SOMEONE in my office -- let's call him Raoul -- recently purchased a Volkswagen Golf R32. I don't think Raoul would mind me saying that he knows next to nothing about cars; he said so himself. Raoul is single, in his 40s, and has never before owned a sporty car, much less a rabid badger of a hatchback like the R32 with its 240-horsepower V6, six-speed manual transmission, harder-than-algebra suspension and all-wheel drive.
He bought the car largely on its looks. This fascinates me, especially considering its looks.
The R32 is a surpassingly esoteric car. A limited-production version of the venerable VW Golf with thousands of dollars of performance parts pounded down its gullet, the R32 ($30,625) is aimed at the guy who is not just a member but the parliamentarian-treasurer of your local VW enthusiasts' club. Even within its sliver of the market — all-wheel-drive factory tuner compacts? — the R32 stands apart as the only coupe. Its only direct competitors are the Mitsubishi Evolution and the Subaru WRX STi, four-door throttle rockets derived from their companies' efforts in World Rally Championship racing.
You could compare the R32 with the Audi TT 3.2 Quattro, with which it shares much of its hardware, except that the TT costs another 10 grand and that the TT is a beautiful car whereas the R32 categorically is not.
So what, for Raoul, was the attraction? Fahrvergnügen?
Much like presidential campaigns, in which billions are spent on issue-driven advertising only to have people vote with their gut, car buying is essentially an emotional choice. If reason held sway, most of us would drive hybrid Hondas (and maybe John Kerry would be president). Instead, we buy cars that ring mysterious bells in our heads, that answer questions no one else can hear.
I had a woman once explain to me how she purchased a $70,000 car based on the room in the passenger-side floorboards. Such unfathomable buyer motivations make me glad I'm not an automotive product planner.
For a driving enthusiast, the R32's appeal is no big mystery. Unlike the turbocharged Mitsubishi and Subaru, the R32 is powered by a naturally aspirated engine, VW's narrow- angle, 24-valve V6, so that the throttle response is sweetly tempered and linear. The other two cars feel logy off throttle and then at some point, as the rpm climb, go off like Liza Minnelli at a dawdling personal assistant.
Even though it lacks the boosted bash of the other two, the R32 is still plenty quick. Its 240-horsepower is channeled through a six-speed manual that, if properly stirred, will get the car to 60 mph in about six seconds, with rich, steely arpeggios dancing on treble staffs left flapping in the wind. Once at cruising altitude, you can drop into sixth gear — the other two cars lack a sixth ratio — and the car will hum along at interstate speeds, sipping gas moderately.
The VW's all-wheel-drive system (4Motion) gets the power to all four wheels, and from there the gummy 18-inch Goodyears take over. There is nothing all that remarkable about the R32's suspension components (MacPherson struts in front and an independent multilink system with coil-overs in the rear). Yet when it's all put together — the suspension's stiffness, the thick anti-roll bars, the chassis rigidity, short wheelbase, tires, heavy and precise steering — the car is a model of composure. Some all-wheel-drive cars are hard to slide around on asphalt, but the R32 can be pitched sideways into a corner with a brief lift of the throttle and then flat-footed out of the turn.
The car goes like stink, handles beautifully and stops on a pfennig. Yet none of this, it seems to me, is likely to have attracted our friend Raoul.
Maybe it was the seats. The seating position in a Golf is very natural, with a comfortable, chair-like H point — that is, the position of the driver's hip in relation to the floor — so that the driver doesn't feel like he or she is sitting on the floorboards (as in the Audi TT, for example). Also, the R32 package offers these amazing sport seats made by Koenig: Deeply bolstered on the sides and bottom, the leather seats seem to wrap around you when you sit in them. It makes you feel as if you are part of the car, not merely the jelly-like compound inside.
Though cars are generally designed to accommodate what they call a 90th percentile human model — that is, for people who fall within 90% of the average population in height, width, weight and so on — some cars just fit better than others. Some women and short men might like the low sill lines of the R32 that help them see out. Some, like the 6-footer Raoul, might like the extra headroom and not even realize it, perhaps attributing their affinity for the car to something else, like its styling.
People frequently ask me which car they should buy, and I'm just as frequently disheartened by the low ambitions that shape their purchases — resale value, cost, practicality. Cars are more than the sum of their statistics divided by cost. Buy a car that fits you, that makes you feel happy, that reminds you of an old romantic interest or a character in a favorite book or good times in college. Love is often found in unexpected places.
Automotive critic Dan Neil
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2005 Volkswagen R32
Base price: $29,100
Price, as tested: $30,625
Powertrain: 3.2-liter, 24-valve, dual-overhead cam V6; six-speed manual transmission; all-wheel drive
Horsepower: 240 at 6,250 rpm
Torque: 236 pound-feet at 2,800 to 3,200 rpm
Curb weight: 3,409 pounds
0-60 mph: 6 seconds
Wheelbase: 99.1 inches
Overall length: 164.4 inches
Competitors: Subaru WRX STi, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution
Final thoughts: If the shoe fits, buy it.