Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
At 4.3 miles, the Landeck Tunnel in the Austrian Alps is one of the longest enclosed roadways in the world. It's an impressive feat of engineering, but a mile or so in, we're feeling a little claustrophobic. Opening the windows doesn't help as the air is thick with diesel exhaust, so to break up the monotony we move on to Plan B.
Two downshifts and a burst of wide-open throttle later, our 2008 Volkswagen R32 is filling the tunnel with the refined burble of its sport exhaust. Up to redline and back down again, the engine is flawlessly smooth with an occasional crackle when we abruptly let off the gas. The R32's V6 has never sounded so good, and yeah, we're feeling much better now.
A few more runs through the six-speed direct-shift gearbox (DSG) and we're through the tunnel, headed toward roads with fewer ceilings and more turns. Wind noise overcomes exhaust growl at this point, but the 2008 Volkswagen R32 has plenty more to keep us interested.
An Unexpected GT
As satisfying as it is to soak up the sound of the R32's V6, this is not a car that relies on cheap engine hop-ups to deliver the performance goods. Although it's based on VW's latest Mk. V chassis for the GTI, the R32 adds a 3.2-liter VR6 engine and Volkswagen's 4Motion all-wheel-drive system, neither of which is available on the less expensive GTI.
With this kind of hardware, obvious comparisons are made between the R32 and the all-wheel-drive Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and Subaru WRX STI, but the Volkswagen isn't a hard-core rally wannabe. "We think of it as more of a grand touring car, really," says David Goggins, director of product and marketing strategy for Volkswagen of America. "We know it's not the fastest or the most extreme-handling car out there, but we think it has a unique combination of performance and comfort that's not offered anywhere else."
It's that logic that has led to the use of Volkswagen's DSG instead of the previous R32's six-speed manual. "DSG fits the personality of the car better," Goggins explains. "The R32 isn't a stripped-down, all-out performance car, but instead a true long-distance tourer." He also points out that by limiting the R32 to one transmission choice and one two-door body style, it was easier for Volkswagen of America to make a business case for the car in the U.S. With only 5,000 examples of the R32 scheduled for sale here, he has a point.
Europe Has Nothing on This R32
Even if the R32 hasn't been designed as a pure performance coupe, it still has a formidable spec sheet. Tweaks to the computer software have added 10 horsepower for a total of 250, while the torque peaks at 236 pound-feet. The twin-clutch DSG gearbox isn't any different from the one offered for the standard GTI, but Goggins notes that it has been specially tuned for the U.S. "We were given three shift programs to choose from," he tells us, "and we went with the most aggressive setup — more aggressive than even the European model."
The R32's suspension settings have been carried over from Europe with no changes. Spring rates and damper settings were just slightly retuned to compensate for the added weight of the larger engine and all-wheel-drive system, but careful attention has been paid to the setup so as not to compromise ride quality. Standard 18-inch wheels and tires provide the grip while the front brake discs are more than an inch larger than those of the GTI.
The 4Motion all-wheel-drive system is the same featured in the previous R32. Its Haldex center differential continually distributes torque to the front and rear wheels in varying degrees depending on conditions.
Crossing the Alps
Winding our way up a set of switchbacks in an Alpine pass not far from Lake Como, the R32 proves capable if not nimble. Negotiating one of the numerous hairpins is a matter of getting on the brakes late, snapping off a downshift with the shift paddle mounted on the steering wheel, dialing in about three-quarters of a turn on the wheel and matting the throttle on the way out. Then repeat. Then repeat again.
There's not enough power to get the tires loose and the electromechanical steering isn't overly fast, so there are no worries about getting the R32 crossed up like a rally car. When we go too deep into a corner, the R32 understeers until we scrub off enough speed to get our line right again. When we dive in a little early, the all-wheel-drive system simply yanks the nose around until we're headed in the right direction.
Even with the R32's optional all-season Dunlop SP Sport tires, there's plenty of grip. That's probably why the stability control rarely intrudes, but with guardrails as spindly as sprinkler pipes, we're not exactly pushing the limits.
The R32 feels more comfortable when the hairpins turn into sweeping bends. It rolls a little, settles in midcorner and sticks without needing any steering adjustment. Road feel is excellent for an electrically assisted steering system, and the thick rim of the steering wheel isn't bad either.
If there's anything that could use work, it's the Sport program for the DSG's shift schedule. It feels nervous, dropping a gear when we don't need one and often doing so with a clunk. Soon we simply leave the DSG in its normal mode for the rest of the trip and never miss the quicker shifts Sport mode promises.
No Autobahn Required
Once out of the mountains, the wide-open autobahn through Austria begs for a top-speed run, but unlike its German counterpart this road has an 80-mph speed limit and the police are very aggressive. Although smooth and silent on the highway, the R32 isn't brutally fast. In fact, Volkswagen claims only 6.4 seconds to 60 mph, a tenth slower than the 2004 R32.
At this point, however, we don't mind much. Unlike some of its competitors, the R32 feels equally at home while cruising on straight roads as it does blasting through canyons. Seats borrowed from the GTI grip well without forcing you to climb into them, and when you look around the well-appointed cabin, it doesn't feel like all the money went into the engine bay.
The engine-turned aluminum accents are unique, and of course there's some obligatory "R32" badging. Nearly all of the GTI's optional equipment is standard, and the $1,800 DVD-based navigation system is the only option that'll cost you extra. (Even the all-season tires are free if you choose them.) The R32 starts at $32,990, so with the navigation, you're looking at nearly $35,000.
Do You Really Want To Have It?
Paying more than $30,000 for what is essentially a top-of-the-line Rabbit isn't an easy sell. But with only 5,000 headed our way and a good chunk of those already spoken for, the 2008 Volkswagen R32 is clearly aimed at a specific customer.
Caught between a BMW 328i on one hand and a Mitsubishi Evo on the other, the R32 occupies a very small niche in the market. More like a splinter, really. It's like a GT car stripped to a core of function and practicality, a compact long-distance car with high-tech engineering.
Considering its downmarket hatchback profile, it seems as if it costs more than it should. Then again, the R32 also does more than it should, too. For the right kind of driver, the R32 won't seem quite so expensive, and he'll be glad to own it every time he drives through a tunnel.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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