Volkswagen R32: The V6-powered ´hot hatch´ comes to America

2008, Volkswagen, R32

BLUE BALL, Ark. -- We're strapped tight against the bolstered sport bucket in a cozy cockpit with hands pegged at three and nine on a padded steering wheel, feet tapping a jig across shiny aluminum pedals but eyes fixed squarely on the next bend on a squiggly ribbon of asphalt in the pine-clad Ouachita Mountains of western Arkansas.

Okay, the truth is we're ripping into illicit speeds while flying down a traffic-free course carved through an isolated valley on an undulating road with dips and rolls and of-so-fun strings of esses and sweepers.

Speed-rated summer tires -- 225/40R18 Michelin Pilot Exaltos wrapped around 10-spoke aluminum alloy wheels -- bond to the blacktop at all four posts, thanks to the Haldex 4Motion electronically controlled all-wheel-drive (AWD) system that keeps the rubber sticking securely to any road surface by continuously distributing the engine's power to every wheel.

And we've got so much power to play in this relatively lightweight machine, an aggressively-styled sports car cast in two-door hatchback coupe format off the chassis of a GTI VR6 by Volkswagen of Germany.

It's badged under the simple alphanumeric name of R32.

That's 'R' for Racing and '32' for the 3.2-liter displacement of a uniquely designed V6 engine.

If you can recognize the shape of VW's Rabbit, a best-seller around the world, then the R32 will look familiar, although it's slammed and sculpted like a pumped up bodybuilder binging on steroids.

Those big wheels fill up the wheelwells and seem even more exaggerated because VW chops the suspension to drop the body closer to the pavement. Also, there's a low-down aerodynamic fascia mounted up front with curvy skirts on flanks and a wrap-around low bumper in back.

The smooth face supports a center grille with horizontal slats flanking corner headlamp clusters containing bi-xenon high intensity discharge (HID) headlights and underscored by more ventilation strips.

At the lopped-off hatchback tail, a thick valence incorporates twin-lamp taillight assemblies wrapping around corners and a body-colored bumper punctuated by two center-mounted exhaust pipes tipped in chrome.

But the heart of this sporty car beats below its swoopy front hood, where VW engineers managed to stuff a rather large iron-block engine into tight quarters.

This is the VR6 plant displacing 3.2 liters with variable valve timing and the six cylinders zigzagging in concise rows angled only 15 degrees apart to save space.

It spools up to 250 hp at 6300 rpm with the torque of 236 lb-ft peaking at 2800 rpm.

Translator for all of this power is one versatile transmission -- a twin-clutch and six-speed DSG (Direct Shift Gearbox) Tiptronic automatic, which adds paddle shift tabs to the back side of the steering wheel's crossbar.

The DSG brings automatic no-need-to-think shifting if you choose, or the hands-on control of manual shifting with easy push-button precision from those paddle shift tabs and engine rev-matching too to smoothly drop into down-shifts.

We love to shift and normally gravitate toward a manual transmission. The DSG, however, is the only automated manual we've found that makes us reconsider that preference.

Engine and transmission work well together to hurl the R32 down the pike to a speed of 60 mph in a fraction over six seconds.

And operation of the 4Motion AWD system is automatic.

Normally, the system splits the torque, sending half to the front wheels and half to the rear. When wheels begin to spin on slippery pavement, though, the 4Motion device can instantly determine which wheels have grip and thus merit more of the engine's power to attain the best bite of traction.

Steering is quick and direct, due to the electro-mechanical rack and pinion steering system.

Take on a series of road bumps and the sports-tuned independent suspension -- a strut architecture up front and an advanced four-link arrangement in back - ripples the low-profile tires in and forges a firm ride quality.

Brakes consist of big 13-inch vented discs coupled with smart electronic controls.

R32 has an anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic braking assist (EBA), plus VW's anti-slip regulation (ASR) throttle checker and electronic differential locking (EDL) for modulating engine torque on the front wheels to maximize tire grip.

All of these acronyms are included as control components of the electronic stabilization program (ESP).

Now find a two-lane bender route, like Arkansas 80 which heads west out of Danville into furrowed ruts of the Ouachita Mountains, and R32's mechanical systems work to produce sweet handling traits honed to a crisp edge.

Slip into R32 you'll discover a five-seat passenger compartment with more room than a car in the compact class should contain plus a cargo bay in back that measures to 9.7 cubic feet.

The cockpit plan positions a pair of bolstered leather buckets up front flanking a console and the back bench which holds three but fits two best.

Access to the rear seat is convenient due to VW's Easy Entry System which slides a front bucket way forward after you tip the seatback forward.

A three-spoke steering wheel is wrapped in leather and tilts and telescopes for a perfect fit. There are tabs to control the audio and trip computer, plus the paddle shifters of that DSG transmission.

Pedals are cast in alloy and capped by non-slip rubber.

Analog gauges in the instrument panel revolve around a large tachometer and speedometer. Each dial, girded by a silver bezel, flashes a black face with white lettering and a white needle.

R32 stocks lots of equipment, like a Climatronic dual-zone automatic climate system, the bi-xenon HID headlamps, rain sensing wipers and heated washer nozzles, power windows and door locks, heated front seats, the alloy foot pedals, cruise control, an anti-theft alarm and a stereo kit with six-disc CD/MP3 changer and ten speakers.

Options are only two: A set of all-season tires and a dashboard navigation system.

The ticket for R32's fun is not cheap, as the MSRP tallies to $32,990.

By Bob Plunkett

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Images of the 2008, Volkswagen R32

2008 Volkswagen R32 front view
2008 Volkswagen R32 front view
2008 Volkswagen R32 interior shot
2008 Volkswagen R32 interior shot
2008 Volkswagen R32 GPS
2008 Volkswagen R32 GPS
2008 Volkswagen R32 rear view
2008 Volkswagen R32 rear view