Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
For a car that was never intended to be sold in the U.S. market, the Volkswagen R32 sure is a perfect fit for it. Combining a powerful V6 power plant, pavement-grabbing all-wheel drive and stylish European looks, the R32 is not only the all-conquering Golf that VW enthusiasts have been waiting for, it's also a well-rounded package that any performance-minded driver will find attractive.
Originally designed to be a European model only, the R32 got the go-ahead for U.S. sales only after American journalists and VW enthusiast groups made it known that the R32 would be appreciated just as much on U.S. interstates as it would on the autobahn. Although slightly retooled for American tastes and Midwestern roads, the U.S.-spec R32 has all the power and nearly all of the performance of its European counterpart. A brief test-drive gave us a taste of its capabilities, and although it may not be the fastest vehicle in its class, the R32 has enough of what enthusiasts want to make its arrival worth waiting for.
Based on the aging Golf platform, the decked-out R32 gets a long list of upgrades that allow it to compete in a league dominated by Subaru's WRX and Mitsubishi's Lancer Evolution. At the top of that list is the installation of a next-generation 3.2-liter VR6 engine that not only gives the R32 its name, it also adds a serious boost in power over the 2.8-liter VR6 found in the top-of-the-line GTI .
Producing 240 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque, the new VR6 is not only larger in displacement it also uses an upgraded intake and exhaust system to get the increased volume of air moving in and out more quickly. The result is not only more power, but more power across a broader range of engine speeds, as this VR6 develops its peak torque between 2,800 and 3,200 rpm.
Having all that power on tap wouldn't be worth much if it was running through the front wheels, so VW fitted the R32 with its 4Motion all-wheel-drive system to make sure every last pony gets to the ground. A six-speed manual transmission is standard equipment (no automatic is offered), and the Electronic Stability Program (ESP) has been recalibrated to suit more aggressive driving.
All of this new hardware adds up to a seriously hot hatchback that's a big step up from the somewhat tame GTI. Hard launches are a bit trickier with the 4Motion system, but once you're underway, the broad torque of the VR6 pulls hard from start to finish. The slick six-speed gearbox makes quick shifts a breeze, but they're accompanied by a disconcerting thump as the 4Motion system transfers the power around. An impromptu test session turned in a best 0-to-60 time of about 7 seconds flat, but under ideal conditions, VW claims the R32 can shave another half a second off that time. Even more impressive than its speed is the sound of the R32 think BMW M3 and you're close.
The R32's suspension upgrades aren't quite as extensive as the work under the hood, but a few quick blasts through an autocross course revealed a car that feels considerably more tossable than its lesser-powered siblings. With more aggressively tuned springs and shocks, the R32 sits nearly an inch lower than the GTI, while a recalibrated steering system delivers quicker response and fewer turns lock to lock. Larger front and rear sway bars keep roll to a minimum allowing the 18-inch wheels and Y-rated tires (European models get Z-rated rubber) to maintain their grip. A more powerful brake system is standard issue as well complete with blue-painted calipers and 13-inch discs up front.
Unlike the standard GTI, the R32 responds well to midcorner throttle variations. Rather than merely burying its nose like its front-wheel-drive counterparts, the R32 is able to comfortably walk the line between understeer and oversteer without feeling twitchy. Switch off the ESP system and the R32 can be coaxed into smooth four-wheel drifts and tail-wagging slides that will bring out the rally driver in just about anybody. A little extra weight (3,409 pounds) keeps it from delivering the ultraprecise feel of the Evo or the tire-churning thrust of the WRX, but for drivers looking for a balance of capability and drivability, the R32 is a rewarding compromise.
The trade-off between all-out performance and everyday civility is further highlighted by the R32's slick interior that takes an already upscale cabin and adds another layer of refinement. While its Japanese rivals offer only the most basic amenities, the R32 has an interior that you won't have to make excuses for. Metallic accents dress up everything from the pedals to the gauges to the brake lever, while high-backed sport seats provide outstanding support. A thick three-spoke steering wheel is also part of the package, giving the R32 an aftermarket look without going overboard.
Scroll down the extensive standard features list and you'll find high-end additions like automatic climate control, a Monsoon sound system, heated seats and a sunroof. The only available option is leather for the seats that will run you an extra $950 over the $29,100 base price. Exterior color choices are limited to black, blue, red or silver.
So is it all worth it? As usual, it depends on what you're expecting. Buyers looking for an ultraquick street machine that answers to no one will be disappointed. Go head-to-head with an Evo or WRX STi and you'll get smoked. The R32 wasn't built to beat them and it won't.
If, however, you're a buyer who sees a little further out than the next stoplight, the R32 won't seem quite so deficient. You get plenty of corner-shredding hardware at each wheel, a butch V6 that sounds sweet and styling that won't make you look like you just raided the local Pep Boys with your parents' credit card. Factor in the upscale, Euro-style interior and the R32 presents a pretty enticing package. If you think so as well, you better act fast. Volkswagen is only importing 5,000 R32s for 2004 and after that they're gone.
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