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Anyone with $30,000 in scratch can own a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo, or a Subaru WRX STi for that matter. But only 5000 people will get to hold the keys to a Volkswagen R32.
And that, to a great extent, is what makes the R32's big ticket price tag ($32,990) palatable. Or so VW hopes.
Take away the low production and you'd have a problem. Because while the R32's a hoot to drive — with a 250-hp 3.2-liter V-6, standard all-wheel drive and VW's trick dual-clutch Direct Shift Gearbox — it's neither as powerful nor as quick as other, less expensive import pocket rockets like the Evo and STi.
It's not even close, actually. The R32 can deliver 60 mph in 6.5 seconds. Quick enough to be fun, yes, but by the standards of today's sport/performance cars, it’s not all that spectacular. An '08 EVO (due in spring 2008) will obliterate the R32 in a drag race, with zero-to-60 capability reportedly in the sub-five-second range. The old 2007 Evo was also much quicker, and cost less, at about $27,000 for openers.
Then there's the upcoming WRX STi, another ferocious performer that packs 300 turbocharged and intercooled horsepower, likewise offers standard all-wheel drive and can bullet to 60 mph in under five seconds. That's 50 horsepower more than the R32 and almost a full second quicker for about $5000 less.
Grippy but heavy
As far as handling, while the R32 is plenty grippy, it's also plenty heavy and feels it. Curb weight with two people on board is close to 4000 pounds, shocking for something that's technically a compact. VW has done an admirable job of nailing down all that weight — stiff springs/struts and a low-down center of gravity combined with thick anti-roll bars and super low-profile 18-inch rubber can work miracles — but its presence cannot be completely masked. The R32 will corner but it doesn't feel as light on its feet as either the STi or the Evo. It is much happier stretching its legs on lightly-trafficked secondary roads where you can run 20 or 30 over the posted limit than it is working hard on tight S-turns at lower speeds.
Also, the R32's a coupe with limited access to the back seats. The extra pair of doors you get with the Evo and the STi can make a world of difference as far as daily driving goes.
One of the R32's main selling points, according to VW, is the DSG transmission. It's a combination of automatic and manual gearboxes, eliminating the need for the driver to handle any clutchwork. The driver can shift through the six forward gears manually via F1-style paddle shifters on the steering wheel or leave it in one of two automatic modes, normal and Sport. In Sport mode, shifts come harder and faster; the engine is kept in the sweet spot of its powerband and you won't see much of overdrive. In normal mode, shifts quiet down and the tranny gets you into fuel-saving
overdrive as soon as possible.
It's an impressive piece of engineering but one wonders about VW's decision not to offer a conventional six-speed manual with a driver-operated clutch in what is, after all, a high-performance sport compact. It's kind of like not offering power windows on the latest Lexus. It doesn't make much sense to me. The DSG works well and delivers snappy gear changes but as an enthusiast driver, I prefer to shift gears for myself. The absence of the choice is arguably a real liability for the R32.