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2004 Volkswagen R32
"Aw, nuts," I said to myself when I stepped out of the Volkswagen R32. "Now I've got to add another parking spot to my dream garage."
Even though construction materials for dream garages are cheap, I don't say that as frequently as you might think. This time I had a good reason to because the unassuming Volkswagen Golf you see here is a very special car indeed. The 2004-only R32 is the hottest Golf ever to grace U.S. shores. It's also the first North American Golf with 4Motion all-wheel drive (which is called "quattro" when it's used in the Audi TT).
At a glance, the R32 can be mistaken for a run-of-the-mill GTI. It lacks the wings and flares that many other factory high-performance specials have sprouted. A closer look reveals major design tweaks; big wheels, gaping air intakes and a rear roll pan with dual exhausts. These modifications give it the look of a subtle custom job. 18" wheels are standard, too. Silver, red, blue and black are the only colors offered.The seats are made by Koenig, and they're some of the most comfortable in the industry (if you're into racing seats that is), with grippy side bolsters and just enough height to keep taller drivers comfortable all day. They're not for everyone. Neither is the fat, sporty steering wheel. Satin aluminum and chrome trim dress up the usually drab interior. Like the Golf that it's based on, the R32 has room for four adults, even though it's only a two-door. It's also well-equipped. Standard stuff includes a Monsoon sound system, heated seats and automatic climate control.
Under the sheetmetal there's some serious special-ness going on. The R32 has MacPherson struts and lower wishbones up front, supplemented by a fully independent rear suspension that rides on its own subframe. The R32 rides 22mm lower than the GTI, and shocks and springs have been beefed up accordingly. The ride is impressively forgiving, for such a high-performance car. The serious autocrossers will call it too soft, but the extra damping is welcome on cracked Rust Belt roads that tend to send stiffly-suspended cars packing. The Haldex all-wheel drive system is preternaturally sure-footed, and led us to swerve back and forth on rainy pavement just for the joy of it. In addition to improving wet-weather traction, the torque-sensing differential can split power front to rear to compensate for bursts of acceleration while turning, making the ride smoother. Traction and stability control are included. Big blue brake calipers proudly announce the R32's anti-lock brakes.
The engine isn't the same VR6 found in the GTI; it's the larger 3.2 liter powerplant, borrowed from the V6-powered Touareg SUV, and more power is always a good thing of course. Volkswagen fans have been salivating at the idea of a 240-horsepower Golf for years, and the R32 delivers just that. The R32 is also about torque; with a relatively large-displacement V6 under the hood, the R32 will roll instead of stalling if you let the clutch out gently, just like a big diesel pickup will, thanks to the 236 foot-pounds of twisting power on hand. On the freeway, there's some exhaust buzz, but it's far from irritating and the R32 is much more refined than its obvious natural competition, the Subaru WRX. Because it's not turbocharged, the power is available with just a stab of the pedal, regardless of engine speed. The six-speed transmission shifts smoothly, but like most VW transmissions, doesn't like to be rushed. Want an automatic? Don't buy an R32, because you can't get one.
The R32 also plays the luxury car role better, with a quiet interior and solid construction, which makes you less likely to wonder where all of your money went.
Did I mention money? The only dark spot on the R32's brilliance is that all of that equipment comes at a price. A starting price of $29,100 is likely to turn off anyone who thinks that one Golf is pretty much like another. With a leather interior added, my test car priced out at $30,625. That's competitive with the hot-shoe WRX STi and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, which are both more powerful and faster on a race track, but the R32 is much, much easier to live with.
It's a 2004-only model, with a production run of only 5000 cars planned. Of course, I'm hoping that they'll find exactly 4,999 motivated drivers... leaving one R32 for me. Move fast if you want one. If it's too late--and it probably is--Volkswagen has promised to bring back an even meaner R32 at some time in the future, too.