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Posted October, 2004

Road Test: 2004 Volkswagen R32

By Thomas E. Bonsall

NOTE: We tested a 2004 model, but few changes are anticipated for 2005.

In an era of name inflation, the Volkswagen R32 is refreshing. Coming from any other company, it could just as easily have been the Volkswagen Golf GTi R32 4Motion Type-X Deluxe Hatchback Sport Coupe. But, as Pontiac demonstrated forty years ago with its now-legendary GTO, if you've got the goods, you can afford to cut the hype. And, trust me, the R32 is the real thing.

In recent weeks, I've been writing a lot about boy racers in this space. First came the Dodge Neon SRT-4, then the Saturn Ion Red Line and the Acura RSX Type S. They all had their strengths and weaknesses. The R32 has only strengths.

R32, btw, means "R" for racing and 3.2 for the engine displacement. The heart of the package is an updated 3.2-liter version of the automaker's VR6 engine, a six-cylinder powerplant that fits almost as snugly in the engine bay as most fours. The VR6's high output in a relatively small space is possible because of its unique narrow angle "V." It was design revolutionary when first launched as a 2.8-liter version in the 1992 Volkswagen Corrado SLC in which cylinders were set in a zigzag fashion and angled in space-saving rows only 15 degrees apart.

All told, the R32's engine delivers 240 horsepower and 236 lbs. ft. of torque and enables the R32 to accelerate from 0-60 miles per hour in 6.4 seconds. Unlike the other boy racers we've tested, though, the R32 features all-wheel drive. This makes a tremendous difference where the rubber meets the asphalt. The Dodge Neon SRT-4 has only ten fewer horses under the hood, but a lot of that power is useless because of torque steer. As a practical matter, anything over 200 horsepower in a light, front-wheel-drive car is pretty much wasted. In contrast, thanks to its 4Motion all-wheel drive, the R32 can actually benefit from the power it's got and the result is blazing acceleration.

The R32 garnered lots of appreciative stares wherever we drove it. Essentially, it is a freshly designed Golf inside and out. Outside, it comes with dual exhaust pipes, newly designed bumpers the front one acting as a spoiler a large honeycomb ventilation grill in the lower front apron, darkened taillights, rear spoiler, side skirts and model specific badging on the front grille and left rear. Standard color choices are "reflex silver metallic," "tornado red," "deep blue metallic," and "black magic pearl effect."

Inside, the R32 and R logos are featured on the high performance sport seats (standard cloth with leatherette trim, leather is optional), alloy pedals, leather shift knob, instrument cluster, three-spoke leather steering wheel, doorsills and floor mats. Chrome surrounds the instrumentation, with the pivot heads of the needles matching. Alloy touches are used at nearly every visible or usable niche, including the side footrest, center console trim, interior door handles, doorsills, and even the handbrake button. The rear seats fold flat and allow for a 60/40 split.

The base R32 is equipped better than many luxury sedans. Standard items include automatic climate control (Climatronic), heated front seats and washer nozzles, a premium CD stereo with eight speakers, a Monsoon Sound System, power one-touch up and down windows, power glass sunroof, heated electrically adjustable side mirrors, antitheft alarm, radio remote control locking, cruise control, trip computer, and rain sensor wipers.

In general, we liked the interior a lot. The best part was the sound system. The worst part was the driver's seat. Excessive lumbar support similar to that on the Dodge Neon SRT-4 forces the driver to sit in the "astronaut" position with knees brushing up against the steering wheel. Perhaps human anatomy has evolved since I was young, but I really find it hard to believe that the typical young male (the target audience for the R32) is going to be any more comfortable in these seats than I was. Once again, I was forced to fetch my copy of the "Building Officials & Code Administrators (BOCA) National Building Code," 1993 edition, and use it as a seat cushion. It worked, but it's pretty silly to have to do that in order to get an even tolerably comfortable seating position in a car in this price class. But more on that later.

Underneath, the layout of the R32's running gear is vital to the car's performance. Up front, it uses McPherson struts and lower wishbones; in the rear, with 4MOTION, the R32 is fully independent using a multi-link rear suspension with dual-link trailing arms. This is mounted on a subframe and coupled to the running gear via rubber vibration dampers. The anti-roll bars on both axles have been significantly strengthened compared to any other fourth-generation Golf.

Moreover, the R32's running gear is lowered by 22 mm compared to the GTi VR6. This model also employs aggressive shocks and springs, and the R32's steering is redesigned for more direct input and even better response and agility. The result is great performance and handling without the bone-crusher ride you get from Dodge and Saturn. The Acura RSX Type-S has comparable riding comfort, but pays for it with less performance and handling. Only the R32 lets you have it all.

The R32 is also equipped with an advanced side-impact safety system called Side Curtain Protection, an airbag supplemental restraint system that helps protect heads and upper torsos from injury. In addition, the car offers front and side airbag supplemental restraints; front integrated head rests and three-point safety belts in all seating positions, with front seatbelt pre-tensioners and shoulder height adjustment; and the LATCH (Lower Anchors and Tethers for CHildren) system in the rear outboard seating positions for installation of child seats.

As I've already hinted, none of this good stuff comes cheap. The R32 is by a fair measure the most expensive of the boy racers we've tested thus far. The sticker on our test car was $30,625, including destination charges, and that included no optional equipment at all. On the other hand, the car was so well equipped that none was needed. Still, it's a lot of money for a boy racer — too much for a lot of the boys drooling after it — but Volkswagen delivers solid value in return. If you can afford the tab, you will definitely get what you pay for — and then some. But, oh, that driver's seat... R&D

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