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Raves: VR6 torque and blatty exhaust note, catcher’s-mitt seats, the manners of a Saxon duke.
Rants: Same Golf shape; have you seen the bottom line?
PHOENIX, Ariz. — Maybe it’s fitting that we’re driving it out here in the desiccating desert, because Volkswagen’s long-lived current Golf continues to defy retirement age. While Toyota’s introduced a whole new division of fresh-faced wheels designed to appeal to not-even-twentysomethings, the original hot hatch still awaits its next ground-up redo here. Europe already has the new Golf — but here in the States we’ll wait another year to see the latest scion of the VW empire.
Before then, you’ll see the better-off rocketeers careening around corners in the R32, the most powerful Golf to be sold here yet and the advanced delivery system for a new VR6 engine. It’s a very special edition of the Golf, and though that sounds like one of the worse installments of Friends, in the Golf’s case it’s even better than supersized episodes. Because with 240 hp, all-wheel drive and a six-speed manual gearbox, this is a Golf you’d play against Tiger Woods and his Buicks any day.
Torqueing it up
The R32 isn’t built alongside other Golfs (which for the U.S. would mean Brazil) — it’s put together in Bratislava, Slovakia, alongside the Touareg and the Porsche Cayenne. It’s the first VW of its size to offer 4Motion all-wheel drive, and, VW hopes, a reasonable competitor to the likes of the 271-hp Mitsu Evo and 300-hp Subaru WRX STi.
But where the Evo and WRX rely on turbo fours to scorch the face of the planet, the Golf uses a narrow-angle VR6 engine to spin the R32 into glory. You remember the VR6, right? VW introduced it in 1992 in the Corrado SLC with 175 hp. Along the way it gained two additional valves per cylinder and graced VWs like the Jetta GLI and GTI VR6 in 200-hp form.
What makes the R32 sizzle in highway merges and track hairpins alike is the power delivery. The VR6 sports a flat torque curve down low — from 2800 to 3400 rpm — and the six-speed makes perfect use of every pound-foot. Better yet the new VR6 has a specially tuned exhaust that resonates with the fine frequencies of a Led Zeppelin CD — it’s all rock and roll coming out of the back end.
The VR6’s charms are coupled to 4Motion, VW’s all-wheel-drive system. Well, that’s the brand name — underneath it’s a Haldex system (think Volvo) that lets the R32 run with 100 percent of the power on the front wheels until slip happens. When it does, the Haldex setup can send up to 50 percent to the rear wheels. It’s grafted to the time-tested Golf suspension, a MacPherson strut setup in the front, trailing arms in the rear, though here the suspension is lowered by one inch versus the GTI.
Talk about princely behavior: on Phoenix’s Firebird Raceway, the R32 wasn’t unflappable, it was playful. Charge into a corner under power, then lift the throttle just a bit, and the rear end rotates just a little as it drops power. Then goose the gas again and the Haldex coupling connects again, giving you back road supremacy that the Goodyear 18-inch tires are more than capable of handling. Those 225/40 18-inch tires encircle stylish O.Z. Aristo 15-spoke wheels and larger front and rear brakes than VW fits on the GTI.
Capable as it is, the R32 has its limits. And for those occasions, the interior is fitted with about as many protective devices as they could fit inside the smallish five-passenger interior: eight airbags (dual fronts, side curtains front and back and front thorax airbags) are standard, as are anti-lock brakes, electronic brake distribution and Electronic Stability Program, which you’ll want to turn off for any sporting driving — and back on when you hand the keys to inexperienced drivers.
Spotting the R32 is a simple affair. Both the front and rear spoilers have been reshaped; the front’s a Leno-sized affair with three deep inlets and R32 badging flanking the left headlamp, while the rear end is punctuated by dual exhausts. Side skirts, smoked taillamps and a hatch-topping spoiler add to the R32’s signature styling.
The grand total for this grand powertrain, stuffed into the cozy confines of the Golf and fused with all-wheel drive, comes to $29,675. Like the limited-edition Evo and WRX, the most special Golf doesn’t come cheap. Volkswagen plans to import 5000 R32s, all 2004 models.
2004 Volkswagen R32
Base Price: $29,675
Engine: 3.2-liter VR6, 240 hp/236 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual, all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 164.4 x 68.3 x 56.1 in
Wheelbase: 99.1 in
Curb weight: 3409 lb
EPA fuel economy (city/hwy): 19/26 mpg
Safety equipment: Front airbags, side and curtain airbags, anti-lock brakes, electronic brake force distribution, brake assist
Major standard equipment: Automatic climate control, power windows/locks/mirrors, Monsoon audio system with CD, power sunroof, 18-inch O.Z. Aristo wheels
Warranty: Four years/50,000 miles