Buffed up GTi becomes an R32

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If your transportation needs revolve around family sedans or minivans, exclusivity probably isn’t very high on your list of sought-after criteria. It would fall way below passenger space, utility, comfort and safety. However, if your tastes run to all things sporty, exclusivity might rank right up there in the No. 2 spot after performance or No. 3 after performance and styling. In that case one of the 5,000 limited-edition Volkswagen RS32s earmarked for these shores would fill the bill.

For all intents and purposes, the R32 is a buffed up GTi coupe. That doesn’t diminish its credentials. On the contrary, the GTi is a great starting point. The key enhancements are all-wheel drive provided by Volkswagen’s 4Motion system and a 250-horsepower 3.2-liter V6 that’s unavailable in the GTi. Other additions include roughly 330 extra pounds and $9,200 to the bottom line bringing the base price of the R32 to $33,630. On paper that’s a bit pricey for a three-door compact, but some wheel time makes the sticker seem decidedly more reasonable.

Deserving its reputation as a quick, highly maneuverable small hatchback, the GTi doesn’t provide much room for performance improvements. Although the R32 lugs around 330 more pounds than the GTi, its horsepower boost still translates into a quicker sprint to 60 miles per hour from a standstill. According to Volkswagen’s stopwatch that difference is about half a second to a time of just over six seconds. This is slower than some high-performance compacts, such as the Subaru WRX STI, but the R32 is more civilized in its over-the-rode ride quality and creature comforts. After all we do live in a world of compromise.

With an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 18 mpg in the city and 23 mpg on the highway, fuel economy is about what you would expect from a crossover.

No worries regarding time wasted at the point of sale. There will be no noodling over options and their costs. When you plunk down your money for the R32, you get nearly every standard feature the product people at Volkswagen could think to shovel into it. These include such things as 18-inch alloy wheels, dual-zone automatic climate control, leather seating, alloy cabin trim (including pedals), power accessories, remote keyless entry and cruise control.

The audio system is an ear-splitting 10-speaker system with a six-disc in-dash CD changer and auxiliary input for personal listening devices. The only factory option available is a $1,800 DVD-based navigation system. Adding this to the mix, however, deletes the six-disc in-dash CD changer, but adds a dedicated iPod hookup that controls an iPod through the audio head unit. One nit to pick with this setup, though, is the location of the hookup at the inside bottom of the center console. Plugging in the iPod is only marginally less difficult than threading a needle with your eyes closed. Additionally, bumpy roads can shake the connection loose.

Funneling the V6’s output to all four wheels falls to a six-speed dual-clutch sequential driver-shiftable gearbox or DSG. Wonderfully engineered, it’s almost an acceptable substitute for a six-speed manual, which should be available on any compact automobile in this price range putting itself out there as sporty. In Volkswagen’s defense, the performance driver can still choose shift points, while lazier ones can leave the selector in automatic mode for those rush-hour-traffic slogs. It’s another of those pesky compromise issues.

The four-wheel independent suspension is taut, but still delivers a remarkably pliant ride. The steering is sharp and responsive. On all four corners disc brakes with showy blue calipers are fronted by ten-spoke alloy wheels. An anti-lock system monitors the braking and includes electronic stabilization, traction control, emergency braking assist and electronic brakeforce distribution. Also bulking up the list of safety features are front side-impact airbags and front/rear head airbags.

The R32’s diminutive exterior belies its roomy cabin. The rear seat can carry two adults in relative comfort. Although there is a head restraint and seatbelt for a backseat center passenger, that position probably won’t see much use beyond episodes of college fraternity hazing. The 60/40 split second seat folds down, creating 43 cubic-feet of cargo space. There is also pass-through center arm rest for carrying longer items, such as skis, without folding down either section of the seat.

Interior fit and finish are exceptional. Although the surfaces are covered in dark leather and assorted materials, the alloy trim provides plenty of contrast and interest.

The layout of the instrument panel is clean and logical. Despite its Teutonic pedigree, the R32’s controls are intuitive. The optional nav system may well send you to the owner’s manual, but everything else functions without undue complication.

Designed to keep driver and front-seat passenger upright when zipping through the turns, the front buckets are well sculpted without being overdone.

Only the R32’s sticker might send otherwise tempted buyers off to look at competitive iron. This is a sporty three-door that does everything well.

Because of its price, driver demographics will skew higher in age than some competitors, but Volkswagen seems to have taken that into account with the high level of comfort and ride quality.

Smart and good looks too, the R32 is a three-door any enthusiast can love.

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