2004 Volkswagen R32
With new VW, the point is fun

These have not been the easiest of months for purveyors of The Peoples' Car.

Volkswagen sales were down more than 10 percent last year, and in fact Hyundai, with sales of more than 400,000 cars and light trucks, outsold VW in the United States.

This year did not start well for VW, either, with dealers complaining of a lack of new product. They had a point -- excepting, of course, VW's fabulous SUV, the Touareg, and the German automaker's luxurious Phaeton, which sells for $70,000 to $90,000. If an SUV and a super-expensive car are VW's latest offerings, I can understand the dealers' cry for cars.

In masonry there is a term for scratching out the old mortar between bricks and saving the structure by replacing the old with new. "Pointing up," is the way I've heard it used, and that's what VW seems to be doing with today's test model, the 2004 R32.

That's because it is both a stop-gap model and a display of possible new handiwork.

While we wait for the fifth-generation Golf (on the way in 2005) and the latest incarnation of the hot GTI (a year later), we have this hot little R32 to go head to head with Asian high-performance AWD and to maybe even show compatriot Audi a little something.

No, the R32 is not as fast as the Subaru WRX STi or the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. And the Audi S4 will flat out walk away from it. Yet I include it in this group because it is so much fun to drive, while remaining comfortably refined. And that's saying something, since the Asian competition relies on turbochargers for their cars' get-up-and-go, and the Audi S4 features a V-8. The R32, meanwhile, gets by on a normally aspirated V-6.

In fact, the 240 horsepower, 236 lb.-ft. of torque delivered to this 3,330-pound car is more than enough to have it snapping flatly through corners and pulling out to pass smoothly, even in sixth gear, on the highway.

Its drivetrain is an adaptation of the VW 4Motion system, meaning that under normal operation this is a front-wheel drive car, with all torque sent forward. Get on the gas, however, and you can sense torque shifting aft to a 50-50 split in hard driving, smoothing out like ripples flattening on a pond. The result is a heavy leading grab by the front in early going, but a balanced grip all around, with only the slightest understeer in corners.

The V-6 engine mates tightly with a six-speed manual transmission that offers short throws up and down the gear box. All that action is accompanied by a great, burbling exhaust note when the car is pushed -- minus the whine of turbochargers and superchargers.

Suspension includes McPherson struts up front, trailing arms in the rear. Derivative of the Golf, it has been stiffened to sport mode and lowered an inch. The result is crisp cornering with virtually no body roll. Stopping is sharp and sudden , with a seemingly discordant combo of 13-inch discs up front and 10-inch discs in the rear.

Standard safety features include a cocoon of airbags -- eight, in fact -- including dual front and front and rear side curtains. You also get stability control, ABS, and electronic brake distribution.

Outside, this is one aggressive-looking little hatch. Its muscular bumpers include twin chrome tips poking from the rear, while the front has been lowered and forms an air dam for three gulping, cooling intakes. Side skirts look like they'll scrape the ground (they won't), and a rear spoiler adds to the stance.

The R32 has a great interior: comfortable, refined, and sporty. Brushed metal graces the gauges, dash, shifter, steering wheel, and center control stack. The dash is wonderfully sculpted, setting the driver in a cockpit. The leather sport seats (at $950, the only option on this car) were powerfully bolstered, and they will grip you just like this car gri s corners: tenaciously.

It's too bad that VW plans to "point up" US sales with only 5,000 of these for 2004 -- and then will let the car go away.