The 2008 Volkswagen R32 is so fast, it can outrun its navigation system.
That’s not a compliment.
Whether you are driving at 100mph (I said you, not me, officer) or 10mph, the scrolling map always seems to be about half a block behind where the car actually is. When using the screen as a visual aid, you continually find yourself making last-second turns and missing streets entirely, a situation not helped by graphics that are about as good as those found in a 'Missile Command' game.
I only mention this because, otherwise, the car is just about perfect.
No directions were needed for the fun part of my week with the Rabbit-derived R32, a couple of hours lapping the road course at Raceway Park in Old Bridge, NJ. With all-wheel drive and a 250hp V6 engine, the car might as well have been designed with the track’s tight, challenging curves in mind, though the twisty mountain roads of its German homeland were more likely the target.
Powering out of a turn with the pedal to the floor, it’s hard to believe the R32 is related to the lowly Rabbit, let alone a front-wheel drive car. There is tremendous grip, even fitted with all-season tires, and it will slide around curves in perfect balance, the all-wheel drive system constantly redirects power front to back to keep you in line.
Adding to the excitement is VW’s 6-speed, DSG transmission. VW uses these extensively in its lineup, and other automakers are joining in with similar designs. Essentially it’s a manual transmission with an automatic clutch, so all you have to do is shift.
Or not, it can do that for you too.
What makes the DSG really special is that there isn’t just one automatic clutch, but two. Imagine a pair of three-speed transmissions, one inside the other, each with its own clutch. While you’re accelerating in third gear, for instance, the second transmission anticipates that you’ll want fourth next and engages it. When the shift happens, rather than the waaaa, chucka, waaaa you get with a normal transmission, the change is seamless and nearly instantaneous, without the shudder you feel in a regular manual, or even most traditional automatics.
Better yet, DSGs are just as fuel efficient as stick shifts, so there is gain with no pain, though the performance-oriented R32 manages only 18 city/23 hwy. Not impressive, but on par with similar rally-inspired cars like the Subaru Impreza WRX and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution.
After a few laps of the 1.3 mile course, I realized the transmission is pretty smart too, and let it do most of the shifting for me. I doubt that I could’ve done much better myself, and was enjoying just hanging on for the ride so much, I didn’t feel the need to try. Aside from the occasional downshift to hear the engine growl, I put my faith in the car.
Unlike certain public officials in the area, it never let me down.
Off the track, and under the watchful eye of New Jersey’s finest, the R32 manages a good impression of a sensible car. In the transition from Rabbit to Jackalope it gives up none of the space or hatchback utility of the car it’s based on, and gets a dressed-up version of the same handsome interior – if you can ignore the strip of “machined aluminum” running across the dash that brings to mind those old fashioned rock and roll stickers you find in vending machines.
The leather sport seats with their huge side bolsters are uncommonly cushy for a sports car, and comfortable enough for sitting in traffic on your drive to work. The R32 is lower and wider than even the sporty GTI version of the Rabbit, so the ride is stiffer, but while the suspension bumps and bangs its way over rough roads, the car soaks up most of the punches, leaving your backside safe and sound.
Cries from the rear seat passengers would indicate they are not so lucky. You can hear them, because the car is also as quiet inside as a rabbit, the lowercase, cute and cuddly kind. There’s plenty of room back there, by compact standards, but the occasional moan indicates the ride is a fair bit rougher than up front.
Sadly, I never got around to trying it out for myself. Maybe next time, though it’s unlikely I’ll get the chance. Only 5000 R32s are on their way to the United States, starting at $32,990, our tester checked out at $35,420. That’s Audi A4 money and enough to pick up two base Rabbits, or even a GTI with $10,000 left over for speed…uh, park…uh, theater tickets.
R32 buyers are looking for something different, of course, and likely won’t regret passing on any of those, or missing the killer rabbit scene in "Monty Python's Spamalot." Sadly, it doesn’t work the other way around.
Unlike cars that inspire owners of the same brand to give a thumbs up as you pass by, Rabbit and GTI drivers meet the R32 with a blank look that makes you feel sort of bad. They know they were never going to buy one, and aren’t really jealous that you did, but somehow their life just got a little empty, and it shows.
They’ll get over it. So will you.
2008 Volkswagen R32
Base Price: $32,990
As Tested: $35,430
Engine: 3.2L V6
Power: 250hp, 236 lb-ft torque
Drivetrain: All-Wheel Drive w/6-Speed DSG transmission
MPG: 18 city/23 hwy
0-60mph: 6.5 sec
What do you think of the R32?
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