One of the most exciting engines ever to motivate a Volkswagen was the Corrado SLC's 178-horsepower, narrow-angle VR6, introduced in 1992. That engine-with four valves per cylinder, variable valve timing, and displacement increased to 3.2 liters-now produces 240 horsepower and is the heart and soul of the new Volkswagen R32, a kind of super GTI. In addition to the new-generation VR6 engine, the R32 features a six-speed manual gearbox and VW's 4Motion all-wheel-drive system, making the car very fast, very racy, and very desirable. Unfortunately, Volkswagen's press preview for the R32 was held in one corner of the Firebird International Raceway near Phoenix, where we divided four hours of driving time between an autocross track and some timed acceleration and braking runs. Only after flying home was I able to lay hands on an R32 for some experience on real-world roads in real-world traffic.
The original Volkswagen GTI was a revelation. Introduced in Europe in 1976 and here in 1983, it was the car that forever broke down the automotive hierarchy on Germany's autobahns. Never before had VWs flashed their lights at Mercedes-Benz or BMW executive sedans, demanding they move over to let the little guys pass. The GTI remained the hot hatchback for several years, and now the R32 has come along to stir things up again. The German automobile industry is in considerable disarray these days, and it could use another champion. The R32 almost didn't make it to our shores. No U.S. version was planned until a group of automotive journalists-including this one-went to Wolfsburg in the summer of 2002 to drive the Touareg SUV and the Phaeton luxury car. We were offered rides in the European R32, and poor Bernd Pischetsrieder, VW chairman, was besieged by Americans eager to have an R32 engineered for American enthusiasts. Pischetsrieder waved his magic wand and made it happen. A special run of 5000 American-spec 2004 R32s is in the pipeline.
The base price for a fully equipped R32 is $29,675. The only extra-cost option available is leather upholstery, at $950. This is a little high for the guys who mortgaged their houses to supercharge their Honda Civics, but it's in the ballpark with the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and the Subaru Impreza WRX STi. With an extremely nice interior, however, the VW outdelivers those two. It features very zoomy front seats, not unlike the molded seats one might find in a WRC rally car; perforated bright metal covers on the pedals, including the dead pedal; and a steering wheel that's as handsome as it is useful.
All R32s come with standard equipment that includes a six-speed manual transmission, 4Motion all-wheel drive, a power sunroof, rain-sensing wipers, a Monsoon CD sound system, and automatic climate control. An electro-hydraulic Haldex coupling attached to the rear differential supplements front-wheel drive with rear-wheel torque under certain conditions. The R32 interior is exactly what you'd expect from Volkswagen, inasmuch as it has shown the way in interior design and furnishings for the past decade.
The VW people who bravely stood by, watching us thrash their cars around the orange cones, spoke with pride of the R32's ability to "rotate" when exiting tight turns and how this tendency could be advantageous in fast driving. Just lift your right foot for a moment, and the tail of the car starts to swing to the outside; then you hit the throttle again, the all-wheel drive bites, and you're hurtling down the track straight as a die. OK, I admit that I am not an engineer, but isn't that tendency to "rotate" also known as "lift-throttle oversteer"? Wouldn't that tendency to "rotate" be a bad thing if there were no 4Motion system to prevent it from taking me off the road backward?
I guess I'd like an R32 with an inch less wheel diameter, an inch more tire sidewall, and may-be a bit more wheel travel. Impacts are not just harsh, they're painful. That won't bother the 5000 hot-blooded boy racers who line up to buy this limited-production hip-hop hatch, but I'd still prefer a New Beetle Turbo S.