Review: 2008 Volkswagen R32

2008 VW R32 – Click above for high-res image gallery

The scraping as I pulled into the church parking lot worried me. I'd only had one of the rarest of VeeDubs for a few hours and I might have already nicked it. An unholy shame for sure, since for two weeks I had looked forward to blasting down I-20 at the wheel of an R32. For two weeks I had wondered how loud a redlined VR6 could wail. But for the last two hours I'd done nothing but get lost in Atlanta gridlock trying to set my destination on the car's in-dash nav.

Pulling in the First Pentecostal parking lot's steep entrance was a decision made in frustration and impatience, one made easier with the R32's light, quick steering and massive acceleration. But shelter from the kamikaze traffic I expected, undercarriage damage I did not. A quick inspection revealed nothing of importance had suffered trauma. The 18-inch wheels and their low-profile Continentals looked fine. The rear differential seemed unscathed. The bumper's plastic valance was unharmed and couldn't have made the metal-on-concrete sound I'd heard anyway.

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Photos Copyright ©2008 Chris Tutor, Napo Monasterio / Weblogs, Inc.

No, that noise could only have come from my Deep Blue R32's chrome-plated testicles. Well, that's what the two center-mounted exhaust pipes resemble, and, of course, they're huge! Volkswagen endows its high-performance Rabbit with big, low-hanging man-ornaments and isn't ashamed to dangle 'em right out there for the world to see. And for church parking lot entrances to kiss.

Rush-hour suburbanites still crawled slowly and noisily through Hotlanta's streets. Escape was futile. Luckily I knew a superb little liquor store only a few blocks away virtually swimming in premium beer. I touched the R32's dash-mounted screen expecting an iPhone-like experience but, of course, got no response. Instead I input Green's Beverages' address into the nav one character at a time with the knob-turn-push-turn-push method. Input is slow but the system found my route fast. I put the R32's Dual Synchronous Gearbox into drive with the leather and polished-aluminum shifter and carefully made my exodus.

Inching toward Green's, I had plenty of time to admire the gorgeous scenery. Not Atlanta's dirty, decaying back streets. Instead, my eyes were drawn to a German-made landscape of black leather on black carpet against black, textured plastic. The tightly-bolstered seats of the R32 are obviously meant for someone younger and slimmer, but I was certainly not uncomfortable.

For many living in Alabama (a state with laws protecting me from beer too rich in alcohol), Green's is a lager-lover's supermarket. I rarely leave there with less than $100 worth of stouts, pale ales and Trappists. If I owned an 18-wheeler, I'd fill it up at this little Georgian liquor store and shower my fellow 'Bama residents in illegal booze.

But I had to leave that act of charity to someone else this day. For this trip eastward, I needed to travel light in this two-door hatchback. Or so I thought. The R32's 9.7 cubic feet of luggage space could have held much more than the meager handful of bottles I conservatively bought. Dropping the back seats down would have given me an impressive 43.4 cu ft of room, but my bootleg beer would have been on display for all to see. Including any Alabama smokies who happened to find me.

Atlanta's well-known heat had subsided some, so I rolled back the sunroof, dropped the windows and re-programmed the navigator for home. My cargo of beer and I had a long way to go, but with this little rocket, it shouldn't take all that long to get there.

The auburn rays of the sunset glimmered on the inch-wide strip of faux engine-turned aluminum encircling the cabin. For a moment I am Burt Reynolds with 70 more horsepower than his Firebird, a sunroof instead of T-tops, and an iPhone instead of a CB.

I hit I-20, sunset bound and desperately anxious to see what this machine could do. And what it could do was read my mind and bend the very fabric of time. I spied a gap in traffic, bumped the turn signal, and I'm there with only the memory of twitching my wrists and wiggling my big toe. All that McPherson strut, four-link rear, stabilizing-bar goodness got together and partied with the high-tech DSG tranny filled with 236 lbs-ft of torque so that my lane-changing wishes happen instantaneously. It's scary-quick at first, but oh so much fun.

Out of the traffic of Georgia's biggest city, I cranked the car's 10 speakers way past ear-damage level only to realize I couldn't hear that thrumming exhaust. And that was the extent of our evaluation of the R32's sound system. Just know it works in case you ever need it, like if the engine won't crank. Otherwise, the two sound outlets below the rear bumper are all you'll need for aural entertainment. That noise is ever-present with the windows closed, and conversation-killing with them open.

