Legal spirited driving on public roads does not give one the complete information necessary to evaluate any car's full performance capabilities. Street testing of my R28 only allowed me to reasonably test: the full engine power band in lower gears, the action and feel of the steering, clutch and transmission, the ride quality, dry and wet-weather grip, as well as low speed handling and braking, and I only managed one small traffic ticket. Sorry officer! The results were extremely pleasing and compared well with both, my own performance expectations for my R28 Project, and subjectively with the many reviews I had read about the US spec R32. But finally after 6 months of "My R28 Dues", it was time to take this car to the track. I had been as patient as one could be waiting for this day, as it would be the ultimate test for my "Canadian Concoction R28".
At the Track:
It was a beautiful warm sunny Saturday morning out at my local road course, Race City Motorsport Park in Calgary, Alberta. The event was a late summer (2004) lapping day with the car club I belong to, the Calgary Exotic Auto Group. During our eight or so events each year, members run everything from Acuras to Porsches, and Vipers to ....well...uh.... Volkswagens, on the Race City road course. My usual "weapon of choice" is my 1987 Porsche 911 Carrera Coupe with a few minor mods, but not on this particular day. Fluid levels were checked, brakes were bled and inspected, and regular cold tire pressures were increased and at the ready. Tentatively, I pulled out on to the track for the first time with my custom-built R28 and completed two rather cautious warm-up laps of the technical 11 turn 3.2 km road course. Much to my surprise, given my recent experiences with my R28, everything seemed to be in order. So I gave myself the "green flag" to gradually increase the speed.
Strangely, the first thing I noticed about my R28 at speed was the sound, or the lack thereof in this instance. It was something I hadn't paid much attention to on the street, but with my helmet on out on the track, there was definitely a very distracting "silence". HPA had installed a slightly modified Euro-spec 4Motion Golf exhaust during my 4Motion conversion. However, a real "R" is known for its beautiful exhaust note that was an absolute must to emulate, and the raspy-whirring rearward sound of a 911's air-cooled flat six cylinder engine was going to be a tough one to replace. This sound quality issue would have to be addressed relatively soon.
The handling of my R28 at track speed took a little more time to get use to. Initially, I could feel that with the R32 KW Suspension V1 coil-over kit on the car using the OEM sway bars cornering was extremely flat and stable while exhibiting composed damping and very little harshness of ride. Also, the 4Motion grip was extremely apparent, even before the tires heated up, as there was nothing I could do to get the rear to step out. Having come from a track driving background of tail happy RWD cars like my 911, I found this to be both amazing, yet disconcerting at the same time. However, the understeer in the tight corners was a little too much for me. I would have to do some serious research on the VW Vortex to help dial in the handling more to my liking.
Next on my critical hit list were the brakes. My R28 came from HPA well equipped with vented 312mm rotors up front and vented 256mm rotors in the rear, basically, Audi TT 225 or Euro VW Golf 4Motion spec. The rotors were also slotted and stainless steel flex lines were used. This was an excellent set-up for the street with some odd track days thrown in every once in a while. However, being the "Track Junkie" that I am, I was a little disappointed in their total performance. At the limit I found the pedal feel to be rather spongy and difficult to modulate due to the inherent flexing of the front single piston calipers. Also, I was use to a bit more braking effectiveness, and I could feel fade setting in after 10 laps of hard charging. Things would have to be changed here as well
The soft mellow note of my Euro-spec 4Motion Golf exhaust was great for a quiet drive around town, but it was eventually cast aside in favor of a Blue Flame R32 stainless steel catback exhaust system with resonator. For my custom R28 application, this new catback system required a welded on stainless steel extension to allow it to bolt perfectly to my unique Euro 4Motion Golf dual down pipe and cat set up. The new combination proved to have ample good quality sound at the track (befitting any real "R", yet slightly more refined) with reasonably civil noise levels on the street and highway without any cabin drone whatsoever. Also, the new catback system very noticeably improved low end torque.
After quite bit of experimentation, handling could be slightly improved by staggering the tire pressures for track days. Using 17in rims and tires on my R28 cold tire pressures were found to be best when set at 40 psi in front and 36 psi in the rear. This allowed for pressures to increase during a 25 minute track session to ~45 psi in front and ~41 psi in the rear, and resulted in slightly reduced understeer. After a further two or three additional days of track experience in my R28, as well as some "car-porn" reading (as my wife calls it) on the VW Vortex R32 forum, I was able to zero in on the parts and adjustments that would be necessary to further "dial-in" the AWD handling even more to my liking. I decided to lower the car a further 15mm to a total of 30mm from the stock R32 ride height and add a few trick suspension pieces, namely a stiff Neuspeed 22mm rear sway bar and a beautiful, but functional, pair of Custom Performance Products (CPP) stainless steel adjustable rear control arms. The height reduction lowered the center of gravity, the rear sway bar stiffened the rear end (further reducing understeer), and the rear adjustable control arms allowed the camber to set back within OEM specifications. Too much rear camber (caused by lowering the car) causes the car to "tram", that is, the car prefers to continue going in a straight line, making the car more difficult to turn. For the finishing touch, I had the car corner balanced and precision aligned at a local shop (Riegel Tuning/Maher Racing in Calgary) to properly take advantage of both the height adjustability of the coil over kit and the camber adjustability in the rear due to the new adjustable control arms. The resulting handling was now greatly improved, much more neutral, and easily induced into oversteer. Thus, allowing one to rotate the car if necessary during cornering with various types of driver input.
