09/07/04 — R32 plays fast and furious music

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R32 plays fast and furious music

Volkswagen R32 (2004)

Small tossable cars were always intriguing to us. And years ago we were befuddled because manufacturers didn’t put more horsepower in the little guys.

That was back in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Change was on the way in 1983 when Volkswagen endowed its square-box hatchback Rabbit with a bigger engine and stiffer suspension and called it the GTI.

Volkswagen R32, 2004

We hustled down to the Volkswagen store to test drive a GTI, which was motivated by a 1.8-liter fuel-injected 4-cylinder engine generating 90 horsepower.

It felt good, handled like a slot car and was relatively fast, weighing in at just over 2,000 pounds. But it didn’t win us over. Two years later we decided that the best pocket rocket — a label attached to these quick little motorized gems — was the Honda CRX Si. So that was our ride for the next three years.

Volkswagen dropped the Rabbit name in 1985 in favor of Golf. The Golf carried on with the GTI edition gaining tweaks here and horsepower there.

The GTI got a bigger 4-cylinder, and in 1995 was endowed with Volkswagen’s amazing narrow-angle V-6, called the VR-6. It became a true hotrod gaining 200 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque.

That should be enough muscle power to satisfy anyone with a bent for performance in a small car. And it should be enough for a guy who oohed and awed over 90 horsepower some 20 years ago.

Right?

If you answered in the affirmative, then you haven’t paid attention to the horsepower wars that are currently being waged across the automobile spectrum.

Volkswagen has slipped behind the Subaru WRX Sti, the Mitsubishi Evolution and the Dodge Neon SRT-4. All come with prodigious horsepower ranging from the Neon’s 234 ponies to the Sti’s 300 horses.

Can someone say, whoa, enough is enough.

When the snowball gets rolling down hill... well, you get the idea.

And Volkswagen could not afford to remain with the status quo. It invented the R32 from the same sub-compact Golf three-door hatch while keeping the attractive 200-horsepower GTI, a somewhat more affordable format, in the lineup.

What this means is a bigger pricetag as well as increased horsepower and torque. Never has the Golf been endowed with so much ferocity.

What it meant for us was a week of exciting driving. We were not happy to see this one leave the driveway.

The new R32, motivated by a 3.2-liter VR-6 generating 240 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque, is not as fast in a straight line as the WRX Sti or the Evo.

But it’s plenty fast and it’s just as much fun, especially on the twisties where, while it might not eat the Subaru’s lunch, it will probably put the WRX’s headlights in the rearview mirror.

Standard all-wheel drive — called 4Motion in the Volkswagen — together with a lowered sport-tuned suspension riding on 18-inch 225/40 Goodyear performance tires give this little hatchback a stuck-like-glue feeling on the sweeps.

Steering is point and shoot giving the driver the confidence to dart in and out of traffic as the need arises.

And what a wonderful tune the engine plays while going fast through the gears. Who needs a stereo system with an engine that plays this kind of song? Roll down the windows and open the sunroof.

At low rpms, the engine has a slight low-bass rumble, but as the rpms advance it turns to the sound of a race car on a road course as the throaty rasp grows with each gear.

It’s exhilarating, intoxicating, elevating. With the engine melody and exhaust note flying to the brain an adrenaline rush is guaranteed.

The R32 will rocket from a standstill to 60 miles per hour in about 6 seconds. That’s fast, indeed. While the Evo and Sti can approach 5 seconds for the same task, the R32 feels as good.

It is particularly adept at slingshoting across an intersection or through a just-changing green light, say from 20 to 40 miles per hour in second gear. (Watch out for those red light cameras.}

Talk about being pressed back into your seat.

This is all accomplished through a very slick-shifting 6-speed manual transmission.

When you go fast, it’s nice to be able to stop fast. The R32 comes with four-piston brake calipers grabbing 13-inch front and 10-inch rear vented discs for an eye-popping stopping distance of 108 feet from 60 miles an hour as measured by a national automobile publication. That’s better than most super cars costing five and six times the price of the Volkswagen.

Nearly everything you might wish for is standard equipment in the R32 including wonderfully bolstered heated seats. In fact, about the only option is leather seating, which came with our test car.

Just so you know what you’re driving, the seats come with a big “R” insignia stitched into the backs.

Although the Golf has a useable back seat, it is not particularly accommodating for adults. The R32 is, indeed, more than a two-person sports car, but it’s not quite car enough to carry four adults on a regular basis. Leg room can be extremely tight if front-seaters need to push back more than halfway on the rails.

But it’s a useable cargo-carrying vehicle with fold-down rear seats and a hatch that will allow for the loading of a lot of cargo.

What you get is a more grown-up version of the turbocharged Japanese hotrods. There is no big wing in back, no hood scoop and few exterior decorations that proclaim “I’m bad and you better notice me.”

What you get beyond the outstanding equipment to go fast and stop quick is a great safety net. Standard equipment includes eight airbags including side curtains, antilock brakes, brake force distribution and Electronic Stability Control.

By the way, the stability control system can be turned off so as not to interfere with driving at the limits. Our advice — leave it on at all times. The limits may cost you a car and perhaps a life.

The R32 is not cheap. But it is worth every penny of its $29,675 pricetag. Standard equipment, in addition to the aforementioned performance and safety paraphernalia includes a nice-sounding Monsoon sound system, power windows and locks, power sunroof, remote entry and rain sensing wipers.

The only option on our test vehicle was leather seating at $950 bringing the total package to $30,624.

If you want one, check with your Volkswagen dealer soon. Only 5,000 copies will be sold in the United States.

We guarantee you will have a blast.

By Jim Meachen
Published in Car Reviews on September 7, 2004 2:41 PM