Volkswagen is changing its products to appeal to a more mainstream audience -- but thanks to the undying efforts of one in-house enthusiast, a very un-mainstream Golf is coming to America. We watched as the 2013 Golf R made its U.S. debut to a group of its likeliest fans.
The "Volks" in the Volkswagen name might refer to regular ol' folks in the Vaterland, but that's not true in North America, where VW buyers have always been more anti-establishment than mainstream. For the last few decades, perhaps more so than any other company, Volkswagen has depended on the support of a sizable group of dedicated fans. Ah, the dreaded car enthusiasts -- that vocal crowd who light up Internet forums with vitriolic rants about minor content changes -- or worse, demanding hard-core models that wouldn't sell in big numbers if they came with a trunk full of free money.
Whereas other manufacturers tend to disregard their outspoken fans (Honda might be the best example), VW supports them by sponsoring car shows, gatherings, and track events. Rightfully so -- this faithful group of gearheads gobbled up a steady diet of GTIs, GLIs, Sciroccos, Corrados, and R32s even when VW's reliability problems sent regular buyers scrambling for Honda dealerships. Now that the German company is trying to reinvent itself as a mainstream, high-volume carmaker, you'd think those limited-market products would be the first to get dumped.
Yet in the parking lot of Volkswagen Pasadena, a dealership that will be offering drum-brake Jettas and U.S.-built Passats, sits a little blue hatchback that will cost nearly as much as those two sedans combined. "This is for you guys," says VW's Andres Valbuena, standing in front of a crowd as he points at the Golf R parked next to him.
Valbuena is the product planner responsible for pushing the Golf R through the corporate red tape. He's addressing a buzzing crowd that has gathered for Fastivus, a Southern California get-together for owners and fans of the Volkswagen R32. The owner of the dealership cleared his lot for the crowd and paid for a mobile In-n-Out Burger truck, which hands out 397 Double-Doubles. "Just as important as bringing this car here," Valbuena continues, "is that you love it." The crowd cheers and applauds.
He's not surprised by the positive reaction. Valbuena is keenly aware of what the enthusiast community wants because he's an enthusiast himself. And he's particularly excited about the Golf R because he spent years trying to convince management to bring it here. "I tried like four or five times to get the numbers to work, and I wasn't giving up." The difficulty was in the cost of federalizing such a low-volume car for sale in our market -- something that can easily drain an eight-figure sum of money from a car company's coffers.
Valbuena refuses to say, but we suspect that he wasn't ever able to make a profitable business case for the Golf R. The final round of thanks, then, goes to whichever executive it was who understood the value inherent in a halo product that keeps the fans happy even if it gives the accountants gray hair. Volkswagen of America president Jonathan Browning is likely that man -- he's told us in the past that, although it needs volume models to succeed long-term, Vee Dub wouldn't be Vee Dub without really cool niche products like the Golf R.
Looking at the size of VW's online community, perhaps "niche" is the wrong word. This is a staggeringly large group of people. Their online home away from home is VWVortex.com, which attracts 1.5 million unique visitors per month. The Vortex forums have more than 612,000 registered users who have created (are you sitting?) 68 million posts and counting. Fastivus is one of the many events that's planned and discussed in the Vortex forums, and that's exactly why VW of America sponsors it -- and the track event the following day at Buttonwillow Raceway Park, where anyone can show up in an R32 and drive all day for, what else, $32.
If you've ever heard the exhaust note of an accelerating R32, you can imagine the acoustic magic of an entire racetrack full of R32s. The narrow-angle V-6's sweet, burbling aria sounds like a Ferrari V-8 plucked straight out of a court-appointed anger-management class -- nothing like the deep, four-cylinder thrum of the new Golf R. But that doesn't dissuade several R32 drivers from giving us a thumbs-up as we pull into the paddock.