth. The view through the steering wheel reveals a very purposeful gauge cluster, trimmed in silver rings for added effect. The R32 appears to be all about the business of driving, and that’s without even starting the engine.

A quick turn of the key fires up the 3.2-liter VR6 engine, which sounds sexier than any Golf should have the right to. The deep note of the dual exhaust can be played from idle and all the way to redline in all six of the gears, turning the gas pedal into a musical instrument. For added orchestral excitement, try a heel-and-toe downshift; the pedal arrangement and gear ratios seem to be made for this.

The biggest-yet VR6 creates plenty of torque down low, making even second-gear starts a painless affair. The 24-valve engine keeps pulling all the way through the RPMs until the power falls off softly as the rev limiter takes over. The only bump in the otherwise smooth powerband is the slight dip at around 4000 RPM, when the variable intake manifold apparently takes effect.

All of the power (240 horses according to VW) gets distributed between each of the four wheels via the R32’s 4-Motion all-wheel-drive system. The 4-Motion system does far more than just provide power at the rear; it totally transforms the nature of the VR6 in the Golf. I’ll admit that I’ve never been a really big fan of combining this powerful-but-heavy engine in the standard front-drive platform. The issue has always been one of balance and control. Perhaps it’s the added overall weight, but the R32 chassis makes better use of the powerful six-cylinder engine than any front-drive Golf could ever do. The end result is an appropriately balanced car that handles very well, on-throttle or off, and without any drama.

To complete the performance picture, I must not forget the brakes, which on the R32 are the same massive discs, vented both front and rear, as on the Audi TT 3.2. Scrubbing speed in the R32 is never a problem, even after repeated hard stops. A day of continuous lapping at the Gingerman road course last year resulted in no fade at all, despite the 3400-lb weight of the car.

These are the qualities the R32 possesses which remind me so much of the 993. Some will no doubt argue that there are faster cars than the 993, and that is certainly true. The same will be said of the R32, appropriately so. But unlike so many of the “faster cars” with which they will inevitably be compared, both the R32 and the 993 are practical everyday sports cars, lacking the temperamental nature of turbochargers, the impracticality of genuine supercars, and the Johnny-Law-attracting, boy-racer visual effects of the WRC pretenders.

Is the R32 a perfect car? No, but I’m willing to overlook the fact that it’s slightly overweight, lacks xenon headlamps, and sits a little higher than the European version. The fact is this is the best performance hatchback VW has ever built, and may be the only all-wheel-drive Golf we see in this country for a long time. It has all the necessary elements of a true driver’s car without anything “extra” to take away from it.

COUNTERPOINT - Jamie Vondruska

synergism - n 1: the working together of simple parts to produce an effect greater than the sum of their individual parts 2: the theological doctrine that salvation results from the interaction of human will and divine grace

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts... That pretty much describes the R32. 240hp 3.2l VR6, six-speed MQ350 transmission, 4motion all-wheel-drive, the biggest brakes ever put on a Golf, custom tuned exhaust system with one of the sweetest notes ever, 18" wheels, ultra-high performance summer tires, sport seats, body kit with all-new front bumper, rear valance and side skirts, one of the top 5 best stock steering wheels ever put into a production car, aluminum trim, automatic climate control, heated seats, custom embroidered seats and floor mats, automatic dimming rearview mirror, electronic stability control, black headliner and more and more. Sounds like a nice recipe for a heck of a fun car.

Yet I see more people deadpan the car based almost exclusively on its factory 0-60mph time of 6.4 seconds. I guess for the paper-spec racers out there, the 0-60 is the holy grail of car performance measurements and we might as well just put the R32 out to pasture and out of its misery. A closer look reveals a few things. The R32 was designed from day one to only be sold in Europe and in particular the German market - there were no plans whatsoever to offer the R32 here in the States. It was designed to compete with other ultimate hatchbacks on the European market like the Ford Focus RS and Alfa Romeo 147 GTA - cars you can't get over here on this side of the pond. For that reason VW put more emphasis on having the car geared to achieve a 155mph+ top speed more suited to wide-open Autobahn cruising than burning up the stoplights. A simple run from 0-60 requires two shifts hitting 60 in third gear. That time consuming extra shift only helps to slow things down further. In our readers hands though, we've already seen a few people manage sub-14 second quarter mile times at just under 100mph, so maybe the straight-line performance isn't so bad afterall.

But, like the original GTI, the R32 isn't all about the power, it's about the overall package. British magazine CAR compared more than 50 of the top performance cars on the market in the UK in 2003 (Porsches, Ferraris, WRX's, EVO's, S4, M3 and on and on). When the dust settled, much to the outright surprise of the editors of that magazine, the R32 ended up in the top ten - seventh position actually. They wrote that the car's overall characteristics, ease at which you can drive fast and have fun really stood out and helped put the R32 in such high company.

For many out there that dismiss the R32 as an expensive Golf that just isn't quick enough, they will simply miss a hell of a great car. Anyone that is a driving enthusiast owes it to themselves to take a test drive. We can't promise that everyone will like it, but we think you'll be surprised by the overall package. The more we drove the R32 the more we like it and to old-school Volkswagen enthusiasts and in particular former VR6 owners, the R32 is the ultimate Golf period. There won't be another high-horsepower AWD Golf for at least three more years, so if you are on the fence, do it now and scoop one up.

For more discussion on this story, click on the link to our discussion forums to the left.
For more photos of the car in this story, click on the link to our gallery at the right.

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