Good, clean dirty fun with VW’s scary R32 racer
One of the things they don’t show after beating the living hell out of one of those high performance cars in the big auto magazines is the exact effect that, let us say, “competitive” driving might have on such a machine.In the case of the astoundingly athletic Volkswagen R32, a day of thrashing on remarkably curvy and happily unpopulated roads in a nearby county, back in the fall, left a Mount St. Helens eruption-styled plume of tire and brake residue plastered to the beautiful 18-inch wheels and all along the sides of the body. We suspected that the brake discs themselves were also occasionally hot enough to light a cigarette.Then again, the big car mags also never show their test vehicles doing anything more weather-sensitive than sitting around in a dry lakebed outside of Los Angeles, so who knows what their cars look like after they put them through their paces.We were happy to test all of that out ourselves in the R32, as will anyone lucky enough to actually purchase a 2008 R32, limited to a worldwide production run of just 5,000. These little automobiles, essentially a super-sport rendition of the current model Rabbit, are fast, athletic and certainly geared more toward the weekend racer crowd than daily drivers – but can still pull off comfortable civilian duty when begrudgingly asked to do so.By maniacally blending Volkswagen’s smallest, most pedestrian platform with a 250-horsepower VR6 engine, 4-Motion all-wheel drive and a six-speed, dual-clutch direct shift gearbox transmission with wheel-mounted paddles, you get a cumulative effect that is quite fearsome, to say the least.From the shrill braaapping noises of the exhaust under a full-throttle takeoff to the effervescent whine of a gear held into an explosive rev zone for some spirited backcountry twists of pavement, the R32’s sounds alone, ported through a pair of center-mounted pipes, are freakin’ awesome. The R32 is mighty speedy but not exactly Corvette/911 scary fast from a standstill and takes an awfully long time to get up to V-max (YouTube features a number of Autobahn adventures of the vehicle and its previous kinfolk happily cruising along at about 170 mph, which I would assume takes about 10 miles of full throttle to reach – I believe the 2008 is actually electronically limited to 155, as well), but suffice to say that it will still haul along in an impressive fashion.When pushed into the curves, the car’s spirit really begins to shine. The all-wheel drive system imparts a driver with nearly superhuman abilities to corner way, way beyond the scope of traditional vehicles (ultra-sticky high-performance summer tires on dry pavement, during my “Road and Track”-styled test drive, although the AWD system and appropriate wintertime tires will still make for some snow-season fun and safety – I saw another R32 while tooling around in the snow last weekend so I know they’re not just made for the Southern California car market).Steering is completely intuitive and understeer practically a non-issue; massive brakes and electronic brake-pressure distribution allow for the confident, gigantic de-acceleration necessary when re-integrating with other members of the road-going public.It takes a while to organically adjust to the DSG transmission. While the car initially seems more suited for a stick, VW’s DSG system and its paddles can crack off gear changes in the wink of an eye and can be done at full throttle, allowing you to instead concentrate on forward motion. Traditionalists can switch the console-mounted shift column into Tiptronic mode and up- and downshift that way, to their heart’s content. You can also go fully automatic and let the car do the thinking for you (doing so in “sport” mode holds the gears uncomfortably long for true combat-styled driving). Play around with the combination of styles to find one that works for you.A secret “launch mode” (car in Sport setting, stability controls turned off) allows you to run up the revs with the brakes on and get a bit of extra wheel spin, but not tire-roasting takeoffs. I preferred instead to simply floor the aluminum gas pedal and enjoy the traditional yowling commotion as the R32 rockets away.From an aesthetics perspective, about the only people the car will really, really excite are highway competitors in their Mitsubishi Evos or WRX STIs – the R32 is much like a standard-looking Rabbit, albeit outfitted with larger wheels, a customized face and a brushed aluminum grill surround, plus bi-xenon headlamps – but still very cool indeed. The rear wheels seem practically flush with the back bumper, and despite a 101.5 inch wheelbase, the low-to-the-ground standard ride can be a bit bumpy.The interior is spartan but, given the R32’s heritage and power potential, there’s a chance you’ll be ripping out the carpets and installing a roll-cage for weekend racing, so that’s not much of an issue. Clean and simple standard Rabbit finishings are brightened a bit with polished aluminum trim; otherwise it’s a lot of texturized black plastic, black leather and very large gauges. The dash-mounted navigation system might have been more effective if a previous test driver had not decided to make off with the DVDs depicting the United States – we pondered a weekend drive to Romania (they’d left the Europe disc behind) but opted instead to turn off the system and instead enjoy the premium sound system, complete with an auxiliary plug in the glove box and what appeared to be a dedicated slot for an iPod Nano under the center console armrest.Seating is somewhat less orthopedic and fighter jet ejection seat-inspired than the previous R32, but the heated front saddles are still very stiff, deeply bolstered and race oriented, and two hours seemed to be about the recommended daily dose. Rear seating is also quite reasonable and well-suited for those days when you want to take the in-laws along and demonstrate your drifting skills.
Price as tested: $35,430Mechanics: 250 horsepower 3.2 liter VR6 engine with six-speed DSG automatic transmission and Tiptronic mode, 4-Motion all-wheel driveStated mileage: 18 city, 23 highwayIncludes: 18-inch alloy wheels, leather sport seating, dual-zone AC system, 6-disc CD changer, Tiptronic paddles, remote keyless locking, blue painted brake calipers, auxiliary music input jack(s)
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