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2008 Volkswagen R32 Review – The Mature Hot Hatch

Wednesday March 26th, 2008 at 7:33 AM
Posted by: Kurt Gensheimer

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By Kurt Gensheimer

2008 Volkswagen R32

Blings:

  • Polished 4Motion Haldex system
  • Scalpel-sharp handling
  • Heavenly VR6 exhaust note
  • Luxurious interior

Dings:

  • DSG only
  • Rear styling is hard to love
  • Bullish understeer in wet conditions
  • Tough to justify next to the new GTI

Ruling: If you want the most refined, mature and well-mannered hot hatch on the market, this is the one.

Hot hatches have always been the choice mode of transportation for young, hip buyers looking for a car with endorphin-inducing performance and practical cargo space. And of course, the hatch that started it all nearly 30 years ago was the forebear of the R32, the Volkswagen Rabbit GTI. Since then, hot hatches of all makes, sizes and nationalities have come and gone, from the Omni GLH and Mazda 323 GTX of the 1980s to current pocket rockets like the Subaru WRX STi. But through all of the changes and new hot hatch introductions, the Volkswagen GTI has remained a staple of fast, fun and affordable.

2008 Volkswagen R32

And in 2004, to better compete with all-wheel-drive compacts like the Subaru and Mitsubishi Lancer EVO, Volkswagen upped the ante and produced a more capable, all-wheel-drive version of the GTI, the R32 – 32 representing the 3.2 liter displacement of the normally aspirated VR6 engine. Only 5,000 were made, and every single one of them sold faster than Lederhosen in October. Even now, trying to find a Mark IV R32 with low miles will not only net a difficult search, but will also result in a sales price approaching original MSRP. The Mark IV R32 was a huge performance step above the Mark IV GTI, proven by its sales success.

So last year when the Mark V R32 was launched after the Mark V GTI, many were expecting the same incredible attributes that the previous R32 provided over the base GTI: all-wheel drive, a snarly 3.2 liter VR6, special badging, wheels and exterior designs, and the same 5,000 unit production limit. And people waiting patiently for the new R32 got all of those terrific attributes. But what many people didn’t expect was how much better the base GTI would be.

Driving Impressions

Refinement is the name of the R32′s game. Get inside, wheel it around the block, take it on the highway, then drive it in sheets of wind-driven rain. The luxurious, sporty interior, precise handling, polished road manners, insane wet conditions grip and linear power band fool you into thinking you’re driving an Audi TT. And you wouldn’t be far off. The R32 has the same 3.2 liter powerplant, the same Haldex-based all-wheel-drive system and many of the same interior appointments as the new TT. It’s a TT for those who have more cargo requirements.

2008 Volkswagen R32 V6 engine

The 3.2 liter VR6 is a sweetheart of an engine with a voice that sings to every gearhead, cajoling them into revving the go pedal time and again for that sweet, snarly soundtrack. The power of the normally aspirated VR6 doesn’t jolt you into the back of your seat or rip the tires into rubber cords. With its 250 horsepower and 236 lb. ft. of torque, the R32 has a buttery-smooth and linear powerband all the way to redline. Because of its portly 3,500 pound curb weight, it slows the R32′s performance numbers down compared to boost-induced adversaries like the STi and EVO. 0-60 comes in just under six seconds with the quarter-mile arriving 14.5 at 96 mph. In fact, these numbers are only a few scant ticks faster than the GTI.

But the added weight of the R32 really pays off in its interstate driving. There is no question, the R32 was built for high-velocity, Autobahn motoring. Even in brutal wind and rain, the R32 yawns with ease past 100 mph, all while maintaining a serenely quiet cabin. And when the road turns twisted, the suspension tweaks VW engineers have made mask the added weight amazingly well. Because of the additional heft, the R32 has bigger brakes compared to the GTI, and they have a much firmer feel. The 4Motion all-wheel-drive system is sure-footed, but until you learn how to best guide the 4Motion system in corners, the weight of the R32 gives it bullish understeer in wet conditions. All things considered, with the R32 you have a car that has more maturity and refinement than an STi or EVO could ever wish for.

And what would a performance Volkswagen review be without mentioning the DSG transmission. Unfortunately, for manual tranny lovers, the U.S. spec Mark V R32 only comes in DSG. Although it operates like a manual transmission inside the alloy casing, from the driver’s perspective, the DSG functions like a manu-matic. Its less inspiring than a full manual transmission, but we will say that the DSG tranny operates far better than any manu-matic we’ve ever driven. We found sport mode to be a bit tempermental; it takes some getting used to. But once there, it blips the throttle on downshifts to better match gears and shifts with millisecond accuracy. And with launch control running through the 4motion drive system, it’s virtually impossible to set the wheels ablaze in smoke once the gas pedal is stomped. Again, refinement. Maturity. These are the staples of the R32.

