Volkswagen R32 – limited edition finds unlimited fun

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Small tossable hot hatchbacks were always intriguing to us. And years ago we wished for more horsepower in the little guys. That was back in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Change was on the way in 1983 when Volkswagen endowed its square-box Rabbit with a bigger engine and called it the GTI.

We hustled down to the Volkswagen store to test drive a GTI, which was powered by a 1.8-liter fuel-injected 4-cylinder engine generating 90 horsepower. It felt good, handled like a slot car and was relatively fast for the time, weighing in at just over 2,000 pounds.

Volkswagen dropped the Rabbit name in 1985 in favor of Golf. Golf carried on with the GTI moniker gaining tweaks here and horsepower there.

The GTI got a bigger 4-cylinder, and in 1995 was endowed with Volkswagen’s amazing narrow-angle V-6, called the VR-6. It became a true hotrod gaining 200 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque.

That should be enough muscle power even today to satisfy anyone with a bent for performance in a small car. And it should be enough for a guy who ooed and awed over 90 horsepower some 25 years ago. Right?

If you answered in the affirmative, then you haven’t paid attention to the horsepower wars that are currently being waged across the automobile spectrum.

Volkswagen has slipped behind the Subaru WRX STI and the Mitsubishi Evolution. They come with prodigious horsepower measured at more than 300 ponies.

Can someone say, whoa, when is enough, enough?

When the snowball gets rolling down hill... well, you get the idea.

And Volkswagen could not afford to remain with the status quo. So while keeping the hotrod GTI in place in a somewhat more affordable format — coming now with VW’s workhorse 2.0-liter 200-horsepower turbocharged 4-cylinder — it invented the more upscale R32 from the same sub-compact Golf three-door hatch and brought it to the U.S. in limited numbers for model year 2004. the ’04 edition came with a 3.2-liter VR6 engine generating 240 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque and played around the edges of 6-seconds in 0-to-60 runs. And the 2004 R32 remains one of the most popular vehicles for Volkswagen diehards.

For those folks and others who seek a more modern sophisticated hot hatch experience, the R32 has been returned to our shores after a three-year hiatus, again in a limited run of about 5,000. And now it’s the premium (and once again) Rabbit, the Golf name dropped in a complete remake of the squared-off hatch in 2006.

The R32 again gets the excellent, muscular and throaty VR6 3.2-liter engine, now generating 250 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque. Part of the package is Volkswagen’s 4Motion all-wheel drive system. A big benefit of all-wheel drive is that it dramatically reduces torque steer, a malady of powerful front-wheel drive cars under hard acceleration when the engine pulls the wheels to the left or right.

The engine is paired with the delightful, quick-shifting six-speed dual-clutch sequential automatic transmission — called DSG presumably for direct shift gearbox — that makes a manual unnecessary. Put the transmission in the manual mode and shifts can be clicked off with the flick of steering-wheel-mounted paddles.

The R32 is a blast to shift manually and runs from 0-to-60 in a pleasing 6 seconds. Quarter mile time has been measured at 14.7 seconds at 98 miles per hour.

While the all-new Subaru WRX STI for about the same money is at least a second faster to 60, the R32 is smoother without the turbo edginess as it offers the driver a throaty melody to redline. We were blessed with those two cars during the same test week and while the WRX dispensed slingshot thrills, the R32 was our choice at the end of the week with its more sophisticated performance, a more refined ride and a better overall driving experience.

Both cars performed well on our back-road twisties, and we found the R32 could be pushed to speeds we thought beyond our skill limits.

Things are OK inside, too. If you get the feeling you are sitting in an Audi, there’s good reason. Materials are of high quality and there’s a tight fit and finish to the interior.

Gauges are clear and the switchgear is intuitive. The front sports seats are supportive and comfortable.

Unfortunately, the R32 comes in only a two-door format making it more inconvenient for a family than the aforementioned WRX, which comes with four doors. But once in the back seat, there is ample room for two adults. And the luggage space behind the seats is adequate measuring about 10 cubic feet. Cargo space expands to a generous 43 cubic feet with the rear seats folded.

While the R32 is definitely an attractive vehicle in the small hatch segment, it comes with a daunting price-tag. Base price is $33,630 including destination charge.

Don’t count on getting something off the sticker. Pre-sales totaled more than 1,000 of the 5,000 copies that are being sold in the U.S. Supply obviously may be scarce.

As you might expect, the car comes nicely equipped without the need for options. Standard equipment includes 18-inch alloy wheels, center-mounted dual exhaust, power sunroof, leather upholstery, heated front seats, dual-zone climate control and a premium sound system with six-CD changer and satellite radio.

Standard safety is also generous including all-wheel drive, antilock disc brakes, stability control, and a full complement of airbags. The Rabbit, on which the R32 is based, has scored the highest possible rating for frontal offset and side-impact collisions by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The only option available is DVD-based navigation at $1,800. It was included on our test car bringing the bottom line to $35,430.

Even though the R32 has aggressive styling attributes including a unique aluminum grille, dual exhausts and 18-inch alloys, it’s still a Rabbit, but with nicer clothes. So you must ask, is the R32 worth 12 or 13 grand more than a well-outfitted Rabbit or five-to-six grand more than a turbocharged GTI?


Base price, $33,630; as driven, $35,430

Engine: 3.2-liter VR6

Horsepower: 250 @ 6,300 rpm

Torque: 236 foot-pounds @ 2,500 rpm

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Drive: all-wheel

Seating: 2/3

Wheelbase: 101.5 inches

Length: 167.2 inches

Curb weight: 3,547 pounds

Turning circle: 35.7 feet

Luggage capacity: 9.7 cubic feet

Cargo capacity: 43 cubic feet

Fuel capacity: 14.5 gallons (premium)

EPA mileage: 23 highway, 18 city

0-60: 6.0 seconds (MotorWeek)

Also consider: Mitsubishi Evo, Subaru WRX STI, Ford Mustang, Honda Accord V-6 coupe

The Good

• Strong V-6 engine
• Quiet and refined cabin

• Comes well equipped without options

The Bad

• Sub-par gas mileage for a small vehicle

The Ugly

• Very pricey and don't expect discounts on limited-run model