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2008 Volkswagen R32 test drive

More isn't necessarily better

About.com Rating 2.5 Star Rating

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2008 Volkswagen R32 left-front view

2008 Volkswagen R32

Photo © Aaron Gold

What do the Guide Rating stars mean?

Back in 2004, Volkswagen built a limited run of 5,000 R32s for the US market. The original R32 was a hot-rod version of the Golf (now Rabbit) hatchback, with a six-cylinder engine and all-wheel drive. For 2008, the VW R32 is back in the US (sorry, Canada, no R32s for you) with more power and a new transmission -- but, again, only 5,000 copies will be sold. So is it worth rushing to your neighborhood VW dealer to get one? Read on. $33,630 base, $35,430 as tested, EPA fuel economy estimates 18 MPG city, 23 MPG highway.

First Glance: The Vee-Dub we've been waiting for

Larger photos: Front - rear

Volkswagen introduced the current version of the R32 in Europe in 2006. As with many of the world's coolest cars, there were initially no plans to sell the R32 in the United States. Fortunately, VW relented and decided to send 5,000 R32s to our shores, specially configured for the US market. I'm not a VW enthusiast per se, but the GTI (and, by extension, the Jetta GLI) is one of my favorite sporty cars, and the R32 is a GTI turned up to 11 (and with a price turned up to over $33k, about $10,000 more than the GTI). I'd also gotten a sneak-peak at a European-spec R32, and thought it was just amazing. Needless to say, I was really looking forward to seeing the US-spec version of the car.

So now I've seen it. And driven it. And I have to be honest... I'm a bit underwhelmed.

For starters, my test car was red. Now, anyone in his or her right mind knows that the only proper color for an R32 is blue (link goes to photo). (Things could have been worse -- the R32 is also available in white and grey. Yawn.) The R32 features unique wheels with blue-painted brake calipers. Out back, the R32 sports twin exhaust pipes at the center of the car -- by far its coolest styling detail. Up front there's a silver-painted grille, which looks an awful lot like the chrome schnoz on the Jetta, Passat and Eos. Compare the R32 to its little brother, the GTI, with its blacked-out red-striped grille. Park them side-by-side, and the GTI is the one that looks like a proper performance car. The R32 looks like a glorified Rabbit.

In the Driver's Seat: Coach accommodations at a business-class price

2008 Volkswagen R32 interior left

Look familiar? Interior of the R32 is nearly identical to that of the Rabbit -- which costs half as much

Photo © Aaron Gold

Larger interior photos: Left - right

The R32's visual identity crisis continues inside; the interior is standard Rabbit/GTI fare -- compare these pics of the Rabbit's interior with the R32's interior. Sure, the R32 gets a few dress-up touches like a flat-bottomed steering wheel (oops, the GTI has that too), "R" logo foot pedals, patterned metal trim, and slightly different gauges. But the plastic of which the dash and interior panels are made is no better than what you get in a $16k Rabbit. At least you get leather, though American buyers don't get the fancy Recaro bucket seats found in European-market R32s -- we get a sport seat similar to the GTI's but with an embroidered "R" logo. For 33 grand, I expect better accommodations.

That said, having a Rabbit interior isn't all bad; the Rabbit is an exceptionally practical car, with lots of room in front, decent space in the back seat, and an easy-to-load cargo bay. All that holds true for the R32.

The R32 boasts the latest in VW's line of stupendously bad iPod adapters. This one mounts the iPod in a holder between the seats, which is nice. But the interface sucks -- the stereo treats the iPod like a CD changer, and you can only access the first five playlists. And since the stereo doesn't display the names (only CD1, CD2, etc., like this), I had to remember which was which. You can skip the lousy interface by using the regular auxiliary cable input -- but the input jack is in the glovebox, so if you want to select songs right from your device, you have to drive around with the glovebox open. Heads you lose, tails you lose.

On the Road: Much better than GTI, but missing a pedal

VW aficionados will no doubt argue that the R32 isn't about styling or accommodations. No, you're paying for better hardware -- so how does it work on the road, and how does it compare to the GTI?

Well, the R32 basically solves all the GTI's problems. It has a 250 horsepower six-cylinder engine in place of the GTI's 200 hp turbo four, so there's no waiting for power -- there's always plenty on tap, even if the revs are low, which makes it feel faster than the GTI (though it's actually only a tad quicker to 60 MPH). The R32 has all-wheel-drive instead of the GTI's front-wheel-drive, so there's no corner-exit wheelspin; get on the gas and the R32 fires out of the turns. In terms of handling balance, the R32 responds like a well-behaved GTI -- it understeers gently, much like a front-driver. The ride isn't great, though; it's firm enough to become uncomfortable on the freeway, but it doesn't control body motions well enough on bumpy, curvy roads.

But the R32's biggest sin is the transmission. The R32 comes exclusively with VW's Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) automatic -- you can't get it with a stick-shift. On paper, DSG is superior; it has the guts of a manual and changes gears way faster than a human can. Back in Europe, the DSG-equipped R32 gets to 60 MPH a third of a second quicker than the stick. Still, in the real world, proper sports cars have manual transmissions. That's just the way the universe works. DSG is nice on a racetrack, but on an open road it makes the car less involving to drive -- paddle shifters are no substitute for a clutch pedal and gear lever.

Journey's End: Not enough for what you pay

2008 Volkswagen R32 left rear view

2008 VW R32: Love those twin tailpipes at the rear

Photo © Aaron Gold

Here we have one of those great paradoxes of the motoring world. The R32 is essentially an improved GTI. The GTI is a great car, but the R32 -- even though it does everything better -- isn't. Between the lack of a manual transmission and the lack of visual differentiation from other Volkswagens, I don't see how VW can justify the R32's price. I'm sure they'll have no problem selling all 5,000 cars -- but if this were a regular-production model, I bet they wouldn't be able to sell too many more than that.

What baffles me is why VW isn't offering the R32 with a manual transmission. Granted, 9 out of 10 cars sold in the US are automatics -- but if you gathered a bunch of VW fans in one room, I bet you'd find a much higher percentage of stick-shifters than the national average. I've had the chance to drive a European-spec R32 with a 6-speed stick, and there's no comparison -- it's way more fun. Not offering a manual in the US-spec R32 is a major mistake.

What seals the deal for the R32 is Subaru's new Impreza WRX. With 224 hp and 226 lb-ft of torque, it trails the R32 by just 26 hp and 10 lb-ft. Its all-wheel-drive system gives it excellent grip with a lighter, better-balanced feel. It's even available as a hatchback. It's not as exciting to look at, but it's way better to drive -- plus its more than eight and half grand cheaper.

If you must have a Volkswagen, then get the GTI. You'll save $10k and while you may not be able to beat an R32 in a race, you'll have a heck of a lot more fun. -- Aaron Gold

Next page: Likes/dislikes, who should buy it, details and specs

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