2008 Volkswagen R32 interior

Interior

In some peoples’ books, the R32 falls short in raw performance, but the gap is adequately filled by sporting the most well-appointed and luxurious interior available for hot hatches. The leather seats have tasteful R32 logos, just the right amount of bolstering and are soft and supple like a $50,000 German sedan. Plush, padded door panels and aluminum trim help the R32′s expensive interior appearance. Another leather-wrapped favorite was the steering wheel, with F1-inspired hand grips and a flat bottom with an aluminum R32 emblem. Easily our most favorite steering wheel to date. It’s so good that when you get out of the car, your hands have separation anxiety.

Initial build quality seems exceptional. There are no rattles, squeaks or annoying audible road noises – yet. We know the recent less-than-stellar reputation Volkswagen has had in the noise and quality department, so we’ll hold judgement until these cars are at half-life.

Volkswagen R32 back seat VW R32 6-speed DSG VW R32 steering wheel

Interior space is generous, even for a three-door. Backseat passengers are greeted with the same legroom and headroom as a four-door GTI, it’s just harder to get in and out of. Cargo-wise, the R32 has the same interior space as the four-door GTI, so even though the U.S.-spec R32 is only available in a three-doors, worry not, you have the same space.

Because the R32 is the flagship Volkswagen hot hatch, it comes standard with a long list of accouterments including dual-zone climate control, 10-speaker audio system, heated seats and rain-sensing wipers. Options include a Navigation system (not recommended) and direct iPod integration.

2008 Volkswagen R32

Styling

The other department where the R32 shines compared to its STi and EVO adversaries is in exterior appearance. Unlike its competitors, the R32 looks grown up and mature. There are no bulbous hood scoops, unsightly wings, obnoxious body kits or other hoopla which screams boy racer.

There are very suttle differences between the R32 and the GTI. The most obvious are the gorgeous twin tailpipes out the rear center and the multi-spoke rims which – unlike the GTI – don’t resemble scimitars of death. Even more suttle are the painted blue brake calipers and the minimalist R32 badging.

Besides the DSG, the only item on the R32 we had a hard time warming up to was the rear styling. It looks so stubby and so abrupt, as if the designers spent too much time creating a gorgeous front and sides, and rushed the remainder of the body to meet a deadline.

2008 Volkswagen R32 and GTI

Value

Is the R32 a good value? This is where things get tricky. From a value perspective, it’s difficult to say the R32 isn’t worth the 33K base price, even though you can get a base GTI for nearly 10K less. In our video, we introduced a GTI into the mix. Our test GTI was loaded to the gills and it came in at 33K, the base price of an R32 with most features standard (except navigation). The challenge we have here is this: The R32 is an amazing car, but so is the GTI. Although it lacks all-wheel-drive and a VR6, the GTI’s front- wheel-drive and 2.0T engine are not slouches either.

2008 Volkswagen R32 and GTI

Who Should Buy It?

This is the better question. Both cars are exceptional in what they can do. But clearly, the R32 and GTI will appeal to different drivers. If you want refined performance, a linear powerband and superior traction for all-conditions driving, get the R32. If you live in a dry climate where front-wheel-drive will suffice, love the feel of turbo thrust, must have a six-speed manual and want to frequent gas stations less, get the GTI. Either way, you can’t go wrong.

2008 Volkswagen R32 at Mazda Raceway

Conclusion

The R32 is our favorite for a refined, sophisticated and versatile hot hatch. It goes plenty fast enough yet has all the qualities of a car you can drive day in and day out. It can be a rip-roaring track car, a well-mannered highway car, a practical car for a small family and a even decent commuter if you absolutely must.

And unlike the Mark IV R32, the Mark V isn’t selling quite as well. That’s good news for buyers. Believe it or not, you might even be able to pick one up brand new for less than MSRP. It isn’t an indicator of any shortcomings the R32 has, it’s just a testament to the improvements Volkswagen has made with the GTI. But don’t misunderstand, choosing between the R32 and the GTI simply comes down to what you value in a hot hatch.

Build

Interior

Performance

Handling

Styling

Value

Overall

Rating

3.5

4.5

4

4.5

4

4

4.08 of 5/B


>> We get our hands on a 2008 VW GTI and do a little comparison shopping against the VW R32. See our video review of the VW R32 for the results

>> See all of the 2008 Volkswagen R32 photos in our photo gallery

>> Do you have an opinion of the Volkswagen R32? Submit your review of an 2008 Volkswagen R32 or read what others have to say at CarReview.com

>> www.vw.comofficial website for Volkswagen cars and SUVs

4 Responses to 2008 Volkswagen R32 Review – The Mature Hot Hatch

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  3. i am under huge impression. gratzzz

  4. tony mikolich says:

    The only disagreement I have with your road test data is about interior quietness. It is far from serene! There is plenty of wind and tire noise at speeds above 60 mph, making long-distance freeway travel tiresome.





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