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May 12, 2011

Living with a Volkswagen R32

by JHW

There is a butt for every seat.  That said, I still struggle to understand how mine ended up in an MKV R32? Three years have passed since I drove my Candy White R home, and as I prepare to hand the keys back to VW, it is time to pause, reflect, and give my assessment of the car. My overall experience has been one of duality – as the car has needed nothing more than a set of tires and some oil changes, truly bulletproof… and yet, such a disappointment, as it has proven to be a sheep in sheep’s clothing, cloaked with a wolf’s soundtrack.

With the “R” designation, VW promised me their performance flagship… something that shared the brilliance of the MkIV, a car that oozed character.  The follow-up MKV however, seemed to be planned by the marketing department, as neither the exterior, interior, nor underpinnings of the uber-Bunny followed it’s sporting intent.

Visually, I always found the R32 fell second place in aggressive distinction to it’s “little brother” (GTI). The R32 follows more closely to the plain jane segments of the VW lineup; offering a nondescript brushed aluminum version of the standard Jetta front grill. The most exciting visual cue about the intended performace is the R32’s center exit exhaust.

Personally, I don’t think the R is a “good looking” car. Us enthusiasts aside, the world see’s another vanilla hatchback variant – this one, particularly egg-shaped, and more Honda-like than any German car should be. The brakes look silly… less like special-op spec than cheaply rattle can painted bits to be found on poorly modified econo-boxes. The OEM wheels would look more in place on a Passat wagon – this is afterall, a performance flagship, right? Don’t get me wrong, I like a sleeper – but there is a difference between walking softly and carrying a big stick and just being plain.

Onto the interior… I do think that VW has offered a fairly sophisticated interior, particularly for this segment. The seats are quite comfortable, and have aged well over time. Everything in front of the driver is constructed from hard touch plastic or textured rubber. The audio is perhaps the worst performing part of the car. Play your favorite song, and hear it through new ears as lackluster sound quality emits from chintzy vibrating door panels. Visually, the Fischer-Price like graphics on the navigation are delivered in a muddy blue & brown color pallete. Navigation instruction volume is locked, too low to hear without focusing intently – and does not interrupt playing music. If you are on a long road trip, you must choose between directions and entertainment. If this is not the case, I have spent three years being angry for no reason! Adding to this absolute compromise – there is only one slot for NAV and CD ‘s – choose one. Once audio is selected, you will find no bass, no highs, just muddled midrange slop. Yes, there is an iPod integration jack – but the disappointment continues when you realize it will only play from pre-set playlists – and will not display the artist, nor song… if you are open to the element of surprise, this is sure to please. It is like having a less capable iPod shuffle.

There are two cupholders, ever present in the center console a la first generation American made SUV’s plus a bonus red bull can holder (right?). The windshield looks to be a mile away – the fenders of the car cannot be seen from the drivers seat (forget lining up the coming apex, not that I would ever track the car to begin with). The backseats are roomy, but the front seat operation is clumsy and when your passenger has squirmed their way to the rear, you will find yourself manually readjusting every setting of the driver seats location.

On to the most unusual of my findings, the performance (or lack thereof). You cannot begin to think about this car without considering it’s transmission. DSG will be a letdown for those who prefer a three pedal setup. Don’t let anyone (myself included) sell you on the technology without trying it first – it’s either for you, or NOT! Let’s put it this way… The level of feedback you receive when changing gears is akin to that found when playing Gran Turismo. Absolutely nothing. DSG is lightning fast, so fast that you will not hear a thing. Add in a liquid smooth changeover, and you can also eliminate the feel. The best way I have heard it explained – imagine a 3 pedal manual gear change is like throwing a ball from one hand, to the other. Whereas, DSG is like having both hands on the ball, and taking one off. Faster, more efficient, less chance for user error – and yet… so much is missing.
If 1:100th of a second matters, if you earn your living by lap time – DSG is likely superior choice. I am an avid F1 fan, and understand the advantage of saving valuable nanoseconds. However, here in the real world where you and I drive our cars – you can keep the change. To re-word what Jay Leno said best – a pump would be the most efficient way to obtain fluids necessary for reproduction… however, maximum efficiency is not important in all things.

DSG is a stroke of technological brilliance, for me to dismiss it’s achievement would be disingenuous. If I owned a 6,000 lb luxury sedan, this is the only transmission I would want. It drives like the perfect automatic, with a liquid smooth manual override. Simply put, DSG is a manual gearbox that can function as an automatic for users who may know nothing about the presence of torque converters. But for those seeking the input (and feedback) of a 3 pedal manual gearbox – I find it highly unlikely that you will ever desire anything but the real deal.

You don’t pull a paddle, you push a button, then – seamlessly, the gears change – without you, the driver feeling anything. The input has been minimized, and all sensation has been neutralized. Lastly, the modes of engagement for DSG are frustratingly poor. Place the gear lever in “D” and the automatic setting seeks the highest gear possible – from a stoplight, you will find yourself in 5th by 30 mph, boooring. Intuitive as this may be as an autobox, it is incredibly dull. Looking for a more sporting option – go for “S” or Sport mode… as an automatic, this is infuriating on anything other than a track. The upchange occurs just short of redline, and when slowing for a light – donwnshifts immediately slow the car while jerking you forward, this accompanied by throttle blipping gurgles in anything under 3rd gear. Manual or “M” mode is as discussed, lackluster. This is not a true manual, as the computer overrides selections that are too aggressive (ie – holding in gear too long or trying to up or downshift several gears at a time). Additionally, put the pedal to the floor and you will feel a button at the bottom of pedal travel which will automativally downshift one or more gears. Having driven other manumatics – this is the most disappointing in terms of sheer “fun”.

The transmission is only the first in a long list of performance related disappointments. Talk to anyone enthusiastic about the R32, and they will immediately mention the distinctive VR6 soundtrack. Again, perhaps I am missing something… but I don’’t get it. Yes, the car has a low growl at start-up, and when heard from outside the car, it does project a meaner persona than it’s looks would lead on. But, as the driver – very little of this aural feedback makes it inside the cabin. Only above 4,000 RPM’s can you audibly tell that the car is supposed to sound sporty. This sound seems piped in through a set of small speakers, much like the Nissan / Infiniti VQ series motors – not connected to the experience, more manufactured than engineered. I never felt like I could rev to the cars limit such as in my old M3’s or current 997 Carrera S. Everything is very safe and civilized. You cannot make the car strain. You want the RPM gauge to keep on spinning, but just when it feels like the car is going to reach down and get going, it shifts. You can never quite get there. With it’s low redline and anemic powerband, the R32 never engaged me. As for “is it fast / does it feel fast”, I could go on and on… but will keep it simple – “no”.

Onto the suspension… this is one area I feel the car rewarded some effort. Though softer & bouncier than I would have liked – the R feels like a smaller car the faster you go, and is quite chuckable. I did find the car suffered from understeer, but never lacked the confidence to go hot into a corner. The limits are easy to find, that’s not always a bad thing.

I believe that much of what your experience will be with a MKV R32 is to be derived from your expectations and understanding of the car itself.

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