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The 2008 Volkswagen R32 hatchback

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Wolfgang Schreiber is smart like you wouldn't believe. Scary smart. I-vill-crush-you-like-bugs smart. Best known as the technical director of the Bugatti Veyron program, Schreiber is one of Volkswagen Group's most prolific engineers (ultra-exotic Bugatti is owned by VW). It is rumored that Schreiber -- whom I met on a recent trip to Europe -- has the power to affect the tides with his mind, listen in on encrypted wireless signals by cocking his ear to the wind and cause women to spontaneously disrobe. Personally, I am very glad VW has harnessed this German super-genius' abilities for good, assuming it has.

It was Schreiber who invented VW's Direct-Shift Gearbox, known to car nerds everywhere as the DSG. What the buff-book boffins generally don't know is that "DSG" -- officially, a transliterated abbreviation for the German word Direktschaltgetriebe -- was coined by the marketing department. In the engineering department, DSG always stood for "Dr. Schreiber's Gearbox." All of this, by the way, was revealed to me in the strictest confidence by VW executives. So much for strictest confidence.

I think of Herr Schreiber whenever I drive a VW product with one of these cog-swappers in it, and never more so than when I drive the VW R32, which is basically a life-support system for the transmission. What you have here is VW's 3.2-liter, 250-horsepower V6 engine, with the DSG and the Haldex all-wheel drive system -- essentially, the running gear of the much more beautiful Audi TT 3.2 -- stuffed into the abdominal cavity of a VW Rabbit hatchback. Actually, the R32 is to the regular Rabbit what "Night of the Lepus" is to pet-store bunnies.

For those who slept through last year's subscription to Car and Driver: The DSG comprises two three-speed gear sets (for a total of six forward gears), arranged concentrically in the housing, with two clutches and two output shafts.

The magic: As one gear set disengages (when the driver shifts from, say, second to third gear), the other engages at the same time, thereby eliminating the clutch-shift-clutch lag in regular manual transmissions. All this synchronized swimming is orchestrated by computers and quick-twitch actuators VW calls "mechatronics." The DSG, which can be shifted in floor-mounted shift gate or by paddles on the back of the steering wheel, actually changes ratios faster than the gearbox in a Ferrari F430.

It's no wonder that VW Group puts variations of this transmission in everything but their spaetzle, from the Bugatti Veyron to the humble Golf/Rabbit. Compared with a conventional automatic transmission, the DSG is more responsive and more fuel efficient; compared with a conventional, leg-operated manual transmission, it's about 1.4 billion times more convenient around I-hate-driving-in Los Angeles.

The trouble is that, in a turnkey tuner car like the R32, the DSG throws a big numb, hyper-efficient pall over the driving experience. Honestly, this is like sky diving off a low table or going on a three-day bender with mineral water. The thrill just isn't to be seen anywhere. A six-speed stick shift would make this car infinitely more involving -- if a touch slower by the clock -- more larky and more of a chest beater. As it is, it's just point-and-click.

This is one of those cases where refinement is not necessarily a car's best friend. Look at what goes into the R32: First, there's the narrow-angle V6 engine, which has been around for more than a decade and has been so highly developed -- now with direct-injection, variable-valve timing and variable intake geometry, and counter-balanced and hydraulically damped to the nth degree -- that it feels more electrical than mechanical. Sure, it's got some stones -- 250 hp at 6,300 rpm -- and it's got a nice hunk of low-end torque (236 pound-feet between 2,500-3,000 rpm). But this engine is comprehensively not visceral. The mega pipes sticking out the back of the R32 do provide a bit of performance-porn soundtrack, but it's more an exercise in the power of suggestion.

Then there's the DSG that, for all of its efficiency, offers the tactility of something by PlayStation. Downstream of that is the Haldex-sourced all-wheel-drive system (VW calls it 4Motion, and Audi calls it Quattro). This is a terrific bit of kit for a touring car, but it makes the R32 feel less lively and tossable.

The car will get around a corner, no doubt, but it takes the boring way around. There's good front bite and lots of stable grip until and unless the back end wants to rotate; then the all-wheel system slides the torque load forward and the car picks up a front-end push (it's front heavy anyway, with 59% of its weight on the front wheels).

Put it all together, and weigh it -- 3,547 pounds -- and you've got a reasonably quick (0 to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds), nicely finished, not terribly fun car that squeezes none of the right organs for its VW fan-boy audience. The trouble with the DSG is that it leaves the R32 pilot with not a lot to do. The car corners as hard as it corners and no harder. It stops as well as it will -- I do love the blue brake calipers, though. All in all, I'd rather have the turbo'd, front-drive GTI with the stick shift and save a few thousand dollars.

There is one certain way to wring some fun out of the R32: Rev it hard and double-downshift until it makes noises like a Juilliard-trained bone saw. As far as I can tell, there is absolutely no reason not to savagely and sadistically abuse the engine by keeping the tach pinging on the redline. The V6 engine loves to rev, it is obviously under-stressed, and the seven-bearing bottom end can take it.

Put another way: If it didn't want me to torment it, why does it make that delicious sound when I do?

dan.neil@latimes.com

2008 VW R32 Base price: $32,990Price, as tested: $36,000 (est.)Powertrain: 3.2-liter DOHC, 24-valve, direct-injection gasoline V6, variable-valve timing, variable intake manifold geometry; dual-clutch six-speed automatic transmission; all-wheel drive.Horsepower: 250 at 6,300 rpmTorque: 236 pound-feet at 2,500-3,000 rpmCurb weight: 3,547 pounds0-60 mph: 6.5 secondsEPA fuel economy: 18 miles per gallon city, 23 highwayFinal thoughts: Still more bunny than necessary.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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