Germany’s back in the arms race. I’m not talking about abrogation of the Versailles Treaty or annexation of the Sudetenland. I’m talking about the proliferation of pocket rockets, the international accumulation of GAVsgridlock assault vehicles.
Readers of this space may recall a previous column devoted to Japan’s arsenal in this arms escalation (”Play date,” Dec. 18). A scant two months ago, Mitsubishi’s Lancer Evolution and a pair of Subaru Imprezasthe WRX and WRX STipretty much held a North American monopoly in high-adrenaline, big-horsepower, all-wheel-drive rally-car performance for civilian use. These cars are the street-legal siblings of World Rally Championship (WRC) racers whose international exploits in all terrains and weathers are easily the most spectacular form of spectator motorsports running today.
As of this very week, that monopoly has disappeared. Although declining to participate directly in WRC racing per se, Volkswagen nevertheless is delivering to dealerships its R32 all-wheel-drive high-performance compact coupe as a direct challenge to Japanese hegemony. It’s a friendly invasion by a latter-day Japanese-German axis; and North American driving enthusiasts are succumbing with delight.
In contrast with Subaru’s and Mitsu’s four-cylinder, small-displacement turbos, VW has shoehorned a “narrow angle” 3.2-liter, normally aspirated V6 underhood. The engine’s 15-degree “V” architecture is extremely compact, allowing six cylinders to fit where there’s only room for four and a turbo in the R32’s rivals.
The combination of two extra pistons and a lack of skittish turbocharging endows the R32 with fine manners. Although its 240 horsepower is mid-pack among this quartet (the STi rates 300 hp, the Evo 271 hp, and the WRX 227 hp), lack of turbocharging gives the VW a uniquely broad and flat powerband. Maximum torque is 236 ft.-lbs., which peaks at 2,800 rpm and sustains all the way to 3,200 rpm. A six-speed manual transmission boasts a generously “tall” first gear that launches the R32 like a scalded cat. It devours the road at a 6.4-second zero-to-60 pace.
Based upon the VW Golf platform, the R32 shares similar dimensions with its rivals, except for length. It is notably shorter in both overall length and wheelbase. Predictably, it has the smallest interior volume of the four but, unpredictably, the largest cargo space. Depending on whether the rear seat is upright or folded flat, there’s a range of 14 to 38.8 cu. ft. under the hatch.
The combination of VW’s “4Motion” all-wheel-drive system with a short, square chassis layout and an ultra-low ride height of 4.2 inches gives the R32 skateboard-like handling. It pivots so magically flat about its center that you’d think there were a Maypole rising through the center cupholder. VW’s 4Motion AWD is an electro-hydraulic “Haldex” system that distributes traction to every wheel according to wheelslip. In other words, if the front wheels begin to spin in a turn, 4Motion diverts up to 50 percent of engine power to the rear.
On a racetrack like Firebird International in Phoenix, Ariz., the R32 positively slithers through tightly serried corners, even with computerized stability control temporarily disabled. The car is so well balanced that you can heave it into a right-left-right combination and fine-tune exhilarating four-wheel-drifts with mere twitches of the steering wheel.
Racer-boy front seats from Koenig clutch you at the shoulders and thighs. They and almost everything else about the R32 are standard, including “Climatronic” auto HVAC, a sunroof, 18-in. “Aristo” wheels and the “Monsoon” AM/FM/cassette/in-dash CD sound system. The only possible option is $950 worth of leather, thus giving the R32 a price range of from $29,675 to $30,625. This compares remarkably well with the $29,687 Mitsubishi Evo and $31,545 Subaru STi recently tested, although Subaru’s WRX remains something of a bargain at $27,332.
But, against the savage, higher-horsepower personalities of the STi and the Evo, Volkswagen’s R32 is luxury-car plush. As concerns the very entertaining WRX, the R32 is slightly more entertaining yet by some 13 hpand more cargo-roomy besides, with its hatchback layout.
On the other hand, the R32’s three-passenger rear bench is amazingly tight, and getting into and out of a two-door coupe is always a pain. Interior claustrophobia is further accentuated by the three mastaba-shaped head restraints that dominate the rearview mirror’s line of sight. It would be great if you could fold them out of the way; if you merely remove them, on the other hand, where can they stow without bouncing around?
For all the clever sophistication of 4Motion, moreover, there’s another techno-feature of the R32 that points up the necessary compromise between pure and real-world performance. Electronic braking assist (BA) is certainly welcome in panic-stop situations. When a driver abruptly jams on the brakes, the computerized BA system “reads” this as an emergency and lengthens the amount of time that the calipers clamp the discs. It’s a matter of micro-second intervals, and BA is generally transparent. But not on the racetrack, where abrupt braking is the rule of the road. When sport-cornering, the BA system interferes a bit, in that it’s still clamping even after the driver has started flogging the accelerator again in a hurry to exit the corner.
Yeah, sure. Like that’s any kind of realistic gripe in the real world of traffic and gridlock, you say. Well, that is actually the point. The rise of the pocket rocket phenomenon, of which the R32 is such a compelling new example, is all about banishing traffic and gridlock.
You don’t drive a new R32 in order to “get there”; you drive it to give gridlock the boot. It’s a new kind of arms race, after all. In Volkswagen’s R32 you’re not looking for a grim confrontation; you’re looking for a quick getaway.