When the Volkswagen R32 first arrived stateside, enthusiasts gave the hot hatch a hero’s welcome. The all wheel-drive, VR6-powered Alpha rabbit made its pre-GTI siblings look like a bunch of ectomorphic accountants at a supermodel slumber party. The R32 was rare, fast, agile, sharp-looking and tighter than the Osmond family at Thanksgiving dinner. The latest version is all that, again, with the notable addition of the world’s best gearbox. And yet the R32’s suddenly become a deeply unloved (if not unlovable) automobile. So who shot JR?
If I had a life, I wouldn’t be writing this review; I would have walked straight past the R32. Other than 10-spoke alloy wheels and a chromed Billy the Big Mouth Bass snout mit R32 logo, there’s nothing to distinguish the top Golf from a flanking GTI. Oh sure, VW cultists will tell you the R32’s tail pipes sit center instead of flush left, it’s got blue brake calipers instead of red, etc. Anyone else would have an easier time choosing a date from a pair of identical twins than distinguishing between the two uber-Golfs.
So, aside from dangerously anal brand fans, status conscious drivers need not apply. Inside, same deal. The R32 is a GTI with all options ticked plus the letter “R” embossed on the leather headrests and Engine Spin trim. While it’s backwards-facing baseball caps off to VW for eschewing faux carbon fiber, Spin trim does my head in. I have enough trouble with grained wood that feels like plastic; the same tactile transmogrification on milled aluminum causes serious synaptic distress.
Otherwise and in any case, the R32/GTI’s cabin is immaculate. The front chairs’ total body embrace and the perfectly formed steering wheel are to ergonomic satisfaction what a baked potato is to a Texas T-Bone. The R32's switchgear performs with the requisite Old School snickery, and the gauges are models of electroluminescent lucidity. There’s plenty of room for four adults and a bit of kit. My only gripe: the steeply raked windscreen (with an odd lip at its base) combines with stout A-pillars to eliminate the old model’s widescreen visibility.
It’s no small point, given the potency of the overall package. Twist the key, blip the throttle and the R32’s twin pipes issue a raspy rattle that’s soon drowned-out by a basso profundo bellow. Slot the autobox into D, mash the gas and the 250-horse VR6 walks the talk. Did I say walk? An adrenal driver can no more amble about in the R32 than a toddler's parent can resist singing along with the Wiggles. The German hot hatch is a genuine license loser.
It’s not the R32’s prodigious grunt, which swells with orchestral intensity as the needle swings past 3000rpm; acceleration whose seamless nature propels its master forward with all the urgency of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (I love the sound of a narrow-angle V6 in the morning). Nor is it the DSG paddleshift transmission: a pair of ridged batons that give the conductor total control over the six’ sick symphonies; a gearbox to end all gearboxes (especially manuals). No, it’s the R32’s ride quality that imperils your driving privileges.
The previous R32 was as hard-riding as a wooden roller coaster. I’m not saying G-force jockeys needed a mouth guard to cane the car, but Boniva buyers were not well served. VW did such a good job tuning the next gen’s front McPherson and rear multi-link suspension for comfort there's no longer any penalty (save criminal) for exploring the R32’s full forward-going capabilities. In other words, you find yourself going stupid speeds without any apparent effort.
Until, that is, you throw her into a series of tight bends. The R32’s newfound civility has given the naturally-aspirated Golf a tendency to nosedive under hard braking and a bad case of body roll. (It's an Audi family trait: lean and hold.) At seven tenths and above, the R32 requires a lot more care and attention than its completely neutral/flat predecessor. While the new car's limits are entirely predictable, the last gen’s ability to drift and pirouette has been replaced by all the understeer God can provide. VW’s replaced Safe! with safe.
But the R32's steering is the car's ultimate offense against the spirit of unbridled hoonery that's supposed to inform the top Golf's gestalt. The R32's rack is so lugubrious it renders the helm’s squashed crown design a cruel joke. All of which make the fractionally slower, significantly less expensive Golf GTI the more entertaining steer– in anything other than driving rain or snow. Seen in that light, it’s easy to understand why many (if not most) of the 5000 R32s imported into the US since August are languishing on dealer lots.
Despite talk of a 300-horse R36, the new R32 is what we got– two years after its Eurozone debut. No question: the new R32 arrived D.O.A. Its killer? The Golf GTI Mk V– which is a better driver's car, for a lot less money.