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.
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.
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.]