It was 146 miles to Birmingham, and everything went smoothly until I hit the Georgia/Alabama state line. It's there, however, I learned why old people prefer Le Sabres and Town Cars. The VW's sport suspension that was so much fun on smooth city streets did a great job reminding me that Alabama considers gravel the benchmark in roadbuilding, and that anything smoother would only encourage the Yankees to hang around.

Another hour and a half of teeth-rattling, bone-shaking highway and I'm home, the windows up and sunroof closed to keep out the coming rain. The glass muffles the exhaust note, but it's still there, felt as much as heard.

A wet, deserted exit ramp provided an impromptu skidpad test for VW's 4-motion all-wheel-drive system. I took it much faster than I would have in my own car, and my confidence in German engineering wasn't betrayed. No sliding. No squealing. No drama. I'm breathless at the bottom, amazed at the prowess of this thing, disappointed I didn't push it harder.

I unloaded the bootleg beer at home, and noticed how little space the hatch takes up in my usual parking spot. The 167-inch length is almost 7 inches shorter than my wife's Corolla sedan. With a 2-year-old to haul around, I began to worry about the practicality of this thing.

That's how my week with the VW R32 began: An exciting promise of adventure and minor celebrity status everywhere I went. I imagined hordes of VW fans chasing me down in parking lots to beg for a ride. But this is one heck of a sleeper. From a distance, I pointed the car out to a fellow gearhead who said, "Oh, you're driving a Rabbit this week." To which I should have replied, "That's no ordinary Rabbit! That's the most bad-tempered rodent you ever set eyes on!" Once I said the name R32, he perked up with interest, of course, and asked for a ride. The econo-car anonymity got to be so annoying that I actually thought about printing up fliers to hand out to people who weren't fawning all over the thing. "It costs almost $35,430!" I'd say to anyone not impressed enough with the horsepower. I'd brag about the road-holding ability of its all-wheel-drive and talk at length about how the DSG is basically two three-speed transmissions bolted together to make shifts quicker, smoother and with virtually no power loss.

Desperate for attention, I drove to the local VW club's monthly cruise-in. Sitting among about a dozen 40-year-old VW vans and Beetles, the R32 was noticeable more for its shiny blue paint than its rarity. The club members took a moment to recognize the chrome VW badge on the hood before returning to Rain-Xing their windshields and discussions of air-cooled engine maintenance. Two members, though, knew the meaning of its discrete grille badging and oohed and ahhed appropriately. I thanked them with a quick run up the highway and back, loving the way they enjoyed the super quick 1-2-3-4-5-6 shifting with the paddles.

The rest of the week was spent blasting around town, darting in and out of freeway traffic and, most pleasing of all, searching out tunnels and overpasses to hear the brap-brap of the dual exhaust echo off the walls. Parking decks were great fun for revving the 3.2-liter VR6 just to hear the shrieks of over-sensitive car alarms.

This car belongs on a smooth and very twisty road course, but on mis-managed city streets it's almost a drudgery to drive. The first four days of our week together were invigorating. But as we shared more miles, my nerves grew frazzled, my joints ached with every pothole, and I cringed at the very sight of rumble strips.

As with every car I review, we strapped our Graco child seat to the leather back seat. I didn't look forward to playing contortionist in a coupe this size, but the wide door opening made the job very easy. Putting our 2-year-old in his seat was even simpler. The trick is to push the driver's seat forward and squat down in the back floorboard. Then there's plenty of room for securing the most wiggly of toddlers.

Super-hip R32-shopping parents will also be glad to know that the hatchback trunk passed our stroller test with no problem and had some space left over. No baby to haul? Fold the seats flat for even great carrying power. You won't be getting any sheets of plywood back there, but there's plenty room for beer. Or guitars. Or whatever it is you cool kids are doing these days.

By its very nature, the 250-hp 6-cylinder engine should be a nasty little gas hog. Compared to a regular Rabbit, it is. Over the course of our week, we ran 35.3 gallons of premium through our car while driving 657 miles. That's an average of 18.6 mpg (just below EPA's estimate of 20.5). And no, I was not driving like your grandmother. We didn't try to play Michael Scumacher, but then we weren't taking it easy, either. If you can afford a pretty little plaything like the R32, you probably won't mind gas mileage like this.

Sure, there are more powerful, flashier cars out there for the money, but what the R32 lacks in speed, it makes up for in style. If you want to be the Bandit of the suburbs, the R32 could be your modern day T/A.

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All Photos Copyright 2008 Chris Tutor / Weblogs, Inc.

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