When I think of Volkswagen and the “people behind the brand” the image of engineers wearing black turtlenecks and speaking with thick German accents springs to mind. Their design haus
would be a sterile white lab filled with clipboards and fluorescent lighting that churns out concepts created with efficiency and precision at all costs. Ergonomic polyurethane furniture, chosen for its low-weight and high tensile strength, adorns the room, while people in lab coats poke and prod away at a prototype under development. The cars coming out of the factory have none of the passion and flair that’s seen in, say an Alfa Romeo, or the quirkiness and charm of a French run-about. Isn’t VW’s catchphrase, roughly translated, for the love of the car
? But here I am, in front of the computer thinking about what VW means to me, and this is all that comes up.
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VW’s volume seller, the Golf, is the epitome of that image. Born out of the company’s need to turn around its financial woes of the early 1970’s and as a replacement for its iconic Beetle (which had by that time lost its novelty appeal) the Golf Mark 1 was introduced to the market. The move to a front-wheel drive layout was picked because it offered more performance with lighter weight and more room in a smaller package. The body was a two-box design with a steep hatchback instead of a conventional trunk and featured a front-mounted water-cooled engine from Audi. Design work was handed over to legendary Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro but it remained boxy and straight-laced and was devoid of much of the artistic panache seen in many of the cars of that era.
Skip forward 30 years and VW is now building the Mark 5 version of the Golf econo-hatch. The car sticks to its roots by offering a practical and reliable car with German engineering and quality in spades. VW adopts an unusually long 50-hour build time and the results of this shows in the exceptional build quality and high-end feel of the car. Doors shut with a solid thud and feel better than most Beemers, panels fit with surgical precision and storage pockets feel like they can be opened and closed thousands of times without breaking. Like the original Mark 1, this version also shares much in common with its Audi counterparts. VW is probably the greatest illusionist of all time, getting away with producing several different models that are basically the same car under new sheet metal. The industry calls the practice “platform sharing,” and it means that the Golf shares much in common with its more expensive Audi A3 and TT cousins. However, unlike the cars from Audi, the Golf remains in true essence an econo-box for traveling from A to B, and not a whole lot more. The R32, on the other hand, is a totally different beast, the result of all the pent up passion of VW’s engineers. Finally, here’s a car that shows what they can do when they’re allowed to have fun.
Volkswagen has given its R32 hot-hatch an injection of extrovertness, and it has done so in a big way. The noise from the large-diameter, golden double exhaust tips sounds like a Meschersmitt diving in for attack. Within the week I had this car my brain had been automatically reprogrammed to search for tunnels. I soon found myself trying to work them into my route just to hear the intoxicating sound of the naturally aspirated V6. When parked in your driveway the R32 remains the kind of car that only Europhiles and Vdub aficionados will notice. Out on the road, however, people will turn their heads to see what’s gone past just because of the noise.
Up front is a new grille design that matches the look of the Jetta sedan, which is basically a Golf with a trunk. Aggressive 18in twenty-spoke wheels hide huge ventilated discs with bright blue calipers and the lowered suspension and wider stance of the bodykit allude to the performance potential of the R32. This is paired up with some of the brightest xenon headlights I’ve come across, and massive air intakes that feed air to the snarling brute beneath the hood.. The star of the show is the throaty 3.2L V6 engine from which the R32 derives its name. Engineers have tweaked the familiar motor with some changes to the exhaust and intakes to deliver up to 247hp and 236lb-ft of torque from 2800rpm. The numbers are down on its Japanese AWD rivals but the R32 has the low-end grunt that its turbo contemporaries can only dream of. The end result is that this is the fastest Golf ever. The 0-62mph dash dips below seven seconds, while top speed remains an electronically controlled 155mph.
My test car came with the optional Direct-Shift Gearbox (DSG), with manual paddle shifters. DSG is supposed to be so good, it’ll have you exclaiming “I can’t believe it’s not a manual,” but it’s not just the shifts that are smooth. Acceleration figures are down from the manual, and you get better fuel economy to boot. In full automatic mode, the gearbox has a hard time selecting the right gear and feels just about as good as Alfa Romeo’s dreadful Selespeed. Accelerating hard off the line gets the car bogged down for more than a second before moving off. Switch into manual mode and you’ll think that tiny engineers have come and swapped the gearbox with something totally different. Flicking through the gears is truly epic, with smooth transitions between any gear at any speed. My only dislike with the whole set-up is the tiny paddle-shifters attached to the steering spokes. Not only are they hard to find in a hurry, their short travel gives you the same sensation as clicking a mouse button.
The Haldex 4MOTION four-wheel drive system has been upgraded and now provides 90% of torque to the front wheels during normal driving with 10% going to the rears. As the pace heats up and wheels start to lose traction, the system will automatically adjust the power distribution. Unlike a conventional Torsen set-up, the Haldex multi-disc clutch integrates seamlessly with the R32’s electronic aids such as ABS and ESP. In the real world, even the most hair-raising turns with my foot on the throttle couldn’t make the R32 slide. There’s a mass of mechanical grip from the AWD system and when combined with the 225mm tires, the car would just coast through curves at high speeds. Most telling is that R32 allowed me to take turns that would normally force me to slow down during the approach, and even accelerate through them.
The ride is firm but remains comfortable and composed even over rough surfaces. Even under hard acceleration, the power delivery is just so linear and unfussy that I could have been in a well groomed sedan rather than a hardcore hatch. The only downside is that the car feels much slower than it actually is but to the credit of its engineers, the R32 does an excellent job of hiding its portly 1550kg kerb-mass. The R32’s wheel-at-each-corner design and low ride height gives it a planted feel but AWD means it’s not quite as flickable through corners as, say, a BMW 130i.
Stopping power comes from the huge 345mm ventilated discs in the front and 320mm units in the back, which bite extremely hard at low speeds and are resistant to fade even after long trips. Lifting off the accelerator quickly causes the brakes to move closer to the discs, poised to bite down with snakelike readiness.
As you’d expect, the interior is tarted up Golf, but it’s still a nice place to be. The three-door hatch is surprisingly roomy, able to fit four six-foot adults comfortably, and if you truly want the R32 as a practical car you can option it with 5-doors for only a little more. Luggage space is pretty good, too. With the split-folding seats down, the R32 could be in the running for the world’s fastest courier van. Comparing the standard model’s sports seats with the pricey Recaro buckets leaves me questioning their worth. Don’t get me wrong, I love them. The seats grip like Tarzan and getting into them sets the tone for the drive ahead, but they’re a A$3000 option, and that’s a lot of money when the standard seats are already pretty good. The other disadvantage of them is that you miss out on the side airbags and electronic seat adjustment if you option them. The rest of the cabin features nice aluminum highlights on the door handles and pedals, and the layout of the storage was great. The only letdown was the rubbish sound system that VW passes off as premium audio. The cheap head-unit does not fit in this price range where most competitors now offer name brand systems from Bose or Harman Kardon.
The R32 doesn’t have the leap in performance or luxury appointments over the regular Golf GTI that justifies its ambitious price tag. However, owning one means that you’ll always carry the hearts and souls of all those engineers who were given a chance to show what they were truly capable of. It offers a brilliant gearbox and exhaust note, and makes even the most knobby driver look like a pro.
- Viknesh Vijayenthiran
[The car tested was supplied by Volkswagen.]
Review: Volkswagen Golf R32