In a historical event unrecognized by many, the automotive world turned on its magnetic poles not long ago. Young folks rejected big cars, SUVs, minivans and trucks. They shifted their desires to customizing little import cars - Hondas, Toyotas, Mitsubishis, Nissans. Now, VW and others offer new cars to challenge the aftermarket-created fast and furious ones. The 2004 VW R32 is a case in point. Price: $29,100 base; as tested, $30,625. Warranty: 4 years/50,000 miles.
VW's hot little R32 looks like .. a Golf. It looks like a Golf that was bought by a young person who swapped out stale wheels for stylish 18-inch spoked ones, who wrapped them with summer performance tires, who lowered the car several inches, then painted it fire-engine red. And, by golly, that's what it is. It's a gussied-up Golf that rocketed right past the GTI model. It reminds me of .. the early 1990s. About that time, little road burners called "pocket rockets" hit the market. They didn't make the splash they've created today, but buyers could purchase a quick Nissan NX2000, a Toyota Paseo, a Mazda MX3, a VW Golf, a Honda CRX. Not enough buyers favored these cars for any to survive - except the VW. It hasn't changed all that much to the eye. It still looks boxy, in fact was boxy before Toyota even thought of the Scion. It sits low. The R32 has side skirts, a lowered front valance and wraparound rear bumper, and a little spoiler above the rear window. It's fully functional, with good head room and leg room. And if you don't bury your foot in the accelerator pedal, it can return 26 miles per gallon in highway travels. Not bad for a fire-breathing dragon that looks like a sheep and snarls like a wolf.
In the Driver's Seat
Open the door and you're greeted by some serious seats. Koenig sport seats, with huge side and thigh supports. You don't sit on these seats; you sit in them. The driver's thigh bolster is so close to the parking brake lever that you'll break a fingernail if you aren't careful while pulling the brake lever up. Buckle up and get ready to roll: Under the hood of the 2004 VW R32 is a 240-horsepower VR6 displacing 3.2 liters. It's coupled to a quick shifting six-speed manual transmission that sends power to all four wheels all the time. VW calls it 4Motion. Crank it up and .. zowee, the sounds! The exhaust noises are nothing like the dual glasspacks favored decades ago. These sounds are raspy, angry, popping and snarling like a swarm of angry wasps. The Maxwell House exhaust set will like the fact that there are dual exhausts on the 2004 VW R32. Twice as raspy. Interior trim uses metal accents to offset leather, and the pedals are metal with the signature "R" itched into them. The "R" is repeated on each of the car's four seats, and badging is used both front and rear. No mistaking this special speedster. There are front and side air bags for driver and front seat passenger, plus side head curtain bags. A sunroof is standard.
On the Road
For all the power in this little performer, it's the sound of the exhaust that leaves the greatest lasting impression. It's the sound of today's power. Not from a big V8, but from a high-revving little engine, in this case a V6. The sound urges a driver to go faster and faster, to rev higher (and I found that the R32 could rev past its 6,500 rpm redline limit!). Speed shifts can be done, but third gear was missed a few times on that quick upshift. The throw is short, almost like that in a Miata. The sound so entranced me that I never once listened to the Monsoon stereo system; I preferred the rasp. I even left the standard air conditioning off much of the time, preferring both windows down. You get the idea. It's a great sound for a driver. The self-dimming rear view mirror shows a problem with the 2004 VW R32 - the middle-rear-seat head restraint blocks the view through the rear window. Pull that sucker out. At night, the instruments are lit by blue light and needles are bathed in red. It's quite a show and the best color combination for night vision. A need to scrub power will be aided by standard anti-lock brakes.
This test driver is young only at heart. His generation modified V8 engines, thrilled to the racking sound of dual glasspacks under acceleration. His generation now has a difficult time understanding why any young performance enthusiast would want to put money in, say, a Honda Accord. But they do. Young people prefer these cars for practical reasons of economy, handling, and now, performance. This 2004 Volkswagen R32 can surprise many a more expensive car, including today's V8 models. It's quick - 0 to 60 in under six seconds, top speed of 153 mph - it's loud, it's look-at-me red. It hauls down from 60 mph in a short 108 feet. Overall, the surprise was how much fun it was to drive. It was never a chore and I looked for reasons to run an errand, or take a co-worker somewhere. But it has serious competition now, much as we had with early 1990's pocket rockets. Ford has a hot Focus; DaimlerChrysler offers the rip-roaring Dodge SRT-4; Subaru conquers with the WRX; Mitsubishi has a brutally fast EVO; Toyota's coming with the racy Corolla ERX. It's a tough group to run with and the R32 is overweight by peer standards, plus pricier than some. Maybe, like the Mustang did with pony cars, it will simply outlive all these competitors.