VW Golf R32 testdrive
So, what is it we see here? We see a car which looks as a modern GTI might be expected to look if softness hadn’t set in, but it isn’t a GTI at all. It’s a Golf R32, that initial R standing, tentatively at the moment, for Racing. The R32 is a Volkswagen factory production, the most powerful roadgoing Golf ever built, and it proves that petrol still resides in the vascular system of some Volkswagenwerkers.
Volkswagen is right not to call it a GTI, too, because the driving experience is far removed both from current soft-sporty Golfs and the harder-edged, more immediate joys of Marks 1 and 2. The R32 heads off in a whole new direction, as well it should given its 237bhp VR6 engine and Audi TT-like four-wheel drive. Has any compact hatchback ever been more powerful?
I can’t think of one, nor any more sonorous. Those two stainless tailpipes, fully 3.5in across, emit a crisp-edged, open-mouthed, creamed-together blare as the power flows, a fluff’n’crackle as the throttle feathers. The engine revs with an insistent shove well into the high six-thousands, yet – and this is the extraordinary bit – it pulls with conviction and not a hint of a stumble right from its 600rpm idle. That’s the benefit of continuously variable inlet and exhaust cam timing, and a double-resonance inlet manifold.
But then this is the engine from the entry version of the new Phaeton megacar, a machine not one but three size-classes above, so it should be able to shrug off a mere Golf’s mass like a hand brushing away a fly. It’s a 3189cc re-make of the 2.8-litre, 24-valve VR6 engine used in the Golf 4Motion, and a descendant of the first 12-valve VR6 engine of ’91 with the same narrow 15deg vee-angle. Volkswagen said back then that three litres was the limit, but that was before a clever engineer thought of using T-section pistons to avoid a clash of skirts when both bore and stroke are increased.
You sense that Volkswagen has been stung by accusations that it has lost the dynamic plot, that its cars lack engagement and interactivity, because the R32 counters this to an almost fanatical degree. As well as the fabulous exhaust note (attenuated by a Ferrari-style exhaust throttle below 65km/h to pass drive-by noise regs), there’s an equally Ferrari-like throttle response: just a tickle of the right pedal and off you squirt. That’s not at all Phaeton-like. Such is the reprogrammable versatility of a drive-by-wire throttle.
I’ve never known such instant, and such broadband, hot-hatch torque before, or so cleanly delivered thanks to the 4wd, Haldex-clutched, light-touch ESP’d traction. Pity about the resonance. In seeking to create the sporting voice, Volkswagen has ended up with a head-banging boom between 1500 and 2500rpm – right where you would otherwise revel in languid, liquid torque. ‘Our research shows that buyers like that powerful sound,’ says engine mastermind Dr Frank Metzner. ‘Besides, you can always use more revs.’ Hmm.
That trigger-happy throttle proves too much of a good thing when ambling, but it’s the gateway to impressive pace: 6.6 seconds to 62mph, and a 154mph top speed. There are six forward gears, but the torque means you seldom need to drop below the top three, a trait which makes you think the R32 is shorter-geared than it is. Huge speeds are swiftly sloughed off, too, thanks to big brakes just like a Passat W8’s apart from blue-painted callipers.
So passive refinement is off the agenda. Active engagement is the mantra now, and a Golf hasn’t cornered as keenly as this one for years. A Mk3 was flaccid, a Mk4 is usually rubbery and approximate, but this R32, sat 20mm lower than a GTI on its 225/40 R18 tyres, steers with direct, mechanical precision through its speeded-up rack. It’s also very throttle-tunable in its trajectory, tucking in if you lift off, untucking with power back on, except that the second part never expands into understeer. You sometimes feel the beginning of it if you use too much power too soon, but then the torque diverts rearwards, the nose claws back on course and it’s back to being a slot-racer.
That Golf body shape is just a visual coincidence, really. The R32 feels heavier and more planted than any normal Golf, and its steering has almost no true feel of the road. Arguably that doesn’t matter, as the weighting is entirely believable and there are plenty of other ways to feel the forces, but the only real state-of-grip feedback you get is a vibration when the fat tyres finally patter their grip away.
Do you like the look? If the R32 goes down well (700 are earmarked for the UK, and remember that Golf Mk5 is only a year away), there will be other R models so we’d better get used to it. Key visuals are the mesh-filled, disturbingly Porsche-like front valance, and savagely-spoked wheels which seem to be almost too far up in the arches. Slammed, even.
So you’d expect the ride to be turbulent as dampers crash on to bump- stops, but no. It’s firm, but flat, unfussy and absorbent enough not to excite rattles in the Golf’s ultra-solid structure. And the high-back, big-winged seats (leather-covered, like the steering wheel, and designed with König Motorsport’s help) are superb.