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Hot hatchback aficionados dream of a car like the 2008 Volkswagen R32. Where most hot hatchbacks, such as the 2007 Honda Civic Si, use front-wheel drive and a four-cylinder engine, the R32 upgrades those specs with all-wheel drive and a 3.2-liter V-6, giving it exceptional handling and power that doesn't fade at high speed. And the look of the R32 is about as refined as a hatchback can be.
But the real draw of a hot hatchback is its affordability coupled with practicality. They make good starter cars for the driving enthusiast who also needs to use them as daily drivers. The R32 meets the latter requirement while pushing the envelope on the former. Although it competes in a pricier echelon, its cabin electronics fall far short, with a slow navigation system and a truly bizarre stereo setup.
Test the tech: The hottest hatchback
The 2008 Volkswagen R32 is a car you can use to pick up groceries or spend a day sport driving along mountain roads. We decided to do both. For our test, we packed a grocery bag with carbonated beverages, a few cans of Coke and some fizzy water, and put it in back of the R32. Then we thrashed the car along one of our favorite sports car test roads, a run that includes uneven pavement and hairpin turns. Our usual harrowing drive would include the added danger of beverages exploding all over the cargo area of the car.
The R32 comes with Volkswagen's DSG transmission, a dual-clutch manual that operates the clutch for you. Before we headed down our mountain run, we switched the car into manual mode, as we would want to take full advantage of this transmission. The DSG can do the shifting for you, and even has a pretty good Sport mode that does a decent job of holding gears, but in manual mode you get lightning fast shifts when you flick the steering-wheel-mounted paddles.
With its hatchback, the Volkswagen R32 is ready to haul groceries and be thrown into the curves.
We jammed the R32 down the chute, a narrow road running along a hillside covered in tall redwood trees, in third gear, downshifting to second with a touch of the left paddle as we approached our first turn. Coming in from the outside, we dove into this 90 degree twist, shoving the throttle down to bolt the car out the other side. With the R32's all-wheel-drive, we had grip all the way through, without any sign of wheel slippage. We pointed the car and it followed, its engine making a satisfying growl as the revs climbed in second gear. But we expected no less, as the R32's 4Motion all-wheel-drive system is based on the same Haldex limited slip coupling as the Quattro system we've also tried on the Audi TT and the Audi S5.
As we got more comfortable with the car and the road, we pushed it a little harder, trying it out on a good hairpin where we had visibility all through the turn and down the road a fair distance. Again, the car wouldn't slip, and its sway bar kept body roll to a minimum. But this road also has many small dips and rises, making the car jounce up and down on what felt like a too soft suspension. On one of these jounces we also felt some hard braking from the front-left wheel as the stability program stepped in, not that we were in any danger of tipping.
We took our road's many twists and turns in second and third gear, enjoying the shifts and the grip of the car, then added some extra miles on a fun side road that went in the right direction. At the end, we pulled off the highway and had a look under the hatch. Amazingly, our grocery bag was still upright, although on the opposite side from where we had initially placed it. Of course, our bottles and cans were all tipped over, but when we popped open one of the Cokes, we got minimal spray. The car proved a stable platform, its all-wheel-drive preventing the rear end from violently sliding around.
In the cabin
Although the 2008 Volkswagen R32 surprised us with its stability on our tech test, its cabin gadgets didn't exactly pass muster. Our car came equipped with a navigation system and iPod integration for the stereo, something we are always eager to test out. Bluetooth cell phone integration isn't available on the R32.
The Volkswagen R32's onscreen interface for iPod integration doesn't provide much information.
