INNSBRUCK, AUSTRIA – A Rolls-Royce or Ferrari is beyond the reach of most, but anyone can splurge on a super-expensive jar of mustard.
This is the business model behind countless everyday luxury items, from Grey Poupon to super-premium vodkas – as well as for high-performance sports cars that barely cross over into entry level luxury-car territory.
Sometimes the idea works; sometimes it doesn’t.
The latest version ofof America Inc.’s R32, a limited production varient of the mass-market Golf with a sticker price more than twice that of a $15,000 base-model Rabbit hatchback in the U.S., easily could fall into the latter category.
But thanks to exotic-car performance, limited availability and a cult-like customer base, it appears headed for success.
The previous-generation R32 introduced to the U.S. in 2004 quickly sold out an allotment of 5,000 units. VW says it already has pre-sold 1,000 of a 2008 allotment of the same number, and the car does not hit dealer showrooms until early fall.
Even though it is about $10,000 more than VW’s sporty GTI and not nearly as fast as other pocket rockets also priced in the low $30,000 range, such as the Subaru Impreza WRX andLancer Evolution, it’s easy to understand the R32’s appeal.
To young European car aficionados, it is a rare but affordable exotic. For older, wealthy car enthusiasts, it is an urbane daily driver for the winter months when the Porsche or the Ferrari is in the garage.
Wherever you fall in this cross-generational demographic, the R32 is fast and immensely satisfying to drive despite its humble roots.
VW’s 250-hp, 3.2L narrow-angle V-6 is the R32’s chief salesperson. The basic engine specs are nothing out of the ordinary. It is VW’s naturally aspirated VR6 engine with its unique 15-degree narrow angle design topped by a single aluminum-alloy cylinder head.
It produces 236 lb.-ft. (320 Nm) of torque and 0-62 mph (100 km/h) acceleration in 6.4 seconds, a little less than one second faster than VW’s GTI and well more than 1 second slower than the turbocharged Subaru andcompetitors.
But put the 6-speed dual-clutch DSG transmission into sport mode, and suddenly statistics don’t matter.
Turn off the radio and roll down the windows because the VR6’s exhaust note is extraordinary and makes the driving experience more about driving passion than outright performance.
Some enthusiasts have labeled the previous-generation R32 as having one of the best-sounding exhaust notes ever, filling YouTube with dozens of videos of mellifluous exhaust pipes.
This newest generation happily picks up where the last left off. It makes wonderful blips and growls through turns and wails like an F1 racer during hard throttle.
As we wound our way through the Alps from Geneva, on a 2-day test drive here, we could not resist constantly revving the engine along every narrow city street and tunnel just so we could listen to the amplified exhaust note reverberate off the walls while we indulged in a bit of racing fantasy.
Yes, the R32 is a more mature choice than the adolescent screamers available for similar money, but it still is capable of delivering lots of immature entertainment value when asked.
And in terms of refinement, driving comfort and overall practicality, the R32 is miles ahead of its peers.
Despite its ability to get wild, the car feels very well bolted together and is remarkably quiet and stable during normal driving, with only a bit of wind noise around the mirrors noticeable when cruising on the autobahn at speeds above 90 mph (145 km/h).
As one might expect, the R32 is very composed during hard cornering. A fully independent multi-link suspension in the rear and McPherson struts with an antiroll bar up front do a good job of limiting body movement.
says its standard 4Motion all-wheel-drive system can transfer up to 75% of the torque to the rear wheels in this normally front-drive chassis, but it’s tough to coax 4Motion to deliver genuine oversteer. Some hard-core enthusiasts no doubt will complain chassis engineers designed in too much understeer for such a performance-oriented car.
|Vehicle type||Front-engine, all-wheel-drive 2-door hatchback|
|Engine||3.2L (3,189 cc) DOHC V-6, cast iron block/aluminum head|
|Power (SAE net)||250 @ 6,300|
|Torque||236 lb.-ft. (320 Nm) @ 2,500|
|Bore x stroke||(mm) 84 x 96|
|Wheelbase||101.5 ins. (258 cm)|
|Overall length||167.2 ins. (425 cm)|
|Overall width||69.2 ins. (176 cm)|
|Overall height||57.7 ins. (147 cm)|
|Curb weight||3,547 lbs./1,609 kg|
|Base price range||$33,630|
|EPA fuel economy city/highway (mpg)||18/23 (13/10 L/100 km)|
|Market competition||Subaru Impreza WRX, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution|
But considering the R32 likely will spend far more time transporting owners to work everyday in slush and snow rather than flying through corners tail-out at the local track, it’s ideal.
And when it gets slippery, the Haldex-supplied AWD system is confidence inspiring.
Its competence was appreciated when we were crossing the Furka pass in the Alps, negotiating a particularly hairy set of narrow, rain-slickened switchbacks with 1,000-ft. (305-m) drop-offs.
My driving partner pointed out the guardrails did not appear sturdy enough to keep people in line at the bank, much less prevent us from accidentally careening into space.
The interior, although not as opulent as the Audi A3, which is similar mechanically, still is well executed, with good attention to detail and rich-looking textures, trim and materials.
The seats are firm and supportive during hard driving but also very comfortable after many hours on the road.
On the down side, the car, at 3,547 lbs. (1,609 kg), is heavy for its size, thanks to the bigger engine and AWD system, weighing almost 300 lbs. (136 kg) more than the GTI.
Fuel economy is disappointing as well, at 18/23 mpg (13/10 L /100 km) city/highway.
And, despite its exclusive nature (only 38,000 will be sold worldwide), the R32’s $33,630 sticker, including destination charge, still is an eyebrow-raiser, considering even Mercedes-Benz andAG have found it almost impossible to command premium dollars for hatchbacks in the U.S.
Nevertheless, Adrian Hallmark, executive vice president, VWoA, says pricing does not seem to be an issue with this highly desired model. Most of the vehicles already pre-sold in the U.S. were ordered with the navigation system option, which raises the sticker price to about $35,000, he says.