Rather than using outlandish styling gimmicks like hood scoops
and giant rear wings, the fast and agile Volkswagen R32 looks remarkably similar to the
inexpensive VW Golf economy car. These subtle changes only hint at the racecar-like
capability of this $29,000 high-performance machine.
Volkswagen executives must have looked at the Subaru WRX and
Mitsubishi Evolution before coming to a conclusion: "We want one of those!" And
who can blame 'em? The WRX and Evo are two of the hottest cars on the road, with
frighteningly powerful engines, grippy all-wheel drive and suspensions that make them
corner like slot cars.
To match those Japanese hot rods Volkswagen started with the
tried-and-true Golf body, and added enough performance upgrades to make it feel more like
a racecar than a commuter vehicle. In fact, there were so many changes that VW decided to
drop the Golf name and call it the R32 - R as in racing, and 32 as in a big, 3.2-liter V6
under the hood. More on that later.
Unlike the competition from Subaru and Mitsubishi, the R32 doesn't
resort to cheesy styling gimmicks like exaggerated hood scoops and monster spoilers that
loom over the trunk. Instead, it relies on very subtle aerodynamic changes to improve
downforce and engine cooling efficiency.
Volkswagen says the R32 was freshly designed, but the basic Golf
shape is obvious. It only has different bumpers, a larger grille opening, different side
skirts, a small rear spoiler, and darkened taillights. The biggest and best-looking change
is that of dual exhaust pipes in back.
Inside the R32 uses high-back bucket seats with supportive side
bolsters designed to hold you in place in high-speed corners. It also comes with alloy
pedals, a leather shift knob, redesigned instrument cluster, three-spoke steering wheel,
and plenty of badges to remind you what kind of car you're driving. Despite the striking
family resemblance to the Golf, the R32 is no economy car - not even close.
To start with, this lightweight body has a monster powerplant.
Volkswagen took a high-output version of its six-cylinder VR6 engine and squeezed it into
the little R32, giving it a ridiculous 240 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque. It's
enough to reach 60 miles per hour in a neck-snapping 6.2 seconds.
Next VW added its all-wheel-drive system called 4Motion. Not only
does it help when the roads are slick, but it also gives the car very neutral and
predictable handling at the limit.
Finally, engineers re-worked the Golf's aging rear suspension into a
fully independent design, one that allows a crisp, precise feel without riding too harsh
over bumps. Throw in a six-speed manual transmission, and you've got one radical VW Golf.
So how does it drive? I've never ridden on a rocket, but I bet it
feels something like this crazy Volkswagen. Acceleration is phenomenal. Stomp on the gas
in any gear, and the R32 surges ahead with confidence. It has the kind of speed and
agility that make you want to zip through traffic and race from every stoplight.
Better yet, it has the kind of real-world drivability that both the
Mitsubishi and Subaru lack. While both those cars have rock-hard suspensions that can
rattle your spine, the VW's ride is surprisingly supple for such a race-tuned suspension.
It corners beautifully and it doesn't make you pay for it with trips to the chiropractor.
Assuming you can live with the inherent comfort issues in a
high-performance compact car, there are only a couple of downsides. First, it
doesn't stand out. While VW's designers should be applauded for avoiding the outlandish
boy-racer look that plagues many sport-compact cars, they nevertheless should have done
something to improve the Golf's boring hatchback shape.
And finally, the R32's $29,100 starting price is too high. Sure,
it's amazingly fast, but VW demanding that much cash for a souped-up Golf seems just plain
arrogant, especially considering the basic Golf starts under $16,000.
That said, the R32 is an impressive machine. It shows that
Volkswagen can compete head-to-head with the headline-grabbing screamers from Japan,
meeting - and in some cases even exceeding - their lofty performance standards.
Why buy it? Boy, oh boy, is this thing fast! A high-output V6 engine
coupled with a slick six-speed transmission makes it one of the quickest cars around, and
the all-wheel drive helps handling too.