One of the first people we meet is Vivian Seki, who owns a 2004 R32. This was the first R32, based on the fourth-generation GTI and, to us, also the coolest. It was launched at a time when the regular GTI was a bit lost, having traded a lot of sportiness for a little luxury. Neither of the Mark 4 GTI's two available engines was a perfect fit -- the 180-hp turbo was quick but lacked satisfying high-rpm power, and the 200-hp VR6 was a heavyweight that hampered the GTI's handling.
The R32 solved the GTI dilemma outright with a 3.2-liter version of the twenty-four-valve six that pushed 240 hp through four wheels. The upgrades over the GTI were considerable and included bigger brakes, a quicker steering rack, and an ultrastiff, low suspension that chucked the torsion-beam rear in favor of an independent, multilink design. The R32 had prominent dual exhaust tips to go along with the visual add-ons you'd expect -- sill extensions, aggressive bumpers, and a larger rear spoiler. From behind the leather-wrapped steering wheel of that original R32, it was always obvious that you were in something different -- especially when you nestled into the enormously bolstered Koenig bucket seats.
The stick-shift-only, 2004-only R32 carried about 300 pounds more mass and a fat $7000 premium over the top-of-the-line GTI VR6. With only a slight straight-line speed advantage over the GTI, it might have been a tough sell -- but enthusiasts sucked up the entire 5000-unit production run in record time.
Seki was one of those original customers -- she's owned her R32 since it was new and was one of the founding members of the SoCal R32 club. By contrast, Anabelle Lee has owned her 2008 R32 for only six months. This year's Fastivus is her first VW event and her first track event, but she's no less enthused about her car. That's no surprise, since the second-gen R32 carried over most of the original's magic, and its VR6 was rated 10 hp higher.
Unfortunately, the second R32 didn't have a clutch pedal, and its 5000 units didn't sell as easily. Most hard-core enthusiast buyers don't do automatics, it seems -- even ones as good as Volkswagen's DSG. Making matters even more difficult, the Mark 5 GTI was already just about perfect. With a 2.0-liter turbo four, it was effectively as fast as the R32, and it already came with an independent rear end. Even at a modest $3000 premium over a loaded two-wheel-drive GTI, the paddleshifted R32 languished on dealer lots.
And lest you forget: Volkswagen owners love to modify their cars. Extracting significant horsepower gains from a normally aspirated VR6 costs an arm and a leg. With nothing more than a computer reflash, a 2.0T could dust the R32 in a straight line. Make that two straight lines, actually -- a pair of big, gnarly skid marks. Combining the easy-to-modify turbo engine with four-wheel-drive traction would be the enthusiast's Holy Grail, and that's exactly why Valbuena pushed so hard to get the Golf R into American dealerships.
The Golf R's 2.0T is the same basic unit found in the Audi TTS -- the high-output version of the old, EA113 2.0-liter turbo (the high-output iteration of the newer EA888 2.0T hasn't yet been finished). With maximum boost pressure of 17 psi, the engine produces 267 hp in the German-spec Golf R and 265 hp in the Audi. Thanks to our country's high summer temperatures and the Golf R's relative lack of cooling airflow, U.S.-spec Golf Rs will be slightly detuned -- 252 hp is VW's current best guess.
That's still a significant increase over the GTI's 200 hp, and, combined with the added traction of all-wheel drive, it's enough to knock a full second off the GTI's official 0-to-62-mph time. The Golf R should weigh in at about 3400 pounds -- close to the weight of the first R32, 150 pounds less than the second, and only about 250 pounds more than the current GTI.
The high-output 2.0T features a butch exhaust that makes the GTI sound like a vacuum cleaner, but the added lag makes the GTI's engine feel normally aspirated by comparison. The higher boost pressure changes the engine's personality considerably, and it's a constant reminder that the R wears a bigger turbo -- something the tuners will love when they crank up the power even further.
Valbuena fully understands that driver's cars need clutches actuated by the driver's left leg -- so, like the BMW 1-series M coupe and the Audi TT RS, the Golf R is coming here with a six-speed manual as its only transmission. The stick shift's throws are shorter and more positive than the GTI's, but the clutch remains light and easy to operate. The Golf R's steering is heavier and its ride is firmer, but it's nothing like the punishing first-generation R32's. Like the other R cars, though, it comes with huge brakes (13.6-inch rotors up front, 12.2-inches in the rear) that fix the GTI's biggest weak spot.