From the opposite end of VW's portfolio, this muscular Golf is everything enthusiasts of the marque desire. Few VWs to have reached the U.S. better exemplify Wolfsburg's technological acumen and connect more clearly with periods in its past when performance was as important as affordable lease rates. Is it too little, too late, for too much money?

Divide the 2004 Grand Prix between two of Volkswagen AG's older models? What were we thinking? Have we been afflicted with "J Mays Syndrome," which causes one to obsess with the past? Has our longtime loyalty to VW and Audi caused us to choose familiar cars to the exclusion of the new?

Not a chance. Even though the TT and Golf have been around since before the turn of the century, infusions of new technology have made them as important--to their buyers and their makers--as when they first appeared in showrooms.

The R32 may have been built around an aged platform, but time can also bring wisdom, and Volkswagen has learned a great deal about the world market in the last several years. The most critical lesson came from the American market, which began to look to the Far East for inspiring new automotive design and technology.

Where once the Asians fought VW on the lower end of the market, they began to prevail in the "sporty" segments once dominated by the Europeans. Those looking for a solid, sexy passenger car could choose from any number of offerings from Japan, usually at prices that couldn't be matched by the Germans. And the hard-edged enthusiast, from street racer to weekend amateur to entry-level professional, abandoned Volkswagen and took up arms forged by its competitors. The future looked bleak.

And then came that fateful day at VW's test facility near Wolfsburg. We had been invited to Germany to drive prototypes of the Touareg, and during a lunch break the conversation turned to other VW vehicles. Why, Editor Brown asked VW boss Bernd Pichetsrieder, had America been denied the R32, the best Golf of its generation? Expressing some surprise that we would be interested in the car, the chairman then asked if we thought it could be sold in the U.S.

"You could sell 5,000 of them without even advertising," Ed. said. And so it would be. Despite the Golf V already being readied for production, Pichetsrieder ordered the required (and very expensive) "federalization" of the R32. Now, because of that decision, the VW R32 is winner of european car's highest accolade.

This award can be viewed as both acknowledgment of current technology and as a not so gentle prod to VW concerning its future plans for our market. Bring us more of this stuff, we're demanding. Follow up your successful Touareg with a reinvigorated approach to passenger car design. And throw some funds at the enthusiasts who want to race your products. Fill your dealers' parts departments with uprated suspensions, authorized electronic modifications, factory-fit aero kits...go wild!

Making this strategy a success is, of course, hugely dependent on cost. Our R32 test car carried an MSRP of $29,100, which to most Americans is a shocking price for a small hatchback. To those who have attempted to modify their Golfs to anything approaching the R32's specs, the 30 grand is something of a bargain. Consider: a bulletproof 240-bhp engine, all-wheel drive, 18-in. running gear, an interior that elegantly combines luxury and performance, and the confidence that comes from buying the best of the breed, from the breeder.

Congratulations to Volkswagen for having the courage to bring in the R32, and for winning our 2004 Grand Prix.

The Buzz...
"The R32 reinforces why we love cars: driving something alive and fun."

"Far better than anything from 'The Fast and The Furious.'"

"An exhaust note that trumpets joyously with every blip of throttle."

"The R32 is to the Golf what the GT 350 is to the Mustang."

"Gearbox ratios are good for performance but could use a taller top gear for freeway cruising."

"Brakes seem indefatigable. The chassis is so damn good you could put 150 more hp into the engine without upsetting the car's balance."

"Excellent clutch engagement and super crisp shift throws help keep the wealth of torque always ready to go."

"Even though it's still a box, it looks cool right out of the box."

"Expensive? Sure. Worth it? YES!"

The Contenders

0408Ec S4 01 S
Audi S4
0408Ec Auditt 01 S
Audi TT 3.2 DSG
0408Ec 545 01 S
BMW 545i
0408Ec 645 01 S
BMW 645Ci
0408Ec Clk 01 S
Mercedes-Benz CLK500 Convertible
0408Ec E500 01 S
Mercedes-Benz E500 Wagon
0408Ec W12 01 S
Volkswagen Phaeton
0408Ec R32 01 S
Volkswagen R32
0408Ec Volvo 01 S
Volvo S40

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