Exclusive First Drive: 2008 Volkswagen R32

This past weekend, I stopped by Willow Springs raceway to see what over a hundred Volkswagen R32s would look like. They look, well, like over a hundred R32s.

But the sound. Oh, the sound. See, normally when you pull up to the paddock of a hot racetrack, your ears are assaulted with the maniacal roar of pissed-off engines. Some sound fantastic (ever hear a Ferrari at full bore?) and some sound painful (ever hear a Ford Duratec at full bore?)

But when every car on the track is a mellifluous R32, there is no painful. There is no assault, there is no roar. Each car continually sends your ears a gift basket containing a warm, burbly, Pavarotti-gurgling-with-wine aria that is so unmistakably, magically, VR6.

There were, of course, R32s that sounded different - the turbocharged and supercharged cars sounded really pissed off. Sweet, but pissed off. One R32, though, stood out. It was a European-specification 2008 R32, based on the Mk5 Rabbit, that Volkswagen had brought along to hammer on around the track.

And while its narrow-angle six doesn't sound quite as good to my ears as it did in the first-generation R32 (which, in turn, doesn't sound quite as good to my ears as the original VR6 -- the 12-valve, 2.8-liter originally seen in the Corrado) it's got the rest of the goods to proudly wear the R32 badge.

That means, of course, that it's essentially a GTI with a 3.2-liter VR6 and all-wheel drive. Unlike the original R32, which had a 6-speed stick, it's available only with VW's famed twin-clutch DSG transmission. Since the DSG can't handle too much more than the R32's 250 horsepower, we won't be hearing too many pissed-off, turbocharged-to-within-inches-of-their-lives Mk5 R32s. At least, that is, until someone reinforces the DSG. And that is, of course, a work already in progress by aftermarket tuners.

I drove the 2008 R32 only briefly - I had about 20 minutes of total track time. What I can tell you is this: It's an Atari Car. Like playing a good old-fashioned video game, you keep the steering wheel pointed down the track, keep your foot on the floor, and you'll haul incredible amounts of ass with not much effort - or feedback.

Oversteer is something that the video game engineers - errrr chassis engineers - forgot to program in. Lift in the middle of a corner? Understeer. Stab the brakes in during turn-in? Understeer. Apply way too much throttle way too early in a corner? Understeer. Trail brake? Understeer. Scandinavian-flick into an off-camber corner while simultaneously lifting? You guessed it. Understeer.

But each and every time you look at the speedometer, your eyes bulge. Was I really doing a buck ten through Streets' insane, downhill chicane? Tee-hee? God, I hope that was speedo error.

There is some discernable body roll, but big body motions are kept commendably in check. The steering is precise, but feedback is muted. The brakes shrugged off repeated full-threshold braking zones as if they were made from dry ice: no smell, no smoke, and not a hint of fade. Very impressive.

I'll let the full verdict on the Mk5 R32 wait until we drive one on public roads later this summer. (And my observations about the terminal understeer may change then.) My prediction, though, is that it'll be very much like the TT 3.2 Quattro that I used as my chariot to drive to the track - and with which it shares so much componentry: The R32 will be an immensely capable, if slightly uninvolving, road car that can cover vast distances at ridiculous speeds. But unlike the TT, which sounds blatty and flat, it will do its deed while showering the world with some of that good ol' VR6 acoustic magic.

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