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Money & Business: Test Track
2004 Volkswagen R32
A Golf in wolf's clothing

By Richard J. Newman


NITS: No center armrest, which produces the dreaded dangling-elbow syndrome.

G-FORCES: The R32 beautifully blends a great engine, a slick transmission, and a taut suspension. Acceleration is breathtaking. Handling is not quite as disciplined as the best German vehicles, but there is an unmistakable Teutonic joy in the R32 that is hard to beat.

GIZMOLOGY: The cabin is well-appointed and yet spare, with virtually no extraneous buttons or switches and an extremely clean layout. Such simplicity is a lost art in an era of over-computerized controls. One gripe: The climate display is way too low; you almost have to duck to see it. And steering wheel controls for the radio would be nice.

KID MARKS: Obviously this is not a family car–but itíll do just fine in a pinch. For such a compact package, thereís a surprising amount of space in the back seat. Despite the contoured seat cushions, two boosters fit nicely, with space for a third child in the middle. And my 5- and 7-year-olds could easily push the front seats up when they needed to get in or out. The rear hatch arrangement adds to storage, which is adequate for a modest amount of kiddie gear.

HOT OR NOT: Hot. The basic shape is pedestrian, but big tires, alloy wheels, and a modicum of Volksy cuteness make this a looker.

ENVIROMETER: Rates 6 out of 10 on the EPAís green-vehicle ratings scale. Mileage ranges from 19 mpg city to 26 mpg highway. Details: www.epa.gov/autoemissions/
E-VOLKSWAGEN-R32-04.htm

CRASH COURSE: Not yet crash-tested by the government or by private testing organizations.

PRICE POINTS: Base price is $29,675. Price as tested: $30,625. (All prices include delivery fees.)

MORE INFO: www.vw.com

I am in love!

Oh sure, thereís a wonderful woman in my life, but forget about her for a moment. Whatís really got my juices flowing is my recent fling with the R32, Volkswagenís saucy new car. It could look a bit racier–itís based on the humble Golf, after all–but it is full of heart, verve, and sensuality. The most prominent attribute is the 240-horsepower V-6 engine that moves the R32 along with the haste of a bullet. To get an idea for how lively this car is with this engine, consider that the same V-6 powers the base-level Phaeton sedan sold in Europe–which is nearly 2,000 pounds heavier than the R32. That much muscle in a tidy little package like the R32 is like a bantamweight with the knockout punch of a heavyweight. The proof is a potent 0 to 60 time of 6.4 seconds.

And it feels faster. There is a certain kind of thrilling freedom unique to small, powerful cars. In a big muscle car, you feel ostentatious and imposing. In a tiny two-seater, you feel spry and cute. But in the R32 you feel almost invincible. Thatís partly because you can outspeed nearly anything on the road. But the nimble handling that comes with that power endows you with a daring confidence that you can also outmaneuver anything on the road. Thatís false confidence, of course; a dump truck blasting through a stop sign will take you out no matter how good the handling. But in the R32 you simply lose patience with the other cars on the road, finding ways to squeeze by them or zip around them or simply blow past them, and find the open road. A considerable improvement over the old GTI is standard all-wheel drive, which eliminates the bite that comes in tight cornering with front-drive cars. The R32 is rigid and stable all around.

The rest of the R32 is well-considered too. At a base price of nearly $30,000, the base model comes with just about everything you need. Standard features include a sunroof, premium sound system, grippy racing seats (which are heated, to boot), big 18-inch tires, and lots of other nifty appointments. All of that puts the R32 in a curious seam between weekend racing rods like the Subaru WRX and the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, and German road machines like the BMW 3 series and the Audi A4. Itís a nice niche to occupy. For a bit less than the German competitors you get an awesome performance package and enough luxury to justify the price, without the kind of rigid ride in the racers that scares the family away. This beauty, in other words, has soul and charm, and can handle the household chores too. Where do I send flowers?

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