2004 and 2008 Volkswagen R32 and 2013 Volkswagen Golf-R

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, 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.

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.

The R32 drives like a stiffly sprung GTI both on the racetrack and on the road. While the GTI’s XDS programming does a remarkable job of imitating a limited-slip differential and minimizing wheel spin, the Golf R needs no such intervention. The R32’s Haldex 4Motion four-wheel-drive system is back for an encore appearance, this time with programming that can send power rearward before front wheel spin occurs. A center clutch pack continuously varies the share of torque sent rearward, so the Golf R rarely overwhelms its front tires.

It doesn’t overwhelm its rears, either. 4Motion is a simple, unobtrusive system that’s very effective at putting power to the ground, but its only effect on chassis balance is to encourage understeer. Like the GTI, the R is delightfully neutral if you throw it into corners, but only for a split second before the electronics intervene. Yup, as in the GTI, stability control can’t be switched off. If that inability is criminal in a GTI, it’s just plain asinine in a car with an R badge and track intentions. Let’s hope for an aftermarket fix.

There will be ample time to work on it — the Golf R doesn’t go on sale until early 2012 as a 2013 model. To help all 5000 units find homes, it’ll be available with either two or four doors and with or without an option package that includes a sunroof, a Dynaudio sound system, navigation, and a push-button ignition. Pricing will start at $34,760; two extra rear doors will cost $600 more, and the most expensive, fully loaded Rs will sticker at just over $36,000.

There’s little question that the R takes the GTI’s personality and cranks it up a few notches — but will it be an instant classic like the Mark 4 R32 or a dealership dud like the Mark 5? Well, the best people to ask are those who bought R32s — and their responses were unanimously positive. Every R32 owner we spoke with loved their Golf’s power and all-wheel-drive grip but wasn’t thrilled with the VR6’s fuel consumption.

Lee is “kinda sad” that the Golf R doesn’t have a VR6 but consoles herself with the knowledge that “the gas mileage won’t suck.” Seki, too, grew weary of her R32’s thirst for premium unleaded, so she purchased a Golf TDI for everyday driving. She still loves her R32, though. “I get a kick out of driving it, and I’d only replace it with another R.” EPA numbers won’t be available for quite some time, but it’s a safe bet that the Golf R will post far better numbers than the R32s managed.

In 2004, no one would have guessed that fuel economy would matter to R32 buyers. Times are definitely changing — and nowhere more so than at the reinvented Volkswagen. While VW chases volume with perfectly nice cars to appeal to perfectly normal people, it’s reassuring that the people’s car company isn’t abandoning the people who made it what it is today.

The Specs

2004 Volkswagen R32

Base price: $29,675

Engine 24-valve DOHC VR6
Displacement 3.2 liters (195 cu in)
Horsepower 240 hp @ 6250 rpm
Torque 236 lb-ft @ 2800 rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual
Drive 4-wheel

L x W x H
164.4 x 68.3 x 56.1 in
Wheelbase 99.1 in
Track F/R 59.5/58.7 in
Weight 3400 lb

0-60 mph
6.4 sec
EPA mileage 17/24 mpg

2008 Volkswagen R32

Base price: $33,630

24-valve DOHC VR6
Displacement 3.2 liters (195 cu in)
Horsepower 250 hp @ 6300 rpm
Torque 236 lb-ft @ 2800 rpm
Transmission 6-speed dual-clutch automatic
Drive 4-wheel

L x W x H
167.2 x 69.3 x 57.7 in
Wheelbase 101.5 in
Track F/R 60.3/59.7 in
Weight 3560 lb

0-60 mph
6.2 sec
EPA mileage 18/23 mpg

2013 Volkswagen Golf-R

Base price: $34,760

16-valve DOHC turbo I-4
Displacement 2.0 liters (121 cu in)
Horsepower 252 hp @ 6000 rpm (est.)
Torque 243 lb-ft @ 2400 rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual
Drive 4-wheel

L x W x H
165.8 x 70.3 x 57.5 in
Wheelbase 101.5 in
Track F/R 60.4/59.6 in
Weight 3400 lb (est.)

0-60 mph
5.9 sec
EPA mileage 19/27 mpg (est.)

Buying Guide
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2004 Volkswagen R32

MSRP $29,100 Base Hatchback

0-60 MPH:

5.9 SECS


17 City / 24 Hwy

Horse Power:

240 @ 6250