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First Test: 2004 Volkswagen R32

Best of Breed: VW finally recognizes, and rewards, the passion of loyal American enthusiasts

Greg N. Brown
Apr 8, 2003
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0305_01z+2004_Volkswagen_R32+Front_Drivers_Side_View_Burnout Photo 1/6   |   First Test: 2004 Volkswagen R32

Imagine having access to Volkswagen's enormous parts bins, a team of engineers and a Golf. Imagine being able to buy that dream. Well, imagine no longer. The R32 is coming to America. When it goes on sale late this summer, it will be the most expensive Golf ever sold here--expect an MSRP around $28,000--but it will also be the most sophisticated and well-equipped VW hatch ever to hit our streets. And what does all that boil down to? After I drove the R32 at VW's test track in Germany and on winding California back roads, it's clear this is the best all-around Volkswagen ever sold here.

0305_02z+2004_Volkswagen_R32+Engine_View Photo 2/6   |   First Test: 2004 Volkswagen R32

The R32's alpha-numeric nomenclature (don't call it a Golf) is unique in the VW pantheon for a reason--the specially tuned 3.2-liter six-cylinder engine under the hood. It's based on the same six used in the entry-level Phaeton luxury sedan, but in the R32 it exhibits a very different personality. It's not a suave boulevardier, instead, the R32's 3.2 rumbles and roars with an authoritative voice we've longed to hear from VW's sport models.

0305_03z+2004_Volkswagen_R32+Interior_View_Front_Cabin Photo 3/6   |   First Test: 2004 Volkswagen R32

Rated at 241 bhp, this upsized version of VW's 2.8-liter six is most rewarding in the robust transfer of that power. The peak of 236 lb-ft continues flat from 2800 rpm through 3200 rpm, and it yanks the car forward with grin-inducing gumption. Similar in design to VW's narrow-angle 2.8-liter six, the 3.2 was enlarged in both bore (from 81 to 84mm) and stroke (from 90.3 to 95.9mm). The increased displacement was accompanied by an entirely reworked intake system, beginning with improved flow in the plastic, variable-intake manifold and to the ports in the cylinder head, and the entrance to the ports was elevated slightly to minimize deflection of intake flow. Revised, larger cross-sections on both the intake and exhaust sides are augmented by larger diameter intake valves and newly configured valve seat inserts. The two camshafts are continuously adjustable--through 52 degrees for the intake side and 22 degrees for the exhaust cam; the valves are actuated by roller rocker fingers with hydraulic clearance compensation; and each cylinder has its own ignition coil and knock control. The compression ratio is 11.3:1 compared to the 2.8-liter's 10.6:1, which should keep the knock sensors working overtime dealing with our lousy gasoline.

0305_04z+2004_Volkswagen_R32+Wheel_View Photo 4/6   |   First Test: 2004 Volkswagen R32

Our testing at California Speedway was performed on a relatively green engine, so we expect the numbers to improve over time: We measured a 6.5-sec. time from 0 to 60 mph, 2.7 sec. from 30 to 50 mph and 2.1 sec. from 50-70 mph. The quarter mile, conducted with mild, drivetrain-protecting launches, was run in an average of 14.8 sec. at 94 mph. These aren't world-shaking numbers, but the R32 is extremely accomplished at making the engine's power work to best effect. The objective "truth" of the performance data is simply overwhelmed by the pleasure of driving the car.

0305_05z+2004_Volkswagen_R32+Passenger_Side_View Photo 5/6   |   First Test: 2004 Volkswagen R32

On its way to the ground, the engine's output passes a through a six-speed manual transmission, 4Motion four-wheel-drive system and 18-in. alloys ribboned with 40-series performance tires. Few of the horses get lost in the journey, and the R32 feels up to any challenge during normal, sporty driving.


0305_06z+2004_Volkswagen_R32+Front_Drivers_Side_View Photo 6/6   |   First Test: 2004 Volkswagen R32

Available only as a two-door, the R32 represents the pinnacle of VW's MkIV platform, plus it hints strongly at what's to come with the new Golf V, due here in a couple of seasons. It also indicates that, under new boss Piechetsrieder, VW has finally recognized the American market as a viable environment for its high-performance variants.