The first--and most bizarre--thing we noticed was that the car had no CD player. The option sheet pointed out that, with the iPod option, the six-CD changer wouldn't be present. Apparently there is also no single CD slot when the navigation system is present. With iPod integration, CDs are unnecessary so the iPod integration is good. The R32 has an iPod dock in the center console, which is nice, but the stereo interface is the same as if you bought an aftermarket dock and hooked it to the CD changer connection on the stereo. The interface on the stereo head unit assigns the first five playlists as CDs 1 through 5. CD 6 includes all the songs on the iPod. Because the stereo display can't show song information, only referring to each track by its number on the iPod, choosing music is a matter of blindly turning the knob through dozens of tracks. We really would have preferred a CD changer in this case.
The stereo also had Sirius satellite radio as a choice, but again, we weren't very happy with the interface. It did show channel and track information, but we found it very difficult to choose individual channels that weren't on the presets. However, if you can get a decent music source, audio quality is good. The car has a center-fill speaker on the dashboard and a subwoofer. Although the audio wasn't stellar, we were pleased with the high notes and the bass kick.
The navigation system didn't quite keep up with the car's position, making route guidance difficult.
As for the navigation system, while it performs the basic functions we expect, it suffers from slow hardware. We were easily able to program addresses manually or by point of interest. Even selecting a point on the map for an address went smoothly, something we wouldn't expect as this system doesn't use a touch screen. But using route guidance is made difficult because the location of the car on the map often lags behind the car's actual position. We frequently found we had already passed a street when the navigation system indicated we should turn. The R32 is one of the few cars we would recommend getting without the navigation system, which should allow for either a single- or six-disc changer in the dash.
Under the hood
The real reason for the 2008 Volkswagen R32 to exist at all is so people can brag about having a really fast VW Rabbit with excellent handling. Obviously, its audience is a pretty select group. But you can also look at it as a way to get an Audi-quality driving experience for about 10 grand less than VW's high-end sibling.
The Volkswagen R32's V-6 not only provides good initial power, but can keep the R32 racing up hills long after its turbocharged four-cylinder brethren conk out.
The R32's engine is a 3.2-liter V-6 producing 250 horsepower. Surprisingly, VW doesn't use its FSI direct-injection technology on this engine, opting for multipoint injection through an intake manifold. We are big fans of the DSG dual-clutch transmission, and VW includes it standard on the R32. Each flick of the shifter paddles produces a visceral gear change and lets you keep the revs up there in peak horsepower territory. Or, if you're feeling lazy or just cruising in traffic, let the computer shift the transmission, which should save some gas.
We like the growl this engine makes and how well we could control it with the DSG, but it doesn't turn in rocket-engine power. VW rates the R32 at 0 to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds; fast, but not devastating. We didn't attempt an independent test of this figure, but from our various fast starts, we can believe it. The car's all-wheel-drive system, which provides such good road grip, keeps it from being the fastest car off the line. But with as much as 75 percent of its torque going to the rear wheels, you definitely don't get torque steer, something common with front-wheel-drive hot hatchbacks.
The DSG transmission uses computer-controlled clutches to let you shift faster than you could with a standard manual.
Although it performs better than most hot hatchbacks, one area where it lags is fuel economy. The EPA gives it 18 mpg in the city and 23 mpg on the highway, where its smaller-engined brother, the Volkswagen GTI, gets 21 mpg city and 29 mpg highway. In our test driving, we saw an average of 20.1 mpg for the R32. For emissions, it gets the minimum LEV II rating from the California Air Resources Board.
The 2008 Volkswagen R32 comes with the V-6, all-wheel-drive, and the DSG for a base price of $32,990. The only option available is the navigation system, which comes with iPod integration, for $1,800. Along with a $640 destination charge, our R32 totaled $35,430. At that price, the VW gets competition from a number of luxury-sport sedans, but still falls about 10 grand under the price of an Audi TT with a similar size engine and Quattro all-wheel-drive.
In our review, we had to mark it down substantially for its cabin electronics. But in the areas of performance and design, we give it high marks. It's a very good-looking car, and it handles exceptionally well. The suspension seemed a little soft, but that could have been due to our receiving a test car that had been mercilessly used by the journalists who had gotten hold of it before us.