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R32 is the perfect 'hot hatch' for 2008

Sunday, January 6, 2008

(Photo)
Only 5,000 of the Volks~wagen R32 are available in the United States for the 2008 model year.
(Associated Press)
Admittedly, 250 horsepower, a six-cylinder engine and a price of more than $33,000 can seem a bit much for a small, three-door hatchback.

But the 2008 Volkswagen R32 isn't a normal car.

It's the latest and priciest embodiment of VW's "hot hatch" legacy -- small hatchbacks with uncommon power, exemplary road manners (particularly when driven hard) and a low-key exterior that doesn't overtly telegraph the car's performance.

The combination of German engineering, V-6 power, three-door hatchback design and lots of standard features, including power moonroof, leather seats, automatic climate control and premium audio system, is rare.

So is the R32. Only 5,000 are available in the United States for the 2008 model year, which helps explain the $33,630 starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge.

In comparison, the 2008 Mini Cooper is a three-door hatch engineered by Germany's BMW. With a starting MSRP, including destination charge of $18,700, the Mini Cooper is powered by a 118-horsepower, four-cylinder engine.

And Audi's 2008 A3 five-door hatchback with 200-horsepower, turbocharged four cylinder starts at $26,705.

Indeed, the 2008 VW GTI, on which the R32 is based, starts at $23,370 and uses the same 200-horsepower, turbocharged four cylinder that's in the A3. No V-6 is offered anymore in the GTI.

For compact sports car enthusiasts, few hatches have quite the panache of a VW hot hatch. They know VW set the pace for this niche class of car in the early 1980s.

And they know that the limited edition R32 is a special model whose predecessor in 2004 sold out its 5,000 U.S. allotment quickly.

In the 2008 R32, the only options are a navigation system and a choice of all-season tires or summer-only tires.

Even VW's 4Motion all-wheel-drive system is standard -- the better to keep the rubber right on the road as the power surges.

Not surprisingly, fuel economy isn't a priority in the R32, whose federal government mileage rating is a meager 18 miles per gallon in city driving and 23 mpg on the highway.

And, premium is the recommended fuel for maximum power, so at today's gas prices of more than $3.30 a gallon, a single fillup at the station for this small car could total more than $48.

I did wonder if I'd miss having a regular manual transmission in the R32. After all, it would seem fitting for a sporty hatch.

But the R32 is offered only with VW's six-speed Direct Shift Gearbox -- an auto clutch manual that doesn't come with a clutch pedal for a driver to depress.

Instead, a driver can let the electronics in the transmission change the gears or do the shifting via paddles on the steering wheel or down in the center console, where the gearshifter is.

Either way, the transmission in the test R32 was satisfying -- for its management of the strong engine power, and for the ease of operation.

I just had to stay focused, because the thrust, or torque, from the 3.2-liter, double overhead cam VR6 engine was so strong, it got me up to highway speeds without realizing it every time I got behind the wheel.

And, I felt like I was crawling in the R32 if I traveled at 25 miles an hour.

Torque peaks at 236 foot-pounds starting at 2,500 rpm and holds to 3,000 rpm. This isn't quite as low in the rpms as a GTI's turbo four cylinder.

Still, there was nary a situation where I didn't feel I could nimbly move ahead or maneuver safely around others. The R32 felt tightly controlled, right-sized and vigorous.

Remember, it's not exactly a lightweight hatchback. The V-6 and upgraded suspension bits push the car's weight to a hefty 3,547 pounds.

The V-6, by the way, is VW's narrow-angle engine, which helps explain why it can be shoehorned under the hood of a small hatchback.

Steering required regular attention because very slight adjustments at the wheel moved the R32 quickly in new directions.

Thankfully, the R32 suspension isn't changed from what's offered in Europe, so independent MacPherson struts and telescopic shock absorbers handle the front, while a four-link configuration at the back uses shocks and springs that are in a separate arrangement.

There was plentiful road noise from the 18-inch tires. I loved the at-the-ready brake feel and the fact I didn't have to push much on the pedal to start to get a response.

I noticed that the brake calipers on the Deep Blue Metallic test R32 matched the striking blue paint on the car -- a nice touch.


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