Looking back, the 2008 Volkswagen R32 was pretty weird. It offered the same hatchback body style as the fifth-generation 2-door Volkswagen Rabbit and the GTI, but with all-wheel drive, a 3.2-liter V6 engine and a 6-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission — a complex combination unheard of in the hot-hatch segment, even to this day. This weirdness is probably why this is one of my favorite cars of all time — and the reason that here in 2018, 10 years after its debut, I still keep an eye on R32 listings here on Autotrader for the day when I finally talk myself into decade-old high-performance Volkswagen ownership.
Along with this article is a little video tour of a 2008 R32 I spotted on a Sunday afternoon in its natural habitat: the parking lot of a VW & Audi repair shop.
Here’s some background. Only 5,000 examples of the 2008 R32 were offered in the U.S., likely because VW wasn’t sure it could sell any more than that. The 2008 R32 was a follow-up to the 2004 R32, which was based on the MKIV Golf. As most Volkswagen fans have come to expect in this country, U.S. R32 buyers were given far fewer options than those in Europe. In the U.S., the original 2004 R32 was offered only with a manual transmission, but in Europe, the MKIV R32 was the first vehicle to offer VW’s then-cutting edge dual-clutch automatic transmission.
The tables were turned with the introduction of the 2008 R32. Outside of an optional navigation system and four different colors, Americans were again denied much choice. This time, we were forced to accept the 6-speed DSG, as it was the only transmission offered in our market. People really didn’t know what to think about this. At the time, only high-end sports cars offered this unique transmission setup. While the new technology was more accepted in Europe, American performance car shoppers were immediately turned off by the word "automatic transmission," associating the gearbox with the same old low-performance slushboxes that had been fitted in minivans and family sedans throughout the past 50 years. In reality, this association couldn’t have been more wrong, as the DSG was simply a decade ahead of its time, offering lightning-fast shifts and performance well in excess of what any human being could ever muster from a manual.
The R32 wasn’t especially practical either. In Europe, R32 buyers were able to opt for the Golf’s 4-door body style, but here in America, our only option was the less-practical 2-door variant. Even though competitors like the Subaru WRX STI, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and the VW Group’s own GTI and Audi S4 all came with four doors, R32 buyers were forced to settle for two.
As turbocharging wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is today, adding power to a vehicle in the early 2000s usually meant adding more cylinders — and that’s exactly what VW did with the R32. The VR6 engine was plucked from the likes of the Passat, CC and Touareg — and once perched under the hood of the R32, it made for a vehicle that was both heavy and thirsty. At 3,547 pounds, the R32 weighed 350 pounds to 450 pounds more than a 2008 GTI. Rated at 250 horsepower, the engine wasn’t all that powerful, either — and it wasn’t particularly efficient, returning only 20 miles per gallon in combined driving. 0-to-60 miles per hour took 6.5 seconds — lethargic, to say the least, for a performance car costing close to $40,000.
I’ve driven a few R32s — and I can say that despite all of these perceived shortcomings, it’s an excellent vehicle overall. You can certainly feel the R32’s mass, but the handling is dialed in, the DSG shifts are lighting fast and the VR6 is incredibly smooth. Plus, its exhaust note is like nothing else, emitted through ultra-cool center-mounted exhaust pipes. The R32 also offered an upscale interior and amenities way beyond anything you’d find in a WRX STI or a Lancer Evolution.
The argument can be made that the GTI is altogether more fun to drive than the R32. Given just how great the GTI is and has been for the past ten years, it’s hard to argue with this fact. Justifying a $10,000 premium for a vehicle based on the same platform as the GTI was certainly an uphill battle for VW from the start, especially when you consider that the GTI was available with all of the R32’s features, save for the powertrain. But it’s hard to ignore the R32 given just how unique a package it is. We should have expected nothing less from Volkswagen in the 2000s.
Chris O’Neill grew up in the rust belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He worked in the auto industry for a while, helping Germans design cars for Americans. On Instagram, he is the @MountainWestCarSpotter.
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