Volkswagen has decided to save the best for last, at least for America.
The 2004 Volkswagen R32 you see here is the first Golf to get all-wheel-drive and a 240-horsepower, 3.2-liter VR6 engine. It is also one of the last of the fourth-generation Golfs we will see, prior to its replacement with the next-generation model sometime in late 2005.
It and the 4,999 other R32s on sale this summer are the most highly developed version of the Golf compact ever, and a more mature answer to the Fast and Furious crowd's favorites -- the turbocharged, intercooled, 271-hp Mitsubishi Evolution and 300-hp Subaru WRX STi.
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I have been a fan of the car that started life as the Rabbit in the U.S. 34 years ago. I owned a U.S.-built 1974 Rabbit that rusted away, its valves chattering like a manic needlepointer. I longed for a Rabbit GTi, with its fuel-injected 90-hp, 1.8-liter in-line four, alloy wheels and blacked-out trim -- the first "hot hatch," with European handling and power in a practical body design that could haul people and stuff under its hatchback.
By 1985, the Rabbit earned its European name, Golf, and grew bigger, more sophisticated and more German, while looking like the hatchback it started as. The GTi changed as well, the current model available with a turbocharged 180-hp four or a 2.8-liter, 200-hp VR6 (six cylinders set in a zigzag fashion and angled in space-saving rows only 15 degrees apart under a single aluminum alloy cylinder head). It's nice, but still front-wheel-drive, while the EVO and STi are all-wheel-drive rally car wannabes.
Realizing this, and probably trying to keep the flame lit under the hot hatchback until the new Golf comes, VW brought out its first sports model, badged R32 -- "R" for racing and 3.2 for the car's engine displacement. BMW has its M division, Mercedes-Benz has its AMG, and even VW sister company Audi has sporty models labeled "S."
VW massaged the GTi's 3.2-liter VR6, a narrow-angle design first launched as a 2.8-liter version in the 1992 Volkswagen Corrado SLC, to 240-hp and 236 lbs. ft. of torque. And it gave the R32 a good dose of go-fast and look-fast stuff that doesn't look as wild as the EVO and WRX STi wings and scoops look.
The most immediate change is that the R32 sits more than a half-inch lower than the base Golf. The expressive oval headlights have separate halogen projector bulbs and turn signals behind clear lenses, framing a two-slat body-colored grille with big chrome corporate logo next to R32 badge. The lower valance has a huge central mesh grille and two smaller Porsche Turbo-like ones on each side. Note: It's easy to bump on curbs, and one gentle bump dumped the outboard mesh grilles on the ground. The front fenders flow easily onto the fenders, which are gently flared to frame 14-spoke, 18-inch wheels that frame blue disc brake calipers and low-profile, unidirectional Goodyear Eagle F1 radials. The roof ends in a new spoiler atop the rear hatch, while the trunkless rear end gets darker lenses on big taillights and two chrome-tipped exhausts under a redesigned rear bumper.
Inside, the driver and passenger get all-enveloping Koenig sports bucket with aggressive side bolstering, done in supple leather. Fiddle with the manual slide, height and seat back rake adjusters, and the perfect relationship can be had. The Golf's four-spoke tilt/telescope steering wheel becomes a sportier three-spoker with thickly padded rim and alloy "R" badge. A gently hooded gauge package has 7,000-rpm (6,500-rpm redline) tach and 180-m.p.h. speedometer framing a trip computer, with gas and temperature gauge.
The big gauges are chrome-rimmed, with orange needles. Brushed alloy trims the door handles, pedals and arm rests, along with the squared-off central pod housing a superb Monsoon 8-speaker AM-FM-CD player with big buttons and knobs, over a push-button climate control. Defroster and front seat heater switches are high on the dash center. In typical VW style, the gauges and digital displays are back-lit blue at night, the controls in red -- very Audi-like, but not as chic as it used to be. The center console gets an alloy-accented ashtray and two decent cup holders behind that. The parking brake handle rubs the driver's seat bolster, and we had an air bag fault light come on and stay on for our entire drive.
For storage, there's adequate door map pockets, and a decent glove box. The car has a rear window wiper, and the driver gets one-touch power up or down front window switches and a dial-a-position moonroof with cover.
The rear bench seatbacks get the same embroidered "R" emblem that the front buckets do, and are easy enough to get to thanks to front buckets that rise and slide forward. once there, they are firm and about average on head room, while a bit tighter on leg room. Our 9-year-old son fit OK. The rear hatch opens high and wide to reveal a big storage area with a fuzzy-carpeted plastic security cover over it and steel tie-down hooks to hold your cargo secure. It also had a 12-volt power outlet tucked in a corner. If you need more room, the rear seats split and fold flat.
Under the hood of our 9,000-mile-old test coupe is one of the sweetest engines around, a 3.2-liter, 240-hp VR6 with four valves per cylinder, variable timing, two chain-driven overhead camshafts and hydraulic lifters. It gets a larger bore and stroke and a new intake system, plus an intoxicating exhaust snarl that grabs the (unwanted?) attention of everyone once the revs get over 3,000 rpm. The result: funneled through a notchy but still fairly quick six-speed manual, is 6.5 seconds to 60 mph in third gear. Bring the revs up to about 3,000 rpm and get off the clutch, and the R32 leaps forward with a slight hint of front wheelspin, the 4MOTION four-wheel-drive system's electronically controlled Haldex coupling in the rear axle differential detecting from wheelspin and funneling power to the rear for superb traction. Yes, the Mitsubishi EVO we tested did the same in 5.3 seconds, and the Subaru WRX STi in 5.2. But the VW R32 felt less hassled and frazzled doing it, and the best is yet to come.
The suspension is McPherson struts and lower wishbones up front, with a fully independent multi-link rear suspension with dual-link trailing arms, mounted on a new subframe and coupled to the running gear via rubber vibration dampers because of the all-wheel-drive. The R32 also sits about 22 millimeters lower than the GTI VR6, with more aggressive shocks and spring settings, yet the ride is firm, yet never pounding, and remarkably comfortable on almost any road surface. Toss the car into a turn and it offers some body rolll before taking a set. If you get some initial understeer in a turn, you can tune in enough power to allow 4MOTION to neutralize it, the Electronic Stabilization Program and Anti-Slip Regulation system aiding in keeping both ends in control. Expressway exit ramps offer no drama, and the 4MOTION allows you to back off in a turn, get the tail to rotate just a bit and nail the gas for a drama-free exit. The steering was precise and well-weighted, while 13.1-inch front/10.1-inch rear vented discs with ABS offering solid stops and no fade time after time.
The base price is ,100, with standard 240-hp VR6 engine, six-speed manual, cloth Koenig sports bucket seats, Monsoon eight-speaker sound system connected to the AM-FM-CD player, alarm, automatic climate control, heated front seats and washer nozzles, power one-touch up and down windows, sunroof, heated side mirrors, anti-theft alarm, radio remote control locking, cruise control, trip computer and rain sensor wipers. The only option was to make the sport seats leather-clad, for a manfacturer's suggested retail price of ,625.
The VW R32 is built side by side with the Touareg SUV in Bratislava, Slovakia. Fit and finish was superb bar the front grilles' problem, the interior quiet and comfortable, with a superb driving position and supportive buckets.
This is a fun car for someone who longs for some street credibility without the "Hey, look at me!" wings, scoops and vents of the Fast and Furious crowd. Get it in black, and no one will notice you until you have passed them.