2008 Volkswagen R32

Nothing exceeds like excess
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R32 is to GTI as GTI is to Golf. Which is to say, the R32 is based on the GTI, which is in turn based on the VW Golf. Golf is Volkswagen's high-utility, two-door, front-drive hatchback. Traditionally, Americans haven't embraced this body style, a fact that makes as much sense to Europeans as their fascination with Jerry Lewis does to us. We've always liked hatchbacks (Jerry Lewis, not so much) because they're efficient. The angular lines make the most of their dimensions, so even a compact car can be larger inside than the outside would suggest.

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Styling

The first GTI went on sale in the states about 25 years ago. Its claim to fame was the happy marriage of fun and function. Sporty and quick, it single-handedly stomped the notion that hatchbacks were all work and no play. The groundbreaker became the benchmark, but over time a lack of focus relegated it to the bench, passed by some of the imitators that its very existence had helped create. To their credit, VW owned their issues, and by the time the fifth generation GTI rolled out in 2006, the hot rod hatchback had its game back. The latest GTIs are as the first were-a nearly ideal blend of fun and function.

The R32 is the GTI, with hot sauce. First seen stateside in 2004, the car takes its name from its engine: Volkswagens's 3.2-liter, 250-horsepower V6. The narrow angle, DOHC six has appeared in various Veedubs over the years and is notable for having an abundance of something that most engines of similar size have little of-torque. The 236 lb.-ft. of torque translate as fine, off-the-line quickness (0-60 mph in 6.4 seconds), and the power band is smooth and strong right up to the 6,500 rpm redline. Dip into the throttle and you're rewarded with a throaty exhaust note. EPA estimates your fuel economy at 18 mpg city, 23 highway.

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Performance

The transmission choices are a bit of a surprise, or more specifically, the lack of choices. In some high performance cars, it's stick shift only. The R32 is just the opposite. The sole transmission offering is a six-speed Direct Shift Gearbox, with wheel-mounted paddle shifters. Lest anyone shed a tear, this is not your typical automatic. DSG pre-selects your next gear (up or down), so the response time between paddle flip and change of cogs is nearly instantaneous. Quickly engaging gear changes quickly engage the driver, far more than conventional automatics. And, you can switch to full automatic mode when you want to kick back and let the car do the heavy lifting. DSG is responsive and highly entertaining. Still, we suspect that we will not be the only old school sports car enthusiasts who miss having a true, three-pedal stick shift choice.

Underpinning the driveline is VW's 4Motion All Wheel Drive with the Haldex system. To maximize mileage and minimize powertrain wear, the chassis defaults to front-wheel-drive mode whenever practical. However, any time that slip threatens to interfere with grip, the system steps in, quickly channeling as much as 75 percent of available torque to the rear wheels as needed, for maximum traction. An Electronic Stabilization Program (defeatable) engages when things get dicey, to control the speed of individual wheels. The All Wheel Drive chassis is a four-season winner. When conditions are good and you're feeling sporty, it's a track terror. And when roads are wet or sloppy, it adds reassuring grip (provided that you swap out the sticky, summer performance tread for a set of all season or snow tires).

The electromechanical steering is well weighted, with a comfortable heft at speed and a modest and progressive boost when the going is slow. Peeking out of the 18-inch alloy wheels are a set of big blue calipers, which effectively put the clamps on when needed. The fully independent suspension is eager to tackle any curves thrown at it, and all the more so with All Wheel Drive.

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Interior

Slide inside the R32 and the driver views a twin circle dash display framed by a fat, flat bottom steering wheel. The grippy wheel is embedded with auxiliary audio controls. Shifting paddles peer over the top of the center spokes. Thin strips of engine-turned metal trim the dash and door panels. Performance cars call for performance seats, and the R32 has a fine pair of leather wrapped front buckets. In the tradition of all VWs, you need to take some time to customize the fit, but once you do you're golden. They're well bolstered to hold you in place during spirited driving and road-trip rated for comfort. The standard, 10-speaker audio system sounds good, has a 6-disc, in-dash CD changer and is MP3-compatible and satellite-capable (XM or Sirius).

Like the GTI, cabin ergonomics are first rate. The shifter falls easily to hand and pedals are well placed. Controls and switchgear are within easy reach. The optional ($1,800) DVD-based navigation system has a large, legible screen and straightforward controls. There's enough legroom in front to comfortably seat six footers plus. Rear seats will hold full-size folks too, with a little accommodation between front and back passengers (and a little time to wiggle in and out). Inside storage spots include a pair of wide door pockets with built-in bottle holders, and a small center console, the lid of which doubles as an extendable inside arm rest. Otherwise storage-wise, the R32 will hold 9.7 cubic feet of cargo in back, 43.4, if you fold down the split, rear seats.

The package is wrapped with some distinctive styling cues to set it apart from its hatchback brethren. One of the four available colors-Deep Blue Metallic-is exclusive to the model. The front fascia has a brushed aluminum-look grille and Bi-Xenon headlights. Dual, polished steel exhaust tips exit the center of the rear diffuser panel. Special badging, chin and rear roof spoilers, body colored trim and 18-inch wheels complete the look.

Volkswagen's GTI is a blast to drive and, with an MSRP of $22,730, a performance car bargain to boot. GTI's formula is simple: take a small, sensible car and mix in enough sportiness to make you forget that it's sensible. The R32 ($32,990) takes that formula one well-sorted step further. With a 10-large price gap between GTI and R32, the former is the obvious, bang-for-the-buck choice. But, if you like the R32's rorty, torquey V-6 and the four-paw traction; if you appreciate exclusivity (just 5,000 will be built); if the dollar difference doesn't make a difference, well, you'll get no argument from us. (www.vw.com)

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