The next item to address after the track evaluation of my R28 was braking efficiency and feel. One of my original R28 project performance requirements was to have braking equal or better than the stock R32. The solution was a simple one: Porsche Brakes!!! So I purchased and installed an ECS Tuning Porsche front big brake kit (Stage 2 v2 for a Golf MkIV): Boxster 4-piston calipers with adapters, 332mm directionally vented, drilled, and slotted two piece light-weight rotors, Hawk HP+ performance pads and stainless steel braided flex lines. Not only is this kit absolutely beautiful to look at, but the pedal feel is rock hard, unsprung weight is greatly reduced, the braking efectiveness is nothing short of excellent, and they are the largest, most cost effective brakes one can fit under 17in rims without spacers. The rear brakes were left alone apart from the addition of Hawk HP+ pads, as they are R32 spec. This combination proved to work perfectly at the track, I now had some very serious "R" quality braking power.
California Road Trip and Dyno:
By the time all of these new modifications to the exhaust, suspension and brakes were finally in place and re-tested, it was the first week in April of 2005. Fortunately, and intentionally, this was just in time for the "Car-Guy Road Trip" I had planned with my old high school buddy, Jack O'Brien, to celebrate our 40th birthdays. The plan had Jack to fly out from Toronto to my place in Calgary, so he could join me for the ~5700 km round-trip drive to Southern California. The first event in our 7 day plan (after 2 days of driving!) was HPA's R32 Track Day at the Streets of Willow in Rosamond, CA. Jack was signed up for the "first timers" group in the R28 for his first ever track experience, while I had a great day instructing and meeting many of the SoCal R32 enthusiasts. The following day was a visit to Neuspeed in Camarillo, CA, to meet Joseph Chuan and for the installation of the new "trick" Haldex HPP control module. The same day we were quite lucky to arrange a photo shoot for the R28 with the very hardworking Rob Hallstrom of European Car Magazine in Placentia. For our third and last day in California we visited Advanced Motorsport Solutions in Carson, to meet Marc Kalaydjian and Paul Dam for 3 runs on the infamous MAHA 3000 LPS dyno - a four wheel dyno well known to be "notoriously honest". To be honest myself, I was truly expecting over 230 BHP. Unfortunately, the corrected peak engine BHP was calculated to be a very sad 200 (199.9), while the bone stock R32 for European Car's R32 shot-out spun 238 (238.2) corrected BHP four days before (similar temperature and humidity). This was extremely disappointing and surprising especially considering the R28's excellent track performance with the R32's at the Streets of Willow. We had no trouble keeping up with and passing stock R32's. So what gives? My engine (a 2.8L VR6 24V) is supposed to make 200BHP stock without the cams! Well, first off my car is about 200 lbs lighter than a stock R32, but more interesting is the shape of the torque curve that was achieved during the R28's dyno run in comparison to the stock R32. Torque averaged only ~25 ft/lbs off the stock R32 numbers between 2500 and 4500 rpm. This can be attributed to the choice of the 264/260 Schrick cams which are designed for low-end and mid-range grunt. This clearly demonstrates that torque, and not peak BHP, is the true performance measure for track performance. Interpretation of the additional diagnostic readouts from the MAHA dyno by Marc Kalaydjian also shed some light on what could easily be improved upon in the future. Marc pointed out that the ignition timing seemed to retard strangely and drastically between 5200 and redline. He also noted that the factory air box, in his experience, is quite restrictive and should be replaced or modified for more cold air intake.
Once home safely in Calgary after an enjoyable California road-trip (that included a fun overnight stop in Las Vegas on the way back - Hic!) I had the opportunity to track test the Haldex HPP control unit. This was the perfect finishing touch to my handling modifications. With the new found torque directed to the rear wheels two things can now be achieved with a great degree of reliability:
1) The car can be easily and predictably rotated to aid cornering. This can be initiated by, a) abruptly turning and adding some throttle (and then gently easing off to control it) , or b) by a mid corner momentary throttle lift (and getting back on it and controlling as above).
2) One can also get on the throttle much sooner through a given corner, sometimes well (and I do mean well!) before the apex. This is done with no additional drama whatsoever as the rear wheels, once loaded, take firm set and help thrust you quickly out of the corner. Up front there is reduced understeer (i.e. confident front wheel grip), thus enabling faster speeds past the apex and out of the corner.
I am personally really pleased with the addition the HPP unit, however, the results are subtle changes to the cornering dynamics which will likely only be explored and felt by confident experienced drivers.
In conclusion, my R28 Project really does demonstrate how excellent the VW R32 package was from both a high performance, and package deal perspective. I can also tell you it is a very tough one to emulate. Believe me I tried! I did get more than my fare share of the fun, the sound, the grip, the handling and the brakes, unfortunately however, I didn't get all of the raw power (not yet anyway - I still have some tricks up my sleeve!). But regardless, it's just too bad I couldn't buy one in Canada, it would have been a hell of a lot easier!
Stayed Tuned for the final segment, "Part 4: No More R32 Blues", when the R28 gets a serious 400HP Turbo upgrade at HPA Motorsports.