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2008 Volkswagen R32 - First Drive

The Ultimate Golf Finally Makes It To The USA

By , Photography by VW,

There was a time when it appeared as if North America wouldn't get the new R32. Limited demand and the prospect of a more tantalizing R36 put it in jeopardy. But sanity prevailed and here we are sampling the Mk5 R32 (Series 2) in a drive over the Alps.

It doesn't get much better than this: VW's most powerful Golf driven on incredible alpine roads and through scenery that's better than any postcard could capture. And the winning formula of the Series 1 R32 is here - creamy 3.2 liter VR6 (only now with 250hp), 4Motion, plus special exterior and interior treatments. Once again, only 5000 will be available to US customers, and an internet campaign saw 1000 cars pre-sold. The car will be available exclusively in Deep blue metallic, plus Tornado red, as well as white and grey.

It's undoubtedly a great car, and our drive through the Alps proved it beyond question. But is it $10k better than the GTI?

For starters, the R32 will retail at $32990; expect to pay over $35000 once you've thrown in nav and got it on the road. On top of that, it's only available with DSG transmission, which may deter some track-day or tuning enthusiasts. Furthermore, it doesn't look distinctive from the GTI - in fact, you could argue the GTI looks better.

Looking at the car on paper, the Series 1 made sense when a GTI 1.8T gave 150hp, but now the 2.0T is 200hp stock (and can easily be chipped to this R32's 250hp), does the R32 make sense anymore?

Fortunately, once that 3189cc VR6 fires, you can forgive the R32 for almost anything. It bubbles, burbles and barks better than most cars on the road today. It's certainly the best exhaust note in VW's line-up by a million miles.

However, that noise comes at a price, not only in the purchase price, but also in terms of gas mileage and weight. Having an iron VR6 up front means the R32 is keen to understeer when provoked; its Haldex AWD unable to prevent it. However, set the car up by entering on the brakes, then get on the power early and the R32 rewards with sharp acceleration out of turns. It certainly puts the power down better than its FWD sibling.

According to VW, the R32 hits the scales at 3547 lb, some 400 lb heavier than a DSG-equipped GTI. The effect on mpg is catastrophic, with the R32 returning 18/23mpg city/highway, compared to a DSG GTI's 25/32.

The exhaust emissions are put to good use, ensuring the R32 reaches 0-60mph in 6.5sec, compared to 6.9 for the GTI. Actually, that's not much of an advantage and, although we love the R32 and are delirious it's finally coming to America, we're finding it difficult to justify the extra cost.

This isn't the fault of the R32 itself, since the new car is more powerful than the older model, and handles better thanks to its independent rear suspension. It's simply an indication of how good the GTI has become.

And with the GTI starting at $22220, you could spend less than the $10770 difference on engine and chassis tuning to make the GTI outshine a stock R32.

Another weakness is that it lacks visual muscle. The Series 1 looked distinctive, but the Series 2 gets a sober aluminum grille and doesn't even get foglights to give it more visual width.

The same is true of the rear, where the two central tailpipes make the R32 appear narrow and teetering.

The 18x7.5" Omaynt wheels are available with 225/40-18 summer tires as stock, although optional all-seasons will be available for those who wish to use the car's all-weather ability. You also get the signature blue brake calipers.

Again, the interior isn't as distinctive as the Series 1. The GTI steering wheel and seats get an R32 logo; the trim is described as "engine spin" but is too bright in our opinion; there's an "R" foot rest and the instrument needles are lit blue against white numbers.

We feel uneasy voicing doubts over the R32 because it's a VW icon, but is the GTI just too good for it?

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