- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2008

It’s called the R32 and, no, it’s not the name of some slippery elixir that supposedly cures lumbago, arthritis, the vapors and whatever else might be ailing you.

It is, however, the cure for the common car. I’m talking about the 2008 Volkswagen R32, the most potent combination of parts available in the United States from the compact Golf/Rabbit parts bin.

Here’s the basic formula: Take one hatchback, two-door Volkswagen Rabbit, stir in a powerful, 3.2-liter V-6 engine mated to the slick-shifting auto-manual transmission known as DSG, then add some stiff suspension parts, performance tires and wheels and a couple of leather-covered, supportive bucket seats.

The resulting concoction will take off like a shot, flatten out the curves, click off millisecond shifts from its steering-wheel-mounted paddles, stick to the road like gum and put a wide grin on the face of hard-core enthusiasts.

There’s more, too. The R32 will seat four, has adequate trunk space and is as willing to pamper as it is to thrill. Each one comes with dual-zone climate control; cruise control; satellite-ready,10-speaker, 6-cd audio system with Ipod plug-in capability; multi-function trip computer; rain-sensing wipers; and, of course, that transmission. Caught in traffic? Feel like relaxing? Just switch it over to the fully automatic mode.

Want a little more detail?

The narrow-angle V-6 features a double overhead camshaft, four valves per cylinder and variable valve timing.

It produces 250 horsepower and 236 pounds-feet of torque. It and the six-speed shifter will get you from a stop to 60 mph in just over 6 seconds.

The independent suspension features struts and a multi-link setup at the rear. Brakes are anti-lock discs with brake-force distribution and emergency brake assist.

The electromechanical, rack-and-pinion steering offers plenty of feedback and the all-wheel-drive system is capable of routing 100 percent of its power to the rear-wheels for maximum control.

Safety features include front and side airbags for front-seat passengers, front and rear side-curtain airbags, stability control, traction control and side-protection door beams.

Yes! But how does it drive?

Nimble, agile, athletic — all of the usual adjectives apply. Head out for a high-speed, hard-braking romp on the two-lane esses and you will be rewarded with tremendous bite, nearly neutral handling and those delicious, nearly instantaneous gear changes.

But there is a downside. On ordinary roads in everyday driving it comes across as stiff, almost uncomfortable on bad roads. Plod along in heavy traffic with the transmission set to automatic and the R32 suddenly seems ordinary. The unknowing may start to wonder if the $35,000 price and a not-so-great 20 miles per gallon of premium fuel is really worth it.

The folks at VW are quite aware that this is not the car for everyone. That’s why they’re shipping only 5,000 of the 2008 models to the states.

If you want a Rabbit that’s able to outrun and out maneuver the Big Dog, you better hustle down to the dealer soon. At least a third of the R32 allotment was pre-ordered and the car has been on sale since fall.

For the rest of you — us — Volkswagen has another solution. It’s called the GTI and it’s the latest in a long series of GTIs that date back to the early 1980s. That first one was the car that spawned the term “pocket rocket.”

Like the R32, the new GTI is underpinned by the most competent Golf/Rabbit chassis yet, and it’s powered by a wonderfully flexible, turbocharged four-cylinder engine that boasts 200 horsepower. It’s also available with a short-throw, six-speed manual shifter. The power is transmitted to the road through the front wheels only, but the GTI is still a competent corner carver.

If you combine those ingredients with a price tag that’s about $10,000 lower than the R32, fuel consumption that’s up to 30 percent better and the availability of four doors, you are talking economical fun and small-family practicality.

The GTI is not Volkswagen’s ultimate athlete, but I would argue that it still has all the moves required to satisfy most of us.

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