The sales goal of 5,000 cars seems a certainty, especially when the list of standard equipment is considered: Apart from the big six-cylinder engine, the most significant is the four-wheel drive, a Haldex unit similar to the one in the Audi TT. The combination of four-wheel-drive and V6 power makes the R32 unique in the Golf's segment, and it's also the first four-wheel-drive Golf sold in America.

The 4Motion system, which applies power front or rear as needed, is augmented by standard ABS, EBD (electronic brake force distribution) and, most importantly, ESP (electronic stability program and its built-in brake assist). These systems combine to provide the sort of grip that lets flies walk upside down on the ceiling, and it's all done without a hint of fussiness. Even at full chat through the canyons, the R32 felt securely bound to the earth. Understeer is the prevailing attitude, but this is a VW with enough beans to get the rear end to work around the bends. Resizing the anti-roll bars from the stock 23mm front and 19mm rears would surely help turn-in.

The fully independent suspension is also Audi TT. Up front are MacPherson struts and lower wishbones; at the rear is a multi-link system with forged dual-link trailing arm suspension. As it's mounted on a subframe and connected to the running gear with rubber vibration dampers, there's good suppression of road noise.

Also sourced from the TT is a higher ratio rack-and-pinion steering system. As with most recent Audi racks, there's some on-center numbness that slightly detracts from an otherwise well-weighted wheel. However, its quicker rate is welcome when the next corner comes up as fast as it does in the R32.

The running gear is a truly serious kit: 18-in. "Aristo" alloy wheels wrapped by 225/40ZR-18 high-performance radials. Under the spokes reside beefy four-wheel ventilated disc brakes, the fronts 13.14-in. units from the Passat W8 and the rears 10.07 inchers from the TT. During our test session at California Speedway, we recorded excellent average stopping distances from 60 to 0 mph of 115 ft. Brake pedal sensitivity, however, isn't so exemplary when you're furiously pedaling on a twisty road, becoming a little mushy in feel. On the other hand, the standard xenon headlamps (with washers) are perfect for extending the car's reach into the bends when you play in the dark.

The cabin is typical VW, ergonomically sound with high-quality materials, though with some striking differences from the other Golfs, including brushed aluminum trim and R logos scattered throughout. Also standard are heated sports seats (by Koenig), which have integrated headrests for the first time in a VW; a three-spoke leather-covered steering wheel exclusive to the R32; electronically controlled A/C; an eight-speaker stereo; a multi-function display; and rain-sensing wipers.

Still, despite the rich technology and the well appointed cabin, the R32 looks so much like its siblings that only VW motorheads will immediately appreciate the car's singular styling. The most obvious touches are the three large intakes in the deep front bumper/spoiler and the large, wheelwell-filling alloys and performance rubber. Other R32 distinctions include revised sills, a subtle spoiler along the rear roofline, blue-painted calipers and a 20mm lower stance. It's a far more conservative look than many aftermarket kits, but there's a solid, forceful "presence" at work in the aesthetics. Of course, hatches are hatches, and the U.S. market has never warmed to that body style, but given the layouts of the many "crossover" vehicles hitting the showrooms, the Golf's combination of small on the outside and big on the inside should get more attention. The Asian competition might look swoopier, but none pack the level of utility into their bodyshells as does VW.

The R32 held my entirely entertained attention for an afternoon of blasting up and down canyon roads while filming a segment of our new TV show on TNN, "Super 2NRTV." There's a satisfying rumble at idle that hints at good things to come, and they come quite quickly. By 3000 rpm, the muscles of the 3.2 are fully flexed, and the tach needle sweeps quickly toward the 7000-rpm cutoff. Unfortunately, because of the tranny's short gearing, especially in second, the fully committed driver runs out of revs too quickly and has to find a higher gear before it's really wanted.

However, whatever quibbles I have with the R32 are minor. The motoring is simply unlike anything we've yet experienced from Wolfsburg. And it also shows the direction VW needs to take in order to grow to be a significant force in North America. So much technology has been available within the VAG empire that its absence in the U.S. was becoming a critically sore point, especially with younger buyers. The R32 is exactly the kind of car to bring much needed excitement to VW's American showrooms.

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By Greg N. Brown
57 Articles

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