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Follow-Up Test: 2004 Volkswagen R32


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  1. Road Test
  2. Competitive Set

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Vehicle Tested:
2004 Volkswagen R32 2dr Hatchback (3.2L 6cyl 6M)

The Canyon Carver's Dream

We could start this story off by droning on about the history and heritage of Volkswagen, about how Dr. Ferdinand Porsche worshipped at the altar of power-to-weight ratios and space efficiency, or even how the first Golf and later its high-performance GTI variant turned the performance world on its ear by proving that front-wheel-drive hatchbacks could indeed be fast. But we're not going to do that. After all, if you're reading this story, chances are you already know all about VW, the GTI and even the current wave of all-wheel-drive mania sweeping the nation. Instead, we're going to dive right into the nitty-gritty details, like how the car drives and how it compares to the other sport-compact stoplight warriors currently on the road today. So, let's get started.

When crafting the R32, Volkswagen essentially turned its engineers loose on the Golf and asked them to take the car to its logical extreme. The result is a cohesive driving package that balances technology with refinement and style in a way the Japanese rally cars can't touch. While the Subie and Evo sport big wings and wild bodywork, the R32 is a study of elegance and understatement. Walking up to the car, the only clues that it isn't a normal GTI are the slick 18-inch alloy wheels shod in aggressive high-performance rubber, new front and rear fascias that double as wind-cutting spoilers, a large honeycomb grille stuffed in the front end, darkened taillights, small side skirts, a minimalist rear spoiler and two polished exhaust tips poking out the rear valance.

Of course the real changes lie beneath the sheet metal, where the fabulous "VR6" narrow-angle V6 has been pumped up to 3.2 liters. Other engine mods include more aggressive camshaft profiles, an increase in compression ratio to 11.3 to 1, a revised cylinder head and new intake and exhaust systems. The result is 240 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque, which is far too much for a normal front-wheel-drive car to tackle without suffering from severe traction issues and torque-steer. VW resolved that issue by borrowing Audi's highly successful all-wheel-drive system and adapting it to the Golf platform.

A close-ratio six-speed manual transmission handles gear change duty, and new high-performance suspension helps keep the car planted in the corners and results in a 22mm ride height reduction when compared to a standard GTI. Giant ventilated disc brakes are fitted to all four corners, and large blue four-piston calipers peak out from behind the wheels to remind onlookers that this is no ordinary hatchback. Finally, an Electronic Stabilization Program (ESP) and Anti-Slip Regulation (ASR) system — stability and traction control, that is — help keep novice drivers out of trouble when the car is pushed past its limit. The end result is a well-engineered package that feels like it would be as happy on a racetrack or blitzing down the autobahn as it is slogging through L.A. traffic.

Unfortunately, all this technology doesn't come cheap. While the GTI has long been recognized as a stellar deal for driving enthusiasts who yearn for German engineering but can't afford the likes of a BMW or Audi übercar, the R32 can't claim the same low price point as its front-wheel-drive sibling. Our test vehicle included the only option available, a $950 leather package that upgrades the front and rear seats with supple perforated cowhide, which brought the grand total up to $30,635. While that price tag is still a far cry from that of an M3 or S4, it's hardly the bargain one expects from VW. However, discriminating driving enthusiasts — especially dyed-in-the-wool Volkswagen fans — are sure to recognize that you get one heck of a car for your money.

Open the car's tightly sealed door and slip behind the thickly padded and contoured wheel, and the first thing that you'll notice are the front seats. These are no mere sport buckets equipped with little sissy bolsters, not by a long shot. Designed by German racing supplier Koenig, the thrones at the helm of this little pocket rocket are designed for serious driving, with gigantic side bolsters and a large headrest that cradle the driver and keep your derrière planted in even the craziest of G-force laden hairpins. While all of this sounds great on paper, the seats aren't very comfortable or practical in the real world. The bolsters are difficult to climb over when entering and exiting the car, and they have a tendency to pinch people of wider-than-average girth (the author is a 5-foot-11, 200-pound former football player).

However, that one minor squawk is our only real complaint about what is otherwise a well-dressed interior. Soft-touch materials abound, and the textured dash and door panels were finished to an extremely high standard in our test vehicle. The leather seats and trim pieces were all very soft and supple, and the R32 package slathers real aluminum all over the cockpit, from the pedals and dead foot to the center stack and console trim. Tasteful R32 logos (and in some cases just a simple R) adorned the backs of all four seats and the clutch and brake pedals, and the instrument cluster was stuffed with a large tachometer and speedometer that were both easy to read and understand at a glance. While the climate control system worked wonderfully, it wasn't very easy to use, which is pretty standard for a German car (why they can't use three simple dials like the rest of the automotive world is beyond us). Finally, the only stereo available in the R32 is a new system from Monsoon that boasts eight speakers and amazingly clear sound; although, why anyone would choose to listen to the stereo over the glorious growl of the car's thumping V6 is beyond us.

Speaking of glorious noises, give the fat Volkswagen key one quick twist and the hopped-up 3.2 shouts with a wail just short of a full-blown exotic. We're not sure what VW did to this car's exhaust system, but it emits a throaty grumble at idle that escalates into a siren song wail at full throttle that can only be described as hair-raising. Give the throttle a little blip, slip the short-throw shifter into first gear and let out the high-performance clutch, and all four tires sink their teeth into the pavement with a surprising amount of force. Traction is not an issue in the R32, but finding enough real estate to let this autobahn bomber strut its stuff can be a little difficult. The V6 utilizes variable valve timing to maximize low-end torque and top-end horsepower, but it really doesn't come into its own until around 4,000 rpm, when the exhaust note changes and the G-forces noticeably increase.

Of course straight-line acceleration is all well and good, but the car really shows what it's made of in the twisties, where the combination of a short wheelbase, all-wheel drive and well-engineered McPherson Strut suspension all work together to make the R32 an astounding performer in the corners. Lateral grip is seemingly endless; no matter how hard you push the car, it refuses to understeer or oversteer — it just goes and goes. The steering feel is spot-on perfect, just weighty enough to transmit a feeling of comfort and control to the driver without acting overly heavy or numb. The ratio is tight but not overly sensitive, and while the little VW is actually quite heavy for a hatchback of this size, it feels as light and nimble as a go-kart. We found ourselves running the car past 4,000 rpm and seeking out sweeping corners every chance we got just to get a quick thrill. If Volkswagen engineers were trying to build a balanced, well-rounded performance car with all the amenities of a plush German touring car, we'd say the company accomplished its goal admirably.

By now, you're probably wondering how the R32 compares to its two closest competitors, the Subaru WRX STi and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. To be perfectly frank, it doesn't, and we don't mean that in a bad way. The STi and Evo are both street-going versions of full-blown WRC racecars, utilizing lightweight sedan platforms stuffed with highly boosted turbocharged engines, along with high-tech all-wheel-drive systems and harsh suspension setups to accomplish amazing performance feats once reserved for ultraexclusive sports cars. Both of these Japanese warriors are brutally fast and relatively inexpensive, and thanks to their audacious bodywork and in-your-face style, they are resoundingly popular with The Fast and the Furious crowd.

The R32 simply can't match the raw performance numbers of the turbocharged cars, but it offers a wholly different driving experience that, in our opinion, is much more refined and easier to live with on a daily basis. The beautiful leather and aluminum lined VW interior is far superior to anything you'll find in the turbo cars, and its sedate style allows you to slip by John Law unnoticed as the other cars grab attention everywhere they go (of course a bright red R32 still isn't exactly stealth, but maybe in black or silver…). Finally, the 3.2 V6 may not have the peaky top-end power of the boosted fours, but it offers gobs of torque that comes in quite handy on the street, and the full-throttle bellow of those six tightly wound cylinders is unmatched by anything short of a BMW M3.

For those seeking a fast, fun and refined ride that handles like a racecar but still coddles passengers in Teutonic leather-lined luxury, the R32 is more than worthy of consideration.


2004 Volkswagen R32 - Tag

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(Photo courtesy of Scott Jacobs)

2004 Volkswagen R32 - Front

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The R32 features a relatively simple look that emphasizes clean lines and functional modifications, including new bumpers with integrated spoilers, a large honeycomb ventilation grille, subtle side skirts and a small chrome R32 badge on the nose. (Photo courtesy of Scott Jacobs)

2004 Volkswagen R32 - Interior

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This car was designed to be the fastest Golf ever built, and the interior belies that mission. Bolstered racing bucket seats, alloy pedals and a short-throw shifter are all designed to inspire confidence in commuters and rally racers alike. (Photo courtesy of Scott Jacobs)

2004 Volkswagen R32 - Rear

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This is a view of the R32 most of its competitors will have to get used to, and unlike other all-wheel-drive rockets like the WRX STi and Evolution, the VW appears almost minimalist with a noticeable lack of big wings and showy graphics. (Photo courtesy of Scott Jacobs)

2004 Volkswagen R32 - Engine

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An updated version of VW's famous narrow-angle VR6 resides under the hood, now pumped up to 3.2 liters in order to produce 240 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque. (Photo courtesy of Scott Jacobs)

2004 Volkswagen R32 - Wheel

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Unique 18-inch alloy wheels add true racing style to the R32's exterior, and Y-series rubber provides plenty of grip when the 3.2L V6 is pouring power to the pavement. (Photo courtesy of Scott Jacobs)