Posted on Wed, Nov. 28, 2007
New York Times News Service
For people who love hot hatchbacks -- love meaning you'd spend $34,000 on one -- the Volkswagen R32 will melt more than your wallet. Hearts, pavement, your resolve to stick to a budget -- all may dissolve during a polka with this limited-run VW.
First, I should explain what an R32 is. Only then will I try to justify its price. Start with a Rabbit -- nee Golf -- hatchback at $16,000 and change. Moving up, the 200-horsepower turbocharged GTI starts at $23,370. Released in 2006, that model restored the GTI's waning legend as a pocket Hercules.
The R32 takes a two-door GTI and adds all-wheel drive and a 250-horse V-6 that makes an especially joyful noise. The car isn't far removed from an Audi A3, sharing the four-door Audi's platform, its optional V-6 and its direct-shift gearbox. This acclaimed dual-clutch automated manual transmission delivers swifter and smoother gear changes than any rival automatic at any price.
Other performance extras include a muscled-up body (it's about 450 pounds heavier than the GTI) and stylish 18-inch wheels; a sport-tuned suspension; and sport seats. Only 5,000 R32s will be built for 2008, at $33,630 to start. My test car, with an $1,800 navigation system, was $35,430.
The test car looked terrific with its Candy White paint, saucy wheels and dual exhausts poking out the rear. It also holds four adults and is small enough to maneuver and park easily.
The R32 is one of those cars that you don't get until you drive it. Even passengers respond instinctively: Every person I drove with would settle into the body-hugging seats, hear the engine's rich growl and register the sharp handling before blurting out some version of, "Wow, this is really a great car."
It helps that the R32 is the goose-down, 400-thread-count pillow of hatchbacks, elegantly finished and stuffed with luxury. Standard fare includes heated leather seats, alloy interior trim and pedals, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, heated mirrors, dual-zone climate control, rain-sensing wipers and a premium audio system. Inside, the sole demerit is an awkward navigation and audio screen.
Mileage is poor -- even allowing for the thirstier V-6 and all-wheel drive, coming in 6 mpg below the GTI in both city and highway ratings. Added weight is largely the culprit: at 3,547 pounds, the R32 weighs 400 pounds more than the GTI. That's a lot for a car so small.
Like the previous R32 of 2004, the new model hums to 60 mph in about 6.4 seconds. That's quick, but you'll still want to duck down an alley when a bully in a Mitsubishi Evolution or Subaru WRX STI comes around.
Yet the VW is a blast, stout but nimble and unflaggingly composed. Its slick transmission works great in automatic or manual mode, the latter delivering eye-blink-fast shifts via steering-wheel paddles or the handsome console lever.
I'd rather drive the Evo or the STi for a day, but I'd rather own the VW. It is more grown-up and sophisticated, able to relax and cuddle if you're not in the mood for some hot asphalt love.
Sure, the R32 isn't much quicker than the GTI and starts $10,000 higher. Yet the cars look and feel distinct. With a loaded GTI more than $29,000, paying $5,000 extra for the V-6, all-wheel drive and hotter styling seems defensible.
Even limiting the conversation to German sport sedans, a lightly optioned BMW 328i, Mercedes C300 or Audi A4 -- all roomier and more prestigious -- can also be had for about the same price.
So that leaves serious hatchback freaks. How many are there? Raise those college-educated, callous-free hands: VW needs 5,000 people who see the R32 as the hottest hatch around and don't feel they're getting burned.
2008 Volkswagen R32
BODY STYLE: Compact all-wheel-drive performance hatchback
PRICE: $33,630 ($35,430 as tested) .
MECHANICS: 3.2-liter V-6 (250 horsepower, 236 pound-feet of torque); six-speed sequential transmission.
MILEAGE: The EPA estimates 18 mpg in town, 23 on